The Last Frontier: Venango County Indians, Oil, Ghost Towns

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Venango County. Its name is derivation of a the Seneca Indian word earliest for explorers “French and Creek.” Its earliest explorers and settlers were the French, shortly followed by the English. At one time, the territory was claimed simultaneously by France, and the colonies of Virginia and Pennsyl­vania. But Venango County’s rich history bespeaks vigorous pioneering a spirit and dauntless quest for adven­ture that has hallmarked Pennsylvania’s legacy to American settlement, com­merce and industry.

A frontier for several decades after eastern Pennsyl­vania was settled, this northwest wilderness was, until the mid-eighteenth cen­tury, still inhabited only by several Indian tribes which established small villages in the lush, fertile valleys. Venango County was part of the western Pennsylvania territory claimed for France by Celeron de Blainville as he led an expedition south from the Great Lakes region to the valley of La Belle Riviere in 1749. The explorer, escorted by Indian guides, floated down the Allegheny River and buried leaden plates which laid claim to the vast territory. One of these inscribed plates was planted on the river’s eastern shore six miles south of what is now Franklin near a landmark still familiarly known as Indian God Rock. The local landmark is a large slanted rock distinguished by many petroglyphs believed carved by inhabitants of an early Indian settlement.

To solidify its claim, France dispatched soldiers in the autumn of 1753. They routed English trader John Fraser, considered Venango County’s first white settler, from his log cabin home of twelve years and established temporary headquarters. The British colonists of Virginia responded quickly by sending George Washington, then young surveyor, a to order the French off the territory which was granted to Virginia by King George I. Washington was advised to continue north about forty miles and deliver his message to Legardeur de St. Pierre, the commander of Fort LeBoeuf at Waterford. He traveled north, carrying Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie’s communique and crossed a stream known to the French as Riviere aux Boeufs but which he called French Creek, the name used today. Although the actual point of his crossing that December day is only conjectural, a bridge and one-block street in Franklin are named “Wash­ington Crossing.”

The 1753 meeting between the French commander and the young surveyor was polite, but it marked the first formal confrontation between France and England in Colonial America. Both nations desired possession of the territory and the following year would battle for it in the French and Indian War.

To bolster frontier defenses, the French constructed a series of forts. One of these was Fort Machault (named for one of their nation’s leading financiers), built in 1754 on the banks of the Allegheny River at Franklin. Soldiers were kept busy felling trees and constructing enough boats and rafts to carry about a thousand soldiers and a like number of Indians down the Allegheny River to the headwaters of the Ohio River in case of an enemy attack. Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh was captured by the British in 1758 forcing the French to burn Fort Machault and flee northward to protect Fort Niagara. The British forces lost no time in erecting a fort which, when completed in 1760, was named Venango. It, too, was destroyed three years later when the gar­risoned troops there were massacred by Indians during the height of Pontiac’s rebellion.

During the next quarter century, the region – visited only by an occasional hunter, trapper and trader – was largely undisturbed until after the War of Independence. Following the Revolutionary War, government leaders worked tirelessly to reconcile the problems facing the new nation. Veterans had to be compensated for their arduous military service to the United States and in 1785 land in Venango and adjacent counties was surveyed and set aside as “Donation Lands,” large tracts offered as payment to soldiers. Land was also offered as compensation to other governments which had helped finance the Revolu­tion and vast tracts were awarded to Holland in repayment of its loans; these land grants were the beginning of the Holland Land Company which engineered much of the western Pennsylvania development. The new government – which encouraged the settlement of the western frontier – also very cheaply sold many large parcels of land directly to interested buyers.

