On this third day of Blogtober, let’s explore some of the earliest oil boom towns of Pennsylvania. When oil was struck and successfully processed for the first time in 1859, a “rush” comparable to that of the California Gold Rush began here in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Known as “black gold,” this industry proved to be a huge catalyst for settlement in some rather unlikely areas.
While most manufacturing and industry happened closer to places like Pittsburgh and Homestead, these small towns – or “boom towns” – soon made names for themselves as places of intense prosperity, settlement and development. Today, we’re going to take a look at five of these towns: Franklin, Titusville, Oil City, Pithole, Petrolia.
1. Franklin. One of the longest settled areas of Southwestern, PA, (https://franklinpa.gov/history) Scottish immigrants first traded in the region beginning in the 1740s. Its history is just as long as Pittsburgh’s, and the land was disputed by both the French and English in the 1760s. After the wars, and eventual dismantlement of Fort Franklin (named for yes, that Benjamin Franklin), the newly chartered town kept the name.
“Franklin is located at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River, an important site used for centuries by Native Americans. They had long before developed what became known as the Venango Path, passing from the head of French Creek north to Presque Isle Bay on Lake Erie. Via French Creek and the Allegheny River, the portage effectively linked the waterways of the Ohio River and the Great Lakes.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin,_Pennsylvania)
Today, Franklin is very well known not only for its history in oil and railroads, but for it reinvention of itself as a town for tourism and architecture. Some notable individuals who used to live there include John Wilkes Booth (yes, that infamous Booth), Samuel Hays and Alexander Hays, Mary Jo White and George Snowden.
2. Titusville. Founded in 1796 – thirty years after Franklin – Titusville is known as the “Birthplace of the Oil Industry.” Since oil has come and gone, it’s seen several industries rise in its place such as lumber. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titusville,_Pennsylvania). Titusville quickly grew once word spread of Jonathan Titus striking oil, and soon the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company showed great interest in developing the area as well. Titusville became home to the Union and Titusville Railroad, and other lines were soon added.
“Other oil-related businesses were quickly established. Eight refineries were built between 1862 and 1868. Drilling tools were needed and several iron works were built. Titusville grew from 250 residents to 10,000 almost overnight and in 1866, it incorporated as a city. In 1871, the first oil exchange in the United States was established there. The exchange moved from the city, but returned in 1881 in a new, brick building, before being dissolved in 1897.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titusville,_Pennsylvania)
Even though Titusville saw great economic growth through its oil boom, there was also cause for concern. Everyone wanted their piece of oil, and disaster (mostly fire) always felt one mishap away. Still, Titusville exists to this day. And while all the refineries have since closed, the residents pride themselves on its history and involvement in the region.
3. Oil City. Founded the same year as Titusvill, Oil City saw just as much conflict and industry as its close neighbor. Previously known as Oil Creek Furnace, it didn’t fully become a city until 1862. (https://www.oilcity.org/history). Its neighbor, Venango City, was eventually absorbed into Oil City in 1871. Like Franklin, they, too, have several historic districts on the National Registrar. This website (https://oilcitypa.net/oil-city/history/oc-1896-3/) is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to learn more about Oil City’s historical significance to the development of Southwester PA.
Residents of Oil City produced several publications, including The 1896 Derrick Souvenir Book, and The Oil City Derrick. Oil City was also once home to the Oil Creek Iron furnace: “The Susquehanna and Waterford Turnpike, which later became U.S. Route 322, was built between 1818 and 1820. This became the main east-to-west route through Venango County. Another early road was the Salina Turnpike. A toll road ran from Oil City to Pinoak and cost 25 cents.” (https://cranberrytwp.org/the-local-area/local-history/). Iron furnaces were common in the area, so it’s not entirely a far feteched concept that there would be some in Venango County as well.
Many companies got their start in Oil City, including the Oil City Petroleum Bridge Co., the Venango Bridge Company, and the Citizens Traction Company, just to name a few. (https://oilcitypa.net/oil-city/history/oc-1879/). While oil is no longer Oil City’s main industry, it still welcomes visitors to its many annual festivals. Oil City’s history is just as well documented as that of Franklin and Titusville, but the same cannot be said for other Pennsylvania boom towns.
4. Pithole. Founded in 1865 – a good seventy to a hundred years after its neighbors – Pithole lived fast and died just as hard. Now a ghost town nestled in Venango County, it once saw thousands of individuals trying to make it rich near the end of Pennsylvania’s oil boom. The reality: the town only lasted from 1865 to 1877. That’s just twelve years. A blip on Pennsylvania’s boom town radar.
“The majority of the oil wells in the vicinity of Pithole and the Oil Creek valley tapped into a sandstone formation known as the Venango Third sand. The Venango Third contained large volumes of oil under high pressure at only 450 to 550 feet (140 to 170 m) below ground level. Other oil-producing formations in the area were “the Venango First and Second [sands], the latter often prevailing after the Third sand was lost.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pithole,_Pennsylvania)
Even though Pithole’s existence was short lived, a branch of the Oil City Railroad was extended to the boom town, eventually becoming just the Pithole Valley Railway by 1871. One would think that its storied history would’ve been preseved as well as Franklin or Oil City, but this section’s opening line still stands: Pithole lived fast and died just as hard. By 1870 fewer than three hundred individuals were still living in Pithole, and by 1879 the town’s lands were absorbed back into Venango County.
Pithole was never seen as a place for folks to raise a family, and I imagine that many moved to other boom towns like Franklin or Titusville or even down to Pittsburgh. There are no annual festivals celebrated in Pithole, for now only a visitors center remains.
5. Petrolia. An hour south of Pithole sits the last boom town on today’s list: Petrolia. While all the others mentioned are relatively close, this particular city is about the same distance to Homestead. Just to put the distance into perspective for all you geography and map lovers out there. Unlike Pithole, Petrolia – incorporated as a borough in 1873 – still exists today. Though as of the 2019 census, fewer than 200 individuals call this old boom town home. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrolia,_Pennsylvania). In 1880 the town sported just over 1100 residents.
As its name would suggest, Petrolia is an oil boom town. “On April 1st of 1872, the “Fanny Jane” Well was struck, thus giving birth to a new town called Petrolia. Petrolia soon proved to be one of the many oil boomtowns in the lower region of the Pennsylvania Oil Region.” (https://formerwesternpaoilboomtowns.weebly.com/petrolia.html). Today, Petrolia sports several National Heritage Sites, and several businesses from the late 1880s still exist.
Sadly, not much of Petrolia’s history still exists today, and it’s not to be confused with the Petrolia located up in Ontario, Canada. Such little history, in fact, that all the Wikipedia page has on this town are census records, demographics and geography.
And so concludes Day 2 of Blogtober 2022! Did you learn anything new? Did any of these histories inspire you to learn more? Or even learn something about your own state’s history? Because that’s definitely the goal of this site’s involvement in the Blogtober Challenge. Happy learning and see you in the next one!