Oil and Spills Have Always Gone Hand in HandRoundup
tags: environmental history, energy, oil, history of technology
Nolan Varee is a graduate student in history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The recent Keystone Pipeline malfunction in Washington County, Kansas, has spilled over 14,000 barrels of oil into the water of Mill Creek in the northern part of the state. The cause of the malfunction is still being investigated, but images of blackened farmland sloping into the creek at the spill site evince the scale of the environmental impact.
The oil spill offers a devastating view into the reality of our modern oil infrastructure, but it is only the latest in a long line of modern environmental disasters caused by the industry. While cleanup continues on the largest oil spill in the Keystone Pipeline’s history, the spill has parallels that date back to the beginning of an industry mired by disaster. In fact, oil spills of this size are hardly new and the history of the early oil industry reveals that resistance to creating safer, more effective methods of transporting oil has unfortunately been the norm for well over a century. While rapid technological advancements led to the creation of pipelines, lack of ingenuity has long since left us cleaning up the messes early oilmen hoped to avoid.
In the mid-19th century, the Oil Creek Valley in northwest Pennsylvania was a sparsely populated collection of small villages separated by hilly terrain. While lumber mills initially dominated the local economy, that changed when Edwin Drake’s well struck oil along Oil Creek in August 1859, ultimately drawing thousands to the area. Drake had been sent to the area the year before by the recently created Seneca Oil Company in the hopes of producing oil in quantities sufficient to market it as a new illuminant.
By the end of 1860, over 400,000 barrels of oil had been extracted from the low-lying lands on the banks of Oil Creek. Getting the oil out of the ground was one thing but getting it to market proved to be another matter entirely. Wagons carrying around seven barrels each lined the newly created trails throughout the wooded hills, often sinking into the knee-deep mud causing massive delays and soaring shipping costs.
And so, some early oilmen, many of whom had worked in the local lumber industry before the boom, turned to their old methods of transporting lumber along Oil Creek: the pond freshet.
Pond freshets created a rise in water level via a series of dams along the creek. Rafts loaded with up to 700 barrels of oil would then be floated to the mouth of Oil Creek where steamships and other large vessels waited to collect the barrels for shipment to Pittsburgh and other oil-refining centers. While a pond freshet could safely transport lumber to the Allegheny, the same could not be said of oil barrels, however.
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