Disputes over land titles and occasional Indian raids thwarted early pioneers from settling their claims in western Pennsylvania. Many preferred instead to assume claims in the Western Reserve territory (in present-day Ohio) rather than encounter time-consuming litigation or brave ravaging Indians. Government leaders remained anxious to populate the territory and the fear of Indian uprisings prompted the erection of a new fort along French Creek northwest of the forts built by the French and the English. Com­pleted in 1787 and named for Benjamin franklin, the fort saw little activity; for the most part, the local Indian tribes were quite friendly and William Wilson, proprietor of a store at Fort Franklin, listed the names of Indians from several different tribes in his record book as regular customers. Fort Franklin eventually gave rise to the city, later the county seat, bearing the same name.

In 1796 another fort, now known as the “Old Garri­son,” was built at the confluence of the French Creek and the Allegheny River, not far from Fort Franklin. Only a few soldiers were garrisoned at the lightly fortified outpost which was occupied until 1799 when Indian danger no longer existed. The building served as the county jail from the county’s organization in 1805 until 1819.

Finally, settlement began with the arrival of pioneers and their families who were lured by the promise of sizable parcels of land – often as large as 400 acres – at extremely low prices. The promised land they found was rugged terrain with rock studded hills and heavy forests. Clearing the land was long and tedious and con­verting the dismal landscape into prosperous farms was a difficult process. But the settlers were a stalwart breed and they used the land and streams to their best advantage. Timber was cut and rafted to Pittsburgh. Level lands were tilled and smaller, more manageable streams were harnessed to power early mills.

The first half century of Venango County’s growth was steady but largely uneventful. Population dim bed from 1,130 in 1800 to 9,470 in 1830. By 1840, the population had swelled to about 17,900 residents. Earliest settlers were predominantly Scotch-Irish, although it was not long before English and German pioneers arrived. Reflecting early settlement patterns, the congregations of the two oldest churches – the Amity Presbyterian Church in Irwin and the Scrubgrass Presby­terian Church – were mostly of Scotch-Irish descent.

Franklin was incorporated as a borough in 1828, although it was actually surveyed in 1795 by Gen. William Irvine and Andrew Ellicott, surveyors of the “Donation Lands.” Two large public squares were laid out in the heart of town with the stipulation that they be used solely as public parks. As the first settlers arrived, a well was sunk in one park, known as the Diamond Well, and a bucket was kept there to supply water for many of the town’s residents. The squares were quickly trans­formed to gardens and grazing areas for cattle and sheep; even chickens roamed freely throughout the parks. Today, these public squares are well-landscaped with walk­ways, park benches, trees and ornamental plantings. The county courthouse occupies one end of the South Park as does a Civil War monument commemorating the 400 countians who died in that war.

The oil boom of the second half of the nineteenth century gave Venango County international distinction, but the manufacture of iron was its chief industry during the early days of settlement. The first iron furnaces were erected in 1824 along both Big Scrubgrass Creek in the county’s southern end and Oil Creek near the Allegheny River. Construction of an iron furnace in those days required considerable invest­ment, skill in cutting and dressing stone, and a knowl­edgeable millwright and mechanic. In addition to an ample supply of bog or rock ore, a successful furnace needed a stream with a steady water supply and timber which could be converted to charcoal. Average furnace crews were made up of twenty-five to forty men who were usually housed in company dwellings located near the furnace, and charge of the operations was given to an ironmaster, usually trained in the East. Most furnaces also operated a company store which sold necessary provisions.

About 30 furnaces were built in the county which employed as many as 500 workers at their peak. Iron was used in the local manufacture of hardware, nails, tools and farm implements, while pigs of iron were shipped by barges down the river to Pittsburgh. Iron ore, however, was limited in both quantity and quality, and the industry depended on ideal conditions to transport the product to market. Smaller streams could be used when “freshets,” high water occurring naturally in the spring, June and early autumn, could carry the laden barges to their destinations. Often, freshets were intentionally created by building dams whose water could be released at any given tin1e to float the rafts to the river.

