Striking Oil On Main Street


Twenty years after Edwin L. Drake, or “Colonel Drake” first struck oil almost 150 years ago, The American Agriculturist produced a section of its paper devoted to the petroleum boom and the Titusville, Pennsylvania community where the black gold was, for the first time, commercially and successfully unearthed in the United States. The unknown author wrote, in May of 1871, “There is a principle of Nature’s economy that when a demand is created, a supply is ready … and the wealth which for so many years had lain dormant was roused to life just at a time when the needs of this great country and the world demanded it.”

And to many, including the minds behind the new exhibit, “Oil! Whales, Wells … What’s Next,” at the Sag Harbor Historical and Whaling Museum, it appears another shift in supply and demand is on the horizon. Much like the whale oil that made Sag Harbor a major port and resource in the 1800s – the Golden Age of American whaling, as the museum notes in the exhibit – the rising cost of the precious petroleum that heats many of our homes and fuels our cars is becoming too burdensome for many to bear.

As cleverly noted in its title, the exhibit not only shines light on the history of our national and international dependence on oil – whether whale oil, petroleum or other illuminants – and how primarily market forces, not innovation, created shifts in supply and demand, the exhibit also asks what future resource will sustain our energy consumption.

The original concept — which has evolved into an exhibit coupled with an Energy Fair and plans to possibly travel the exhibit to other venues — was conceived by the museum’s board committee on exhibits and its members’ own curiosity.

 “There has always been a question about what was the true end of whale oil. How did it actually happen,” asked Whaling Museum Executive Director and exhibit curator Zach Studenroth. “And it occurred to someone that with the oil crisis – which I think we are living in right now with the high price of fuel – there is a connection to the pricing of oil, which was also the end for whale oil.”

At the same time this discussion was taking shape, explained Studenroth, he referenced colleague Eric J. Dolan’s work on American whaling, which is detailed in his book, “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” He learned the end of the American Whaling industry truly was connected to economic pressures as demand rose, supply dwindled and new illuminants or oils found their way onto the market at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

While nationally whale oil was recognized as the best form of oil to burn, in the 1840s and 1850s, explained Studenroth, as the cost of the illuminant continued to rise, the population continued to grow and the Age of Industrialism created demands for oils that could affordably provide not only lighting, but lubricants for machinery. Whale oil suddenly became obsolete as other oils, namely petroleum, became the more affordable solution to the demands of the population.

“There was greater and greater demand, and less and less supply,” said Studenroth. “So the price kept going up. It was that point in the history of whale oil that we realized we are exactly at right now.

“It’s really like déjá vu,” continued Studenroth. “It gets to that point where an alternative has to be found; and it is not because a group of smart people, environmentalists or scientists say it is a good idea. It has to be that the market is such where, by popular demand, people will buy that alternative resource.”

The exhibit details the shift from whale oil to other resources, including other animal and plant oils for lighting, but it was not until Drake found success in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859 that someone was able to strike oil commercially, creating a frenzy similar to the gold rush a decade earlier in California.

John D. Rockerfeller would found the first iconic oil company shortly thereafter – Standard Oil – and the economic goldmine which would be known as Big Oil was born.

But, cautions the exhibit, man should take a lesson from history, which often repeats itself, and begin to seek an alternative to petroleum before the wells dry up completely. As the exhibit notes, there are a number of non-renewable and renewable energy resources available – whether they be solar energy, wind or waterpower or biomasses like ethanol or bio-diesel, which can run combustion engines, or more controversial non-renewable energy resources like nuclear power.

“What we say here is we have reached that point again where all these alternatives are being explored and though not one has really clinched it, we are at a point where something has to work and science and the marketplace are going to have to get together and figure that out,” said Studenroth.

Conservation, he added is its own new resource.

“Using less overall, from a cultural standpoint – not just as individuals, but a culture of using less – is alone a major part of the solution,” he said. “That’s a whole other resource, but we will have to change the, ‘I can afford it, so I will use it’ attitude.”

The exhibit “certainly raises the bar” for the Whaling Museum, notes Studenroth, and was largely possible through not only the museum’s vast resources on whaling history, but also through grants provided by the New York Humanities Counsel, the New York Council for the Arts and Assemblyman Fred Thiele’s office. Dolan, Paul Forestelle who is about to take on the position of new provost and chief operating officer at Long Island University’s CW Post campus and is a well-known marine scientist added their expertise on the whaling industry and whale oil. The museum also was aided from an 19th Century lighting expert, as well as restoration experts, the East Hampton Historical Society and the Drake Well Museum, which donated a salesman’s sample case of oil from the 1940s to the exhibit.

The design of the exhibit also blew Studenroth away, after he was able to enlist the help of Selina Hunt of C & G Partners in Manhattan – a firm well known for working with the Smithsonian or the Met.  Working with Hunt, said Studenroth, enabled the exhibit to be one that is accessible and interesting to everyone, rather than just history buffs.

And while the exhibit just debuted a little over a month ago – on May 24 – and will run through the end of October, Studenroth says the success of the exhibit has already inspired the museum to continue a second viewing next summer, as well as travel opportunities to other museums in the New York area. “Oil! Whales, Wells … What’s Next,” may also make its way to the Drake Well Musuem in Titusville next year as that institution and community celebrates the 150th anniversary of Drake’s first oil strike. Studenroth also foresees educational opportunities, for all school districts on the East End, as he will seek to develop a curriculum around the exhibit.

“Oil! Whales, Wells … What’s Next,” will be on view through October at the Sag Harbor Historical and Whaling Museum at 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor. The Sag Harbor Energy Fair, inspired by the exhibit, will be held July 12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on July 13 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. A luau will be held Friday night beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call 725-0770.