Just north of Prospect, Daniel Shanor found oil on his farm in early 1890. Horse-drawn carts hauled the crude oil to a refinery in East Butler. Shanor’s neighbors followed suit and soon oil wells dotted farms along Big Run, a small tributary that flowed from the present-day Big Butler Fairgrounds into Muddy Creek.
Oil was a necessary part of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Petroleum replaced whale oil, which became more expensive and more difficult to obtain by the middle of the century. The oil boom following Edwin Drake’s 1859 success near Titusville spread to Butler County in less than twenty years. Several successful oil fields had already been established near Connoquenessing and in the newly-named Petroleum Valley. These oil fields (and others) allowed Butler County to become the world leader in oil production in the late 19th century. The relatively shallow wells were originally dug by hand or with a foot-powered spring drill. Later, steam-powered drills fueled by natural gas replaced spring drills.
By April 1891, six wells, powered by large Bessemer engines, produced over 125 barrels of crude per day. Oil companies installed a series of pipelines that crossed the Muddy Creek Valley to streamline delivery to refineries. Crude was stored in a large tank on Whippoorwill Hill Road (currently Christley Road) and transported in bulk. At the field’s height, each well produced up to ten barrels per day. Estimates vary between 250 and 350 active wells at the turn of the century.
The boom also brought its own problems. The oil fields were dangerous. In September 1890, the Butler Citizen reported that a digger asphyxiated on “fool [foul] air” while trying to deepen a well. The boom economy was inherently unstable and the bubble was already on the verge of collapse. Despite the higher grade of Pennsylvania oil, more effective extraction technologies and cheaper, more plentiful crude in other areas all but collapsed the Butler County oil industry within a generation. Production slowed but remained steady until the 1950s, when the Commonwealth proposed that the valley would be converted to a state park as part of Secretary Maurice Goddard’s vision of a state park within twenty-five miles of every Pennsylvanian.
Well #19 on the Marshall-Barr site was reserved as a potential exhibit of the Muddy Creek field’s heyday. The well was abandoned for over forty years. In the 1990s, volunteers, assisted by local and state-level organizations, cleaned and restored the site. The Marshall-Barr well opened in August 2000 during the Lake Arthur Regatta with a demonstration of the original Bessemer engine and period-accurate well pumps. Currently, the site and adjacent museum are maintained by the Moraine McConnell’s Mill Jennings Commission (3MJC) and open to the public on selected days May through October.