A diary entry by furnace operator Charles Ray- mond, dated November 18, 1854, and written at Utica on the banks of the French Creek, emphasizes the importance of the freshet to the iron industry:

“There is one thing wanting and wanted badly to make business brisk, and that is a freshet. All kinds of business is being kept back for the want of that one thing needful. The crops being in a great measure a failure will hurt the country mer­chants a good deal. The crops will be very small in com­parison with some years past, but a very important item in this section is the manufacturing of pig iron. That is a business that requires, or, rather depends on regular freshets to get this iron to market. If there should be no freshet this fall the iron men will suffer in the flesh, ourselves among the rest. We have some $16,000 worth of metal on hand and we need the avails of it. There will be some $18,000 that should be paid this fall.”

Iron furnaces were extremely important to Venango County’s economy because their products, sold outside the county, helped stabilize the local market. To some extent, lumbering bolstered the local economy and agricultural and mill products were consumed locally. Frenchcreek Town­ship and the borough of Cooperstown boasted several mills, while almost every township claimed at least one or two. One of the first woolen mills of any size was established in 1835 by Rich, Booth and Hillier at Cooperstown. One partner, John Rich, later became famous for his Woolrich products. Other well known woolen mills included the Kennerdell works along Scrubgrass Creek and the Flynn brothers’ mill, erected in 1888, in Emlenton.

In general, life in Venango County during the first five I decades was rather placid and tranquil. Once the fear of Indian attacks was quelled, the most difficult struggle for early pioneers was with the harsh climate. Settlements were small and most inhabitants depended on farming or work in the iron furnaces for their livelihood. But this pastoral calm was ruptured one summer day in 1859 – the day oil was discovered near Titusville.

Early in the summer of that year farmers in Venango County were convinced that their desolate parcels of land were worthless. Two late frosts in June dashed most of the crops and there seemed little to do but abandon the farmsteads in search of a better climate and growing conditions. All that changed, however, on August 27, 1859, when “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake’s experimental well in Cherrytree Township, south of Titusville, spit up black crude and became the world’s first successful oil well!

Petroleum was known to exist in northwestern Penn­sylvania as early as the mid­-eighteenth century. Lewis Evans’s “Map of the Middle British Colonies in America” was the first to pinpoint petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1755. In all probability, the British cartographers received reports of the occurrence of oil in northwestern Penn­sylvania from soldiers, missionaries and traders, all of whom were well acquainted with the territory. Thou­sands of oil pits pockmarked the Oil Creek valley and early settlers collected the crude and used it 􀂁s an ointment (for both man and beast) and as a lubricant for farm machinery. Indians, long before the white settlers arrived, used the heavy, dark substance which seeped from the oil pits as body paint. Even the earliest settlers had dabbled in the raw oil business; old store ledgers record sales of Seneca oil from Nathaniel Cary in the late 1790s. At the time, though, quantities were extremely small, the known uses were limited, and the costs of production and bottling were exorbitant.

Drake’s well, however, was declared a success throughout the country and the despairing farmers were startled by the deluge of offers to buy or lease the mineral rights to their properties. Speculators stormed to the region and within a few months more wells were sunk and the rush for what many have called “black gold” was on! County population ballooned and the size of the city of Franklin tripled. The first two decades of the oil industry were wild and speculative, fraught with phenomenal change. Oil City, now the largest city in Venango County, sprang into existence and continued to thrive while other towns were begun, quickly mushroomed, and eventually withered and disappeared.

Oil City, founded at the confluence of the Oil Creek and the Allegheny River on the site of the famous Seneca Indian Chief Cornplanter’s reservation, was nothing more than a small grouping of buildings which included an inn, a blacksmith shop and a small store, all catering to the farmers and boatmen traveling the river. The region’s ubiquitous “mud” clogged Oil City’s streets and blanketed the hastily-con­structed buildings erected during the boom years. With the onslaught of the famous oil rush, the nearby river and creek teemed with barges, rafts and steamboats, all carrying oil to market. By 1860, Oil City – or Oilville as it was then called – was recognized as an oil depot and investors hoped to start a refinery.

