Distance traveled: 230 miles (370 kilometers)
Route: From Peninsula, Highway 8 to Interstate 271, then 271 to I-90, I-90 to I-86, 86 through New York until it meets Highway 219, and then south to Bradford.
I left Peninsula later than I expected, which isn’t really surprising since there was good conversation with old friends, as well as scrambled eggs with fresh morels, to keep me behind. It was still raining when I eventually did make it back onto the road, and the rain continued to fall heavily as I drove past Lake Eerie on I-90.
My goal for the day was the city of Bradford, located just outside of the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, where I would be staying with my friend Kim and her family. I hadn’t seen Kim for a good 24 years or so, so I was interested to see what it would be like to see her again, and to meet her family for the first time. As Kim said, “My daughter is totally fascinated by this strange guy from my past who’s showing up out of nowhere on his drive across the country.” As it turned out, things clicked right into place, just as if Kim and I had last seen each other only a couple of weeks ago. There was a lot of catching up and gossip, and a lot of great conversation as Kim and her husband filled me in on Bradford and the surrounding area. That night I slept in Kim’s son’s room, which he very kindly (and perhaps involuntarily?) vacated for my visit. There was a really cool rock collection on the table next to the bed, a signed skateboarding poster on the wall, a Star Wars bedspread, and a universe of glow-in-the-dark stars above me once the lights were out. I had the sneaking suspicion that somehow I had become fourteen years old again.
Bradford was an oil boomtown during the Pennsylvania oil rush
of the late 19th
century, and the oldest continuously operating oil refinery in the United States — an American Refining Group refinery that celebrated its 125th
anniversary in 2006 — is still in operation on the north end of town. Because of the abundance of good oil coming out of the ground in the Bradford area, it attracted the interest of early auto manufacturers, and Holley — the famous manufacturer of performance carburetors — got its start here. In fact, according to Kim’s husband, one apocryphal story has it that when Henry Ford was deciding where to base his assembly line, Holley suggest Bradford, but Ford ultimately decided to remain in Detroit, thus deciding once and for all the geographic fate of American manufacturing.
Bradford is still home to the Zippo lighter company
, and there’s a museum nearby with just about every type of Zippo ever produced on display, but one time Bradford was home to the national oil options market, and a huge amount of wealth flowed through the city. The options market building, which has an incredibly beautiful door with an image of an inlaid peacock on it, has since been turned into The Option House
, a high-end restaurant, but at one time it was the central hub for the first wave of America’s oil millionaires. In fact, Kim and her husband pointed to a possible T.S. Eliot connection based on this history. Apparently Eliot was acquainted with the son of one of Bradford’s wealthy oil barons when he was at Harvard, and this may be the source of these lines in The Wasteland
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature may gloss Bradford as “A Yorkshire, England, manufacturing town where fortunes were made during WWI,” but who’s to say? After all, oil fortunes and war fortunes aren’t always such distance cousins.
In any case, I got to spend a few hours the next morning walking around downtown Bradford, as my alternator bearing had started to squeal. Kim very kindly suggested Sehman’s Tire to me, and true to her word they did fantastic work and I was back on the road in no time at all. Still, it was nice to have an hour or so to walk around the town; my cousins live on the eastern end of Pennsylvania and so I have a soft spot for these old brick downtown areas, so full of amazing architectural detail and the signs of the economic history upon which these places were built. The rise of the auto industry in Michigan seems to have permanently displaced in the American consciousness that earlier stage of the industrial revolution that took place in Pennsylvania and other eastern states and was defined by the enormous steel factories that made the vast American rail system possible. Filling up my tank in Bradford before getting back on I-86 to head for Maine, I thought about the strange conjuncture of coal, oil, and steel that initially defined the economic health of Pennsylvania and then shifted to the northwest, where companies like Ford — the maker of the van that I was driving — created their own economic ecosystems up until the 1980s when they, too, felt the driving forces of the world economy began to shift.