In addition to exploring museums, visiting Oil Creek State Park and riding the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad, anyone planning a trip to Pennsylvania's oil region should allow time just to walk around the towns of Franklin, Oil City, Titusville and Emlenton, all of which have historic districts.
These towns are not too far apart. Titusville is the furthest north -- on the border of Crawford and Venango counties -- while Emlenton is the furthest south at the southeast edge of Venango County. Franklin is furthest east, with Oil City between it and Titusville.
Visitors can obtain historic district walking tour maps in each of the towns at visitors centers and/or Chambers of Commerce.
I walked around downtown Titusville, known as the Queen City, on a hot and humid Friday night after eating a tasty ribeye steak and enjoying some brews at the Blue Canoe Restaurant & Brewery in the center of downtown. It was a popular place on a Friday night, with people waiting in line to be seated.
Many of the commercial buildings and homes in and near downtown were erected between the 1860s and 1880s.
Some of them are the Algrunix building with a distinctive corner turret, Chase & Stewart block now occupied by the Blue Canoe, Titusville Trust Co., St. Titus Church, St. James Episcopal Church, the Park building, Corinthian Hall and McKinney Hall.
There were four colorful murals on the Blue Canoe building depicting oil history in the region.
McKinney Hall was a mansion built in 1871 by a wealthy oilman, and today serves as the admissions office for the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville. When the branch opened in the 1960s, it was the main classroom building.
The Titusville Iron Works Co., established in 1860 to produce oil industry engines and boilers, was across the street and adjacent to the Caboose Motel where I stayed. During World War I it made ship engine parts, and during World War II it employed 3,000 people. Parts of the complex still house the Buffalo Structural Steel Co. and Charter Plastics.
Titusville was incorporated in 1866, and the world's first oil exchange was established there in 1881. The beautiful oil exchange building in downtown has been razed.
A memorial to the area's first oil well operator Edwin Drake, unveiled in 1901, is in Woodlawn Cemetery. It was built for $100,000 and today is valued at more than $500,000. Drake is buried in the cemetery.
Legendary football coach John Heisman graduated from Titusville High School, and country singer Jeannie Seely grew up there.
Of the three cities in the oil region, I found Franklin to be the most pleasant. It has a three-block long main street with not a lot of vacant storefronts and some well-kept buildings.
There's a nice commons area with a gazebo just down the street from the Venango County Courthouse, a beautiful red brick structure with white twin towers on the front corners which was erected in 1868.
On main street is the Barrow-Civic Theater, which hosts plays and music acts. The night I stayed in Franklin, country rock singer Billy "Crash" Craddock was appearing there. Opened as the Kayton Theatre in 1946, it was a replacement for the fire-ravaged Park Theatre.
The patio at Lona's Restaurant affords a great view of the courthouse and park across the street.
Franklin has the notorious reputation of being the shortlived home of President Abe Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in the mid-1860s. Pro football coach Ted Marchibroda also grew up there.
DOWNTOWN OIL CITY
The National Transit building is a beautiful red brick structure in Oil City. Built in 1890, with an annex added in 1896, the four-story building once housed the oil transportation division of the Standard Oil Co. It now houses the Transit Fine Arts Gallery, Oil City Civic Center and Oil Valley Center for the Arts.
A stunning 780-square-foot mural greets visitors in the front lobby. Dedicated in 2005, the mural features images of historic oil sites and some of the oil barons such as John D. Rockefeller, Drake and Samuel Van Syckel, who built the first oil pipeline in 1865.
Many downtown Oil City buildings were erected in 1892 after a devastating flood destroyed previous buildings. Nearly 60 people were killed and 75 homes and 20 buildings were destroyed. Fires and explosions were other hazards encountered frequently in the oil region towns.
Pennzoil and Quaker State once had their headquarters in the downtown area. Also downtown is a handsome art deco office building erected in 1942 for the General Telephone Co. and part of the Oil City Boiler Works, which later became the Electric Weld Tube Division of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.
Other historic districts are on north hill, a steep residential neighborhood, and the southside across the Allegheny River. North Hill is home to the stunning St. Joseph's Church, built in the 1890s and featuring 150-foot high twin steeples.
When looking at the northside neighborhood from downtown, the twin steeples dominate the vista.
BOROUGH OF EMLENTON
Emlenton, a town with about 625 residents along the Allegheny River, also has an historic district. I didn't get to visit the town, but hope to do so if I ever return to the oil region.
During the oil boom, more than 30 millionaires lived there, and according to brochures, there still are a lot of stately homes. A walking tour contains 22 colorful interpretive panels.
The old schoolhouse houses borough offices, a gym, book store, visitors center and the Pumping Jack Museum, which contains photos and memorabilia of the Emlenton area.
A steam-powered gristmill built in 1875 has been renovated and now houses antique shops and a restaurant.
PITHOLE -- A BOOMTOWN
Although a small visitors center/museum was not open when I dropped by Pithole City, I walked around the grounds where the oil boom in 1864 attracted 15,000 residents by 1865. But by 1870 the population was slightly over 200, and by 1877 the town was gone.
At its peak, there were 54 hotels and boarding houses -- yes, 54 -- and several banks, churches, bars and brothels. There isn't much to see there now except a handful of building and home foundations, plus an outline of the town's nine streets.
HIKING, BIKING GALORE
The mountainous terrain of Venango County features miles upon miles of hiking and bicycling trails, including inside Oil Creek State Park, the 32-mile Allegheny River/Samuel Justus Recreational Trail from Oil City to Emlenton and the 12-mile Sandy Creek Trail between Brandon and Van.
I had the opportunity to check out two of the amenities on the trails, as I walked across the 1,385-foot long Belmar bridge over the Allegheny River, walked through the 2,868-foot long Rockland tunnel and drove down the road which crosses above the 3,350-foot long Kennerdell tunnel. Both tunnels once were on railroad lines.
The Belmar bridge was built in 1903 for a double-track railroad line. The trail now has a boardwalk surface on half of the deck with a single-span metal truss superstructure. It appears more spans were present in the past. The Rockland and Kennerdell tunnels were built from 1913-16.
According to an information panel at the west end of the Rockland tunnel, it took three years for men to cut through the mountain of rock, working in two shifts, six days a week and 10 to 12 hours a day for 17 cents an hour.
The Belmar bridge affords a breathtaking view of the Allegheny River below. At the east end of the bridge, the Allegheny Trail passes under the Sandy Creek Trail.
Walking through the half-mile long Rockland tunnel both ways was a real experience. Brochures encourage walkers and bikers to have a light, but I didn't take one along. A couple hundred feet into the tunnel, it gets pitch dark. Thankfully, there are reflectors built into the pavement.
Although the temperature outside was close to 80, it was about 20 to 30 degrees cooler inside. Water trickles down the walls of the tunnel, and I could hear -- but not see -- bats flying around.
Some people at the tunnel who were riding ATVs told me on my drive back up the gravel/dirt road to the main road, I should stop and walk into the woods to see Rockland Falls and a pyramidal-shaped stone iron furnace, which I did.
The falls is about 20 feet high and cascades down a rocky slope. A couple of dozen teenagers were wading across the shallow creek above and below it, and some campers were downstream.
An informational panel said the iron furnace operated from 1832 to 1854. Charges of charcoal, iron ore and limestone were dumped into the furnace stack while a continuous blast of air was injected into the furnace base. It produced 3 to 5 tons of molten iron every 12 hours.
My last stop before heading back to Ohio was the Kennerdell overlook, which provides a gorgeous view of a bend in the Allegheny River with a mass of green forest on both sides. I could see a fisherman in a boat at least a half-mile down the river.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189