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Titusville Pennsylvania

Home of the worlds first producing oil well, Titusville is not the largest city in Pennsylvania by far but it is one of the most memorable, and probably the one which holds the greatest amount of history, second only to Philadelphia.

Titusville’s history is almost all about oil. The name was derived from the first settler there, a man named Jonathan Tituswho had come to this very fertile valley in Crawford County in 1796.

Within just a few years others bought and improved the land near him.

A village grew that he named Edinburg(h), although local usage referred to the little hamlet as Titusville. The village was incorporated as a borough in 1847.

Titusville was a slow-growing and peaceful community, lying along the banks of Oil Creek until the 1850s. Lumber was the principal industry with at least 17 sawmills in the area, among them, Fisher and young Lumber, which was included in the book, The Ball Hooters, a history of early lumber production companies.
It was well known that Oil existed here, but there was no real way to remove it practically and so it was skimmed off the waters of what was called Oil Creek, by the Native Americans who used it as a tonic or a medicine for human and animal alike.

Mural of Native Americans skimming oil

The early 1850s saw the Seneca Oil Company (formerly the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company) sent Col. Edwin L. Drake, to start drilling on a piece of leased land just south of Titusville near what is now Oil Creek State Park. Drake hired a salt well driller, William A. Smith, in the summer of 1859. They had many difficulties, but on August 27 at the site of an oil spring just south of Titusville, they finally drilled a well that could be commercially successful. It truly was an event that changed the world, beginning with all the surrounding vicinity.

Drake's Well

Teamsters were needed immediately to transport the oil to markets. The stories tell of barrels of oil being transported to market on the wagons, pulled by mules or horses. Because of the vast amount of oil that was on the roads, and laying tin pools in the city streets, the average lifespan of a horse there was about four weeks. They lost hair after about two weeks and had to be replaced in about four.. Thankfully the transporting methods improved and in 1862 the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad was built between Titusville and Corry where it was transferred to other, larger, east-west lines.

That same Oil creek and Titusville Railroad operates today and I had the privilege of working for the railroad, giving talks and tours as it steamed its way along a 26 mile run from Rynd Farm to Titusville to Petroleum Center to tour the valley that changed the world. Springtime shows a view of the hillside that is far different than it was in oil boom days, with the valley alive with wildflowers the hillsides awash with pinks and blues and whites as the honeysuckle and dogwood flower, while autumn is completely blazing with the reds and golds of the mixed hardwood forest in its fall colors.

A ride on the OC&T is ione of the things that should not be missed when one visits the picturesque Titusville area.

OC&T Railroad, in the station  on Oil Creek

In 1865 pipelines were laid directly to the rail line and the demand for teamsters practically ended. The next year the railroad line was extended south to Petroleum Centre and Oil City.

The Union City & Titusville Railroad was built in 1865, which became part of the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad in 1871.

That fall President Ulysses. S. Grant visited Titusville to view this important region.

Other oil-related businesses quickly exploded on the scene. 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 1881 the first oil exchange in the United States was established here.

The first oil millionaire, a resident of Titusville, was Jonathan Watson who owned the land where Drake’s well was drilled. He had been a partner in a lumber business prior to the success of the Drake well.

At one time it was said that Titusville had more millionaires per 1,000 population than anywhere else in the world.

Coal Oil Johnny, as he was called was a very famous person in the area and a restaurant still stands in Pleasantville Pennsylvania, a small hamlet not far from Titusville, which bears the name Coal Oil Johnny’s.

One resident of note was Franklin S. Tarbell whose large and very ornate home still stands.

View of the Trees in October

He first moved a few miles south in Venango County and established a wooden stock tank business. About 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Titusville was another oil boom city, Pithole, which remains there as a ghost town in modern day.

. Oil was discovered in a rolling meadow there in January 1865 and by September 1865 the population was 15,000. But the oil soon ran dry and within four years the city was nearly deserted.

Tarbell moved to Titusville in 1870. His daughter, Ida Minerva Tarbell, grew up amidst the sounds and smells of the oil industry. She became an accomplished writer , quite famous in her own right and wrote a series of articles about the business practices of the Standard Oil Company and its president, John D. Rockefeller, (a frequent visitor to Titusville) which sparked legislative action in Congress concerning monopolies.

Fire was always a fearful concern around oil and one of the worst was on June 11, 1880. It came to be known as “Black Friday,” when almost 300,000 barrels of oil burned after an oil tank was hit by lightning. The fire raged for three days until it finally was brought under control. Although the oil was valued at $2 million, there was no loss of life. Another fire occurred on June 5, 1892, when Oil Creek flooded and a tank of petroleum ether overturned. The petroleum ether ignited and in the ensuing explosions 60 men, women and children died. Another lightning strike in 1894 resulted in 27,000 barrels lost in a fire.

Since then several other large fires have been a part of the history, most recently in my lifetime, which have seriously challenged the firefighters in the area.

View of an Oil Tank Fire

Oil production in Pennsylvania peaked in 1891 which was when other industries arose in Titusville. The iron and steel industries dominated the town in the early twentieth century with lumber eventually returning as its major industry. Oil is still a force, however. Charter Plastics Company is now located in a building that once manufactured pressure vessels, stationary engines and boilers for the oil industry. Today’s product is made from oil.

In its hey day, Titusville area boasted opera houses, theaters and every saloon and dance hall girl that could be found and a lot of old sayings that we use today were actually coined there..
One of the most famous of the dance hall madams, French Kate, is said to have coined the phrase Arsenic and old lace, because the oil in the area was so thick that it was in the air, and the only way to remove it from the lovely old lace dresses was by the use of arsenic.

Todays Titusville boasts some things that aren’t available anywhere else in the US such as Pats Pages, one of the largest collections of used books available in the state, as well as its proximity to the Pithole Ghost Town, Coal Oil Johnny’s Restaurant in Pleasantville, some of the most superb golfing available anywhere can be found along with gourmet cuisine at Cross Creek Resort Motel, on route 8, just south of Titusville.

Pats Pages Store

 

Titusville Pennsylvania, home of the first oil well, is also home to Scheide Park, to some of the most wonderful trout fishing, walleye, perch and bass as well as large game such as bear and whitetail and turkey that exists in the state. There are ample opportunities for an outdoor adventure including hunting, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, canoe trips, whitewater rafting and many other things to do while you are visiting Northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Titusville area, as well as being a haven of peace and scenic beauty, an exciting outdoor adventure, and is a wonderful living history of petroleum production and the aspects of the original well which remain, including the foot powered drill as well as the first well house, the Ghost town at Pithole and the steam engine trip through the valley are all well worth your time to see.

(parts of this article on petroleum history were gleaned from Wikipedia)


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