The adventure below is the latest in a series sharing my quest to explore Pennsylvania by visiting each of the sixty-seven county seats and eating a hot dog while in town.
Nearly every aspect of our lives has been affected by Edwin Drake and William Smith who drilled the first commercial oil well near Titusville, Pa in 1858. No one was happier about this development than whales. Now that folks had lots of kerosene to light their lamps they wouldn’t need any more whale blubber.
Today we head into the ‘eye’ of the oil industry of the late 19th century which of course finds us in Venango County. The county was created on March 12, 1800 from parts of Allegheny and Lycoming Counties. The name “Venango” comes from the Native American name of the region, Onenge, meaning Otter. The English and French speakers of the day got it messed up and thought it meant Venango River. The settlement at the mouth of the river was of course called Venango. This is now what is the south side of Oil City. At one time Oil City was home to the corporate headquarters of Pennzoil, Quaker State and Wolf’s Head motor oil companies. Those companies are no longer in Oil City and like most of Venango County, Oil City is pushing tourism to build their economy. The Oil City bank, built to last forever is even for sale.
Being built around several rivers; Oil Creek, The Allegheny and French Creek, the town was susceptible to flooding. The worst flood happened on June 5, 1892. A triple explosion resulting from leaking storage tanks added to the mayhem and 60 people were killed.
The oil industry has a tradition of boom or bust periods with this up and down routine beginning almost immediately in Venango County. The most famous example of this boom and bust is the town of Pithole. This place was incorporated in 1865 and unincorporated in 1877. At its peak the population of the town was 20,000 with the largest post office in Pennsylvania. Of course, there are stated reasons why Pithole disappeared so quickly but I think I know the real reason. Can you imagine being an oil executive at a county meeting in, say, Petroleum Centre and being asked by another oil executive where you were from? Who wants to be from Pithole? “Oh, I live in Pithole!” Yeah right. Everyone left for Oil City, or Titusville or Franklin in a big hurry. No one wanted to write home to Mom and say, “I live in Pithole.” That would be the pits. This is where the town was once.
Petroleum Centre fared a bit better than Pithole. President Grant even stayed at the Petroleum Centre hotel one night. Note: he didn’t go to Pithole! Anyway, all of Petroleum Centre is included in the photo. You have to go into Oil Creek Park to find Petroleum Centre. The tracks I’m standing in for the photo (of Petroleum Centre) belong to the Titusville Oil City Railroad. I stopped in Titusville (it is located in Crawford County but the oil well is in Venango County) at the station and the Caboose Motel. The other end of the line finds the station in Oil City.
The city of Franklin began as the French Fort named Machault. The French fort was burned by the French in 1759 when they left after the French and Indian War. The next year the British built Fort Venango. The fort and its tiny garrison, how shall I say, ended badly. Franklin ended up on this same site and is, obviously, named for Benjamin Franklin.
The town of Franklin is more picturesque then my photo reveals and much more active than Pithole. I found the security guards in the courthouse to ask about the whereabouts of a hot dog. The first suggestion they provided was Sheetz! Really? ? Anyway, Julie, the Juvenile Probation Officer joined the conversation and the consensus was that I should go to Polly’s. I was assured that I couldn’t miss the place because there was a huge parrot on the sign. Sure enough there was a parrot at this seasonal ice cream stand. Nicole was camera-shy but volunteered to take the photo of Cindy and Andrew. Nicole and Andrew attend Slippery Rock University and her uncle owns Polly’s. We were having a great time talking about my quest and Andrew piped up, “This is fun. I hope we win.” You have to love that boy! Nicole’s uncle makes the yogurt that goes in to the cones like this delicious ‘medium’ Chocolate Peanut Butter cone I had for dessert. I’m glad I didn’t order a large!
My recommendation is that you visit the area and soak up a little history. But, don’t stay too long in Pithole!
See you next time.