Dan Mariner (1983) is a British photographer based in London, England. He studied Documentary Photography at the Magnum affiliated Newport University in South Wales. His personal work focuses on social and environmental issues prevalent in today’s society. He is particularly intrigued by how modern infrastructure coexists with the natural world. Dan is currently working as a freelance photographer, splitting his time between working on commissioned work and developing his documentary practice.
As glaciers cut through northern Pennsylvania, something remarkable was happening beneath the ground. Over millions of years a fermentation was taking place due to the effect of extreme heat and pressure upon layers of organic matter. In time a thick dark liquid, later to be known as crude oil, evolved. Beginning its journey in becoming human civilization’s most valuable commodity.
In the early 1800’s, after the emergence of stories of a black liquid which was seeping from the ground, the then fledgling Seneca Oil Company sent Colonel Edwin Drake, a retired railroad worker from New York in search of this elusive substance. Picked only because he had a free rail pass and plenty of time on his hands, Drake was tasked with the securing a reliable method of crude oil extraction in the hope it could be used for lamp oil. Little did he know, a long, frustrating and difficult search would await him. Obstacle after obstacle thwarted Drake’ attempts, from collapsed drilling wells, impenetrable bedrock and abandonment by the very company who sent him on the search in the first place. After painfully slow and seemingly unproductive progress was being made, many of the areas residents would gather to mock and jeer the operation, dubbing it “Drake’s Folly” but after much ridicule, on the 27th of August 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania and at a depth of 69.5 feet, Drake’s drill made a discovery that would change the planet forever. Unbeknown to him, Drake had made an extraction that would not only illuminate peoples’ homes but also radically transform the evolution of human civilization.
Titusville, situated in Crawford County in the North Western corner of Pennsylvania is one of many townships nestled along the Allegheny River. Along with Oil City, Franklin and Pithole it soon became a bustling hub of the new modern petroleum industry. As soon as Drake discovered that oil could be extracted from the ground using reliable methods already in use in salt well drilling, he set about developing and improving this method of extraction in the hope of making huge financial gains by leading the way in this newly established industry. As news quickly spread of this lucrative new market, Titusville experienced a boom as seen only during the early gold rush in the West. In the space of a few years, the population swelled from a few hundred to over 8,000 people. Scores of entrepreneurs swarmed into Titusville and the surrounding townships in the hope of making their fortune.
At its peak, the Pennsylvanian oil industry supplied well over half of the world’s oil supply before the discovery of vast oil reserves in Texas. The significant process that Drake pioneered was to drive a 32- foot iron pipe through the ground into the bedrock below. This allowed Drake to drill inside the pipe, without the hole collapsing from the water seepage. The principle behind this idea is still employed today by many companies drilling for hydrocarbons. Today, the area still reflects the oil industry’s heritage of ingenuity and innovation. Each town along the Allegheny River, full of traditional craftsmen and pioneering modern day oilmen, radiates a sense of strong community spirit and fierce historical pride. The inhabitants live simple, yet rich lives.
During my visit it was particularly striking that the valleys and forests, once stripped bare and exploited by the industry, have now been reclaimed by nature. The area is now teeming with wildlife. Flora and fauna are slowly erasing the remnants of pipelines, rusted machinery and abandoned mine shafts. This is a true testament to the incredible regenerative power of nature and its ability to heal itself over time. Today, retracing the steps of the early oil industry, it is hard to imagine the massive feat of human endeavor that took place over 150 years ago.
Dan Mariner publishsed this work, “Drake’s Folly”, into a book and it can be purchased here.
To see more of Dan’s work, please visit his website.