Marking Time

Historical markers
Three Mile Island 
McClintock Number 1

This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 2 - Spring 2009

PHMC's marker recalls an event of worldwide significance. Photo: PHMC Bureau for Historic Preservation
Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, the worst nuclear accident in the history of the United States occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Power Station near Middletown, Dauphin County. The scope of the physical accident was relatively small, but the impact on the country's nuclear power industry was enormous.

On March 28, 1979, the worst nuclear accident in the history of the United States occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Power Station near Middletown, Dauphin County. The scope of the physical accident was relatively small, but the impact on the country's nuclear power industry was enormous.

For several days, people around the world anxiously followed the emergency through the eyes of hundreds of reporters who thronged the scene. As the drama unfolded, the media reported that the reactor was out of control and that a total meltdown of the nuclear core was possible. Such a scenario, some reporters speculated, could result in deaths from radiation exposure and render a wide geographical area uninhabitable for at least one hundred thousand years.

On Wednesday, March 28, at 4:00 a.m., a water pump failed in a non-nuclear part of the plant. Without water from the pump to cool the core, a meltdown became likely. A pressure relief valve then opened, but when pressure returned to normal, the valve remained opened, causing water to pour out of the reactor core. Unaware of the problem, operators misinterpreted instrument readings as too much water in the core. They shut off emergency backup cooling water, resulting in an increased temperature that boiled off any remaining cooling water.

The Unit 2 accident impacted the use of nuclear energy in the United States. Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission 

Operators were able to return cooling water back to the core area by Friday, March 30, but a hydrogen bubble had formed inside the dome of the pressure vessel in an auxiliary building. Experts feared the bubble might explode, releasing massive amounts of radiation, and officials made plans to evacuate nearby residents. President Jimmy Carter dispatched Harold R. Denton, director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, to TMI to gather facts and quell rumors. President Carter and First Lady Rosalyn Carter visited Unit 2's control room with Governor Dick Thornburgh to reassure the public that there was no need to panic.

When investigators could safely enter the reactor building in July 1980, they discovered that nearly one-third to one-half of the core had melted. A cleanup program lasted from 1980 to 1983 before Unit 2 was considered decontaminated. Extensive testing of soil, plants, and residents in the vicinity of TMI has not found any problems linked to radiation.

President Jimmy Carter and Governor Dick Thornburgh, among others, visited TMI's control room, in part, to quell public panic. Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

On March 25, 1999, PHMC dedicated a state historical marker commemorating the accident near the entrance to TMI. The plant's four cooling towers still dominate the bucolic landscape, and steam rising from the cooling towers of Unit 1 reactor is discernable, evidence that the plant continues to generate electricity. The damaged Unit 2 reactor building and towers, however, are forever shut down. PHMC's historical marker bears public testimony to the impact of the nuclear industry on twentieth-century American history.

Since 1914, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has installed more than 2,500 state historical markers throughout the Commonwealth. Information about the marker program is available online by visiting www.phmc.state.pa.us or www.explorepahistory.com.

The State Museum of Pennsylvania recently added a Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle (RRV) to the Hall of Industry and Technology. Nicknamed 'Rover,' the RRV was developed by William 'Red' Whittaker at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University to avoid exposing cleanup workers at TMI to radiation. Over the course of four years, nine vehicles surveyed and treated the heavily contaminated basement of TMI's Unit 2 reactor building. The Rover and several tools now on exhibit at The State Museum were not used in the cleanup, but were employed to train operators and test attachments such as lights, cameras, vacuums, and scoops. GPU Nuclear, which operated the facility at the time of the 1979 accident, donated the RRV and the tools to the museum in 2000. Through 2009, The State Museum is offering a self-guided Energy Tour of its Hall of Industry and Technology, sponsored by Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, as part of PHMC's annual theme, Energy: Innovation and Impact.


This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 3 - Summer 2009

McClintock Number 1

Commercial petroleum production began in 1859 with Edwin L. Drake’s well at Titusville, Venango County, but the well failed after only two years of operation. In McClintock, two miles north of Oil City, how-ever, the world’s oldest produc-ing well continues to yield oil. The McClintock Number 1 in Cornplanter Township began pumping crude in 1861, the same year the Drake Well went dry.

As early as 1807, Hamilton McClintock (1777–1857) was collecting twenty to thirty barrels of oil each year from seeps on his farm and selling it for one to two dollars a gallon. His son, Culbertson McClintock (1809–1855), continued the family’s oil interests, but smallpox claimed his life less than five years before Drake launched the oil boom. Upon learning of Drake’s success, his widow, Sarah McKnight McClintock (1813–1864), opened her property for drilling leases.

Jonathan Watson of the Brewer, Watson Lumber Company acquired leases on the McClintock property and had erected a dozen wells by the summer of 1860. It was a well commis-sioned by Watson and drilled by Joel D. Angier, originally called the Colby Well, that would come to be known as the McClintock Number 1 which, at its peak, produced a modest fifty barrels of oil per day.

Joseph E. Robinson (second from left), owner of Robinson Oil Company, photographed in 1920, purchased McClintock No. 1 from the McClintock Petroleum Company in 1892.

Sarah and Culbertson McClintock had adopted infant John Washington Steele (1843–1921) and his sister Permelia (1841–1851) in 1843. After his stepmother’s death in 1864, the twenty-one-year-old Steele inherited the 200-acre oil farm, a reported $200,000 in cash, and a daily income of $2,000 from oil. Steele’s extravagant lifestyle was legendary, and newspaper reporters dubbed him “Coal Oil Johnny.” He squandered his fortune and lost control of his oil rights, which were acquired by brothers John and Joseph Bowers. John Bowers’s son, John Jr., took over the operation in the late 1890s and owned the land until 1919.

The Brundred Oil Corporation acquired the property in 1919 and sold it in September 1952 to the Quaker State® Corporation. The company pumped the McClintock several times a year to maintain its status as the world’s oldest operating oil well. Quaker State merged with Pennzoil® Company in the late 1990s, and the company was subsequently acquired by Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Ownership of the McClintock was officially transferred to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) during ceremonies at the site in 2000.

Administered by PHMC, McClintock No. 1, the world’s oldest continuously producing oil well, will be 150 years old in 2011.

The Drake Well Museum, administered by PHMC, maintains the historic site and pumps the well occasionally to ensure its historic status. The well yields one to two barrels a day, which is used at the museum and also bottled and sold as souvenirs. One or two barrels at a time are pumped.

PHMC dedicated the state historical marker for the “Oldest Oil Producing Well” in 1958. The marker is located on Route 8, south of Rouseville.

As part of PHMC’s theme for 2009, “Energy: Innovation and Impact,” the Drake Well Museum will mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Drake’s successful drilling for oil on Thursday, August 27, with Drake Day Extravaganza. The event will include entertainment, demonstrations of traditional crafts and skills, a Civil War encampment, and a spectacular Nitro Show (see Hands-On History in this edition). To learn more, visit www.drakewell.org.