What I Learned in Pennsylvania About Saving Hawaii’s Whales

World’s first oil well, drilled in 1859 by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania

Reflecting on my visit to Pennsylvania1 last month, I had an epiphany — that there is a special connection (though of course not a geographical one) between the Keystone State2 and the Aloha State.

Let me begin with the conclusion I’ve reached about the connection between these two distant, disparate places. It was the discovery of oil and the birth of the global petroleum industry in Pennsylvania in 1859 that saved the whales — or at least gave them a significant respite. The many species that benefited included the humpbacks that migrate to Hawaii every winter.

Fossil fuels may be unfashionable these days, but Edwin Drake’s development of a practical way to drill for petroleum and extract it from the ground, coupled with the then-recent discovery that kerosene (“lamp oil”) could be distilled from crude oil, made whale oil obsolete. Its principal use had been for lighting, and that had been the chief source of whaling industry revenue. Now, cheaper, more plentiful kerosene gave the whales a much-needed break.3

Anyone familiar with Hawaii’s economic history is aware that in the mid-19th century, these islands were a popular resting and provisioning point for the many ships engaged in Pacific whaling. In fact, economists and historians now consider that Hawaii’s catering to these ships was the Islands’ preeminent industry (beyond subsistence agriculture and fishing) at that time.

The world’s broader economy was not as kind to whaling, however, as Hawaii was to the whalers. First, by the mid-1800s, avid hunting by the ships of many nations made whales increasingly hard to find. Their declining numbers drove up the price of whale oil, making it less affordable and driving down profits.

At the same time, the mushrooming production of kerosene — initially in the northwestern Pennsylvania region we were driving through — slashed demand for whale oil.

Sandra and I got a nice look at the place where this happy change began. We began by driving north from the Pittsburgh area, heading for Lake Erie en route to Niagara Falls. For much of the drive we stayed off the Interstates, opting to get a better feel for the rolling green countryside and the towns that dot it.

The byway-not-highway effort paid off. Not only did we chance upon the first of the memorable eateries — Fried Bologna Sandwich! — featured in my post of two weeks ago, we found ourselves in the cradle of America’s petroleum industry and birthplace of the whaling industry’s obsolescence.

After lunch that first day, we spotted signs indicating that the road we were then following would soon bring us to Titusville, the site of the world’s first oil well. This was pure serendipity. We had not planned on seeing the town beforehand; I hadn’t even realized where in Pennsylvania it was located. I just knew about it from things I’d read as a schoolboy over six decades ago.

Even before we got there, it was clear we were in what I now think of as the “Pennsylvania Petroleum Patch.” We drove through Oil City, the former headquarters of companies like Pennzoil and Quaker State — an unmistakable clue to the region’s claim to fame.

Sure enough, when we rolled into Titusville, about 20 miles past Oil City, we found the site of Drake’s well, complete with a replica of its iconic wooden derrick.

Unfortunately, we arrived shortly after the adjacent museum had closed for the day. So, after a stop for photographs, we continued on our way to Erie in Pennsylvania’s northwestern “panhandle.”4 There we enjoyed a delicious dinner al fresco, watching the sun set over Lake Erie and Presque Isle5 from the patio of a lovely lakefront restaurant.

Sunset over Lake Erie’s Presque Isle Bay. That’s a stretch of Presque Isle in the background.

The next morning we resumed our drive to Niagara Falls, hugging the Lake Erie shoreline as closely as we could and again avoiding the Interstate. Stay tuned in an upcoming post for highlights of what we experienced in western New York State.


  1. Despite the title, this post is actually Part Two of the Summer Vacation mini-series that I began writing last week. The post ties some of our recent experiences in Pennsylvania to knowledge I acquired years ago when I lived in Hawaii and sometimes wrote about the state’s economy.
  2. NOT, in case you were wondering, named for the Keystone Cops.
  3. Unfortunately, kerosene didn’t kill the whaling industry altogether. Demand continued for baleen (“whalebone” — formerly used in corsets and much else), bone and meat.
  4. I may be the only person who calls this northerly stub of Erie County a panhandle. It might be awfully short, as panhandles go, but it gives the Keystone State its only stretch of Lake Erie shoreline, so it’s hardly insignificant.
  5. A long, slender peninsula stretching obliquely away from the shore and ending in a more bulbous tip. Presque Isle is French for “Almost an Island.”
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