Petroleum Centre, 1867

"The Wild, Wild East"


2002 -- Oil Creek Pennsylvania State Park with the Oil Heritage Region, Inc.
Size: 48 in. x 96 in. (4 ft. x 8 ft.)
Scale: 1/8 in. = 1 ft. (1/87th scale, or HO gauge)
Figures: 221 at 3/4 in. tall, involved in dozens of action vignettes.
Features: a dual-gauge railroad, oil derricks, hundreds of oil barrels, oil barges, horses & wagons, 61 scratch-built buildings, and oil-fouled Oil Creek. Display case designed to allow wheelchair access under diorama for close-up viewing per ADA recommendation.


The Problem: The staff of Oil Creek State Park required a diorama to create the centerpiece for their recently constructed Visitor’s Center. The purpose of the exhibit was to depict a moment during the height of Petroleum Centre’s short and unusual life, and in particular, the various activities of more than two hundred little people who are shown. All this is in dramatic contrast to the bucolic wooded park land to which Petroleum Centre has reverted, with only one of it’s more than one hundred original buildings still standing.

The new depot for receiving tourist trains, and the home of the Petroleum Centre diorama.
The current park appearance at what had been the main intersection and town center of Petroleum Centre

Looking at the Petroleum Centre diorama from the west, showing the entire 4 ft. x 8 ft. diorama footprint.

Looking at the Petroleum Centre diorama from the east.

The Challenge: To compress, into the space allowed by the dictates of the size of the Visitor Center and ADA requirements, enough of the essential activity associated with the drilling, storage and shipping of Pennsylvania crude to give visitors a sense of what life was like just outside the new Visitor's Center doors in 1867. A second request was to make a dramatic contrast between the harsh effects of early oil-drilling on the natural environment, and the return of that same environment to it's current pristine natural state, a Pennsylvania hardwood forest.

A dual-gauge railroad line has just been completed allowing both standard and broad gauge equipment to serve the transportation needs of the oil boom town. The train from Titusville, 9 miles north, has just arrived on its way to Oil City on the Allegheny River, 9 miles south of Petroleum Centre.
Heavy spring rains caused muddy sink holes resulting in the reputation for "roads that are unpassable, not even jack-assable". A team, wagon, oil barrels and teamster have strayed into the 'Main Street stew".
Workers salvage reusable hardware from a burned well. Fires were a frequent problem, and eventually large portions of the town were lost to fires.
A man sits on top of a derrick, there to grease the crown-pulley and keep the lines from tangling.

The Solution: We spent a week in the area researching "the story". This included interviews with local historians and hours spent in the local historical archives scanning their robust collection of black and white pictures taken by a local photographer who chronicled the period and the area. (That photographer, John Mather, can be seen in the diorama standing in the middle of the street preparing to take a photo.) From Mather's images, and a variety of original historical sources including newspapers, letters and diaries, we identified most of the buildings and businesses that stood on the two main streets of the town in 1867. We also designed the diorama so that it visually demonstrates how the oil was "drilled" for, stored and transported by wagon, barge, and railroad to the rest of the world, and how the oil was spilled during each of these activities. The diorama also illustrates the essence of "boomtown" that existed, including the commerce, pollution, rowdiness, burned-out structures and crowds of people going about their business.

The wagon maker has just rolled his latest creation from his shop into the sun - a new "taxi" wagon for the local teamster whose "niche" has become ferrying the growing number of visitors and new residents to and from - mostly from - the RR station. The taxi man beams with anticipation as the wagon-maker beams with pride.
A fight, started in Mrs. Mooney's Rooming House (above), migrates into the planked street in honor of the sunny break in the spring rains. A teamster pulls his team up short to avoid trampling the combatants as a crowd gathers. One of the girls upstairs at Mrs. Mooney's (over whom the fight started) adds her two cents worth. Across from Mrs. Mooney's (below), a crew of men reclaims the salvageable items from the burned-out remains of Levy's Dry Goods Store.
A north-bound barge (above) loaded with supplies and empty barrels holds up as the teamster waves to the south-bound barge (below) to come on through this treacherous narrow spot.  

A southbound barge loaded with barrels of oil and controlled by a teamster and his team of four horses and a tillerman at the stern approaches the narrow bridge openings followed by a tight bend. The northbound bargeman - on the other side of the bridge (above, right) - has waved his intention to hold his lighter and more manuverable barge there against the current, giving the right of way to the heavier, less manuverable barge, a handful as it runs with the current of the rain-swollen creek. The water shows the extent of oil contamination mixed with muddy run-off from the banks of Oil Creek.
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