Teamsters crowded the area, pulling wagons over mud-gorged roads to haul oil to the river. Man-made freshets frequently boosted the natural flow of smaller, shallow streams causing barges to careen wildly down Oil Creek, often crashing into the wooden bridge spanning the creek at what is now Center Street. Freshet disasters were simply viewed as part of Life in those brawling, boisterous days.

Gradually the community took shape and the borough of Oil City was officially incorporated in 1862. Popula­tion continued spiraling and hotels, restaurants and businesses were established. From a population of 2,276 in 1860, the city grew to more than 7,000 in 1870. Early residents – mostly transients interested in the oil industry – soon became concerned citizens intent on making permanent improvements to the city in which they lived and worked. Many of Oil City’s businesses were related to the flourishing oil trade and diverse indus­tries were founded to manu­facture equipment and machinery, refine crude oil into easily marketable products, and transport the products to market. For investors and speculators, an oil exchange served as a common meeting place in which to do business.

Before an oil exchange building was erected, the first transactions and deals were conducted by investors in the field or at the well-head. A “curbstone exchange” drew investors and sellers to the pavement in front of the telegraph office on Center Street where open air business was conducted daily. In the mid-1860s, a car was reserved on the Farmers Railroad line (which linked the oil fields to Oil City) as an exchange room for the oil men. Later, several offices in Oil City were used as the exchange, and in 1878 a handsome new building was formally opened at the corner of Center and Seneca streets. The exchange room was lavishly appointed and much of the decoration was executed by the outstanding New York jewelry firm, Tiffany & Co. During the height of the oil rush, the oil exchange was counted among the largest commodity exchanges in the country. Fewer and fewer transactions over the years, however, forced the closing of many exchanges, and even Oil City’s institution fell victim in 1909, the last oil exchange in the nation.

Despite disastrous fires which leveled many commu­nities in the oil region, Oil City continued to thrive, surviving both infernos and frequent floods. In June 1892 Oil City was the site of the worst disaster the oil region has ever endured. A dam collapsed above Titusville, and the rushing water was fed by heavy rains and a lethal combination of oil, naptha and toxic chemicals which eventually caught fire. The fiery river swirled into Titusville and then Oil City trapping both resi­dents and rescuers. Many Oil City families were devastated by the disaster which killed sixty, hurt hundreds and left thousands homeless. Undaunted, Oil City rebuilt, grew, and rebuilt again and again after floods in 1865, 1883, 1913, 1926, 1936 and, more recently, in 1981 and 1982.

The flood of 1926 was, perhaps, the most memorable flood in the history of Venango County. No lives were lost but property damage was extensive. The flood was especially spectacu­lar because huge ice chunks gorged the Allegheny River and ice cakes piled high in city streets. Attempts to dis­lodge the ice floe with dynamite and Thermit failed and, finally, the warm spring weather caused it to move in March. When it did move, it destroyed the Big Rock Bridge, a combination street­car and wagon bridge spanning the river south of Franklin. Destruction of the Big Rock Bridge ended the trolley traffic between Oil City and Franklin and sounded the death knell for Monarch Park, a favorite amusement and recreational park situated between the two cities which was served primarily by the streetcar lines.

Oil City – not the only Venango County community to experience such startling growth – was one of the few settlements that survived despite the many setbacks. Dozens of small settlements now exist only as “ghost towns” in old photographs and newspaper accounts. As wells were dug, houses, most often shoddily con­structed, popped up around the new derricks; by the same token, when the operations went bust, so did the satellite villages. And, of course, fire and flood took their toll. Some of the now vanished boom towns in­cluded Red Hot, Balltown, Shamburg, Dean City, Summit City, McClintockville and Columbia Farm. But the most famous “ghost town” is Pithole City.

Pithole City was, in 1865, nothing more than isolated wilderness. But that changed quickly. Following the success of the Frazer well on the adjacent Thomas Holmden farm in January of that year, draftsmen and surveyors mapped out an orderly settle­ment. On paper, the private development was beauti­fully planned; streets, alleys and tracts were well­-defined and marked. As more wells pumped oil to the surface, thousands of specu­lators thronged the immediate region and Pithole City was established – but not as neatly as anticipated.

