Meadville Tribune

Opinion

August 12, 2013

Concerns about tire burning, fracking have echoes in history

MEADVILLE — Two developments have a number of county residents concerned: fracking and tire burning. Citizens elsewhere are equally interested. Fracking has been delayed in New York for some time while Michigan is wrestling with tire burning. Residents of Wheeling, W.Va., are fighting to prevent the construction of a fracking water recycling plant. And in Ohio, where nearly 300 wells have been drilled and more than $2 billion has been paid by gas and oil companies, teachers wonder how much education will benefit from this industrial boom. It is little wonder why critics in Pennsylvania and in other states question whether the gains in gas and electricity from these energy sources significantly outweigh the potential health hazards of contaminated groundwater and air.

Fracking companies are quick to respond that they’re moving in the right direction. Aside from the money and jobs drilling has already produced, other advantages can hardly be overlooked. Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than gasoline and it has excited auto makers. At present, more than 100,000 natural gas vehicles exist in the country. In addition, Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler are expected to release their natural gas vehicles this year.

Central in this babble between the drillers and the environmentalists is change. While some of us see change as hopefully progressive, others view it as potentially destructive. All of us feel compelled to react when change of any kind is imminent. This sort of situation normally separates the optimists from the pessimists. If a pending tornado threatens a community, no one is happy; If it fails to touch down and breaks up, everybody is relieved.

Throughout modern history, technology has played a major role in change. It has created better and safer products, more jobs, and plenty of wealth. Yet, not everyone has been satisfied. There have been many examples of man battling the machine, including the Industrial Revolution with its pace-making technology that radically altered society.

In early 19th century England, for example, skilled textile workers called Luddites protested against labor-saving machines and went around destroying them. They objected to looms that could be operated with cheaper, low-skilled labor. Underemployment may have been the real cause for the protest and destruction of property but the Luddites believed they had made their point by destroying the machine, which to some of them may have been the “Frankenstein” of the day.

The “devilish Iron Horse,” as Henry Thoreau called the early railroad, also had its enemies. Some believed that it helped destroy much of what was good in early America, particularly the small towns. Other critics blamed it for dismantling the tall grass prairies, devastating pine forests, and eliminating much of the buffalo. Still considered a symbol of progress by most Americans, the trains quickened the development of the West with settlers, herds of livestock and new towns. Completing the transcontinental railroad in1869 was an early technological equivalent to landing a man on the moon.

Crawford County enjoyed its railroad boom in the 1860s when more track was laid in the county than in any other county in the state. Yet, not everyone in the county at first embraced Thoreau’s Iron Horse. Money problems led the region’s railroad leaders to go to European investors who demanded in return considerable control over the construction of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. Second, the workers brought in to lay track did not create a favorable impression among the residents. Many were immigrants unaccustomed with the language and local customs. Finally, laying track caused damage to good farm land.

Similar damage occurred in the Titusville area, which was experiencing at the same time its own boom in oil. A photograph of derricks saturating the landscape illustrated the popularity of the new industry. Speculators pocketed millions and lost millions. Local merchants provided products like barrels for the oil producers. These same barrels filled with oil later made their way on wagon through Meadville en route to the railhead in Linesville.

This constant “dirty traffic” didn’t please everyone in Meadville or Titusville. Citizens of Titusville mostly complained about the hordes of strangers who overwhelmed the town with their boisterous behavior. With every derrick that went up, morality seemed to drop a notch. Taverns, casinos and brothels went up as fast as the derricks.

Often, the technology in the change became the culprit for those who didn’t want change. For those desiring change, the time factor proved crucial and technology made the difference. The cotton gin revolutionized the growth of the textile industry. Faster time between cities and towns increased the popularity of the railroad. Passenger service kept improving as trains became longer and more comfortable, but travelers prioritized getting to their destinations as quickly as possible. Certainly we understand this today.

Just as water is essential to climate change, we might say technology has been a prime mover in social and economic change. More than a century ago, the telegraph, telephone, radio and the internal combustion engine held us spellbound. At that time, historian Henry Adams saw what was happening and wrote that man was now placing his faith in science and technology the way he had once placed it in the church.

Just as the human body changes over time, so does every society with its culture, economy and government. See how much the federal government has changed since the Founding Fathers.

Change can be sudden and traumatic. We find that other changes — such as global warming, fracking or tire burning — linger in limbo, awaiting for a decision on a current problem. Action delay is often the result because consensus among scientists is lacking as is cooperation between government officials and business leaders. We know government has to make the call and, as voters, we hope it’s the right call.

A Meadville resident, Ilisevich was a professor of history at the former Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, worked for years as librarian for Crawford County Historical Society and has authored several books on local history. He can be contacted at rdi504@zoominternet.net.

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