Just two months after the development company offered town lots at a public sale, more than 2,000 persons jammed the narrow streets. Ten large hotels, two banks, a post office and three hundred houses, most of them shabbily constructed, made up the little com­munity. Skilled carpenters were hard to find and buildings were erected by farmers and lot owners who used materials hauled in by teamsters. The Pithole City Business Directory of 1865-1866 noted that it was “no uncommon thing for men here to enter into contracts to build a two-story dwelling and have it ready for occupation within five days from the time of signing the contract.”

Six months after its founding, more than 15,000 people poured into Pithole City, which then boasted dozens of hotels and board­ing houses, a daily news­paper, theatres, telegraph offices, saloons, restaurants and drygoods stores. The little post office handled more than 6,000 pieces of mail every day, placing it third, behind Philadelphia and Pitts­burgh, in the volume of correspondence it routinely received and dispatched.

Despite this auspicious beginning, however, a wildly fluctuating oil market, dwindling oil production and disastrous fires began wreaking havoc with Pithole. Disgruntled speculators abandoned the city and shortly afterward, hotels, restaurants, even saloons, closed their doors. By 1877, the few remaining residents formally petitioned the courts to relieve the borough charter. Today, the site of Pithole City is nothing more than shadowy depressions in the landscape where once stood great hotels and teeming taverns, and it re­mains for the legends and lore of this “ghost town” to recount the excitement and exhilaration of the young, and often brazen, industry that for years held fast the attention of the entire world.

Venango County’s history is also the history of a colossal, international in­dustry which spawned thousands of related busi­nesses responsible for millions of dollars invested in north western Pennsylvania. The oil boom encouraged real estate development, stimu­lated the growth and devel­opment of numerous rail­road lines in the region, and gave rise to dozens of refineries which, in turn, pro­vided livelihoods for many Pennsylvanians. The Galena Signal Oil Company in Franklin, for example, once turned out a fine grade of lubricating oil for railroad use. The Eclipse Refinery, begun as a small operation in 1872, quickly mushroomed into one of the world’s largest, known for its petroleum product diversity and advanced technology. But today, only one refinery in Venango County, operated by the Pennzoil Company at Rouseville, utilizes Pennsyl­vania grade crude oil. Although the Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation still maintains corporate head­quarters in Oil City, its refinery at Emlenton has been converted into a packaging and wax plant.

Oilwell Supply in Oil City, a division of United States Steel, continues to manufac­ture oil field equipment and a few small shops still supply the oil industry with pumping jacks and tanks; but in­dustries in Venango County – as well as throughout northwestern Pennsylvania – are much more diversified than those of the oil strike era. Today, the county’s largest employer is the Joy Manufacturing Company, Franklin, a maker of coal loaders. Until this year, the Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company, also in Franklin, manufactured rotary drills used in various industries. Another large employer is Polk Center, a school and training center operated by the state for the mentally retarded. When founded in the 1890s, the large institution emphasized self-sufficiency, and the center featured its own farmlands, bakery, sewing room and cobbler shop. Polk Center has since become more integrated in the community.

Venango County. Since its earliest settlement more than two centuries ago, this county has witnessed events that chronicle American (as well as Pennsylvania) history: frontier expansion, Indian raids, early explorations and, most importantly, the surge of a new industry that forever changed the life­styles of people throughout the world. The discovery of oil 125 years ago near Titusville indelibly placed Venango County in the annals of history. Drake’s Well, once called “Drake’s Folly,” looms as a milestone because it gave mankind light, heat and power with which to fuel even greater dreams. The legacies of the oil boom can­not be forgotten; still today scattered rigs churn, shaking the nearby hills and scarred valleys to recover even more rich oil and natural gas so that both state and nation can sustain their needs. Every­day, newspapers and radio stations carry news of the international oil industry – the gluts, the cartels, the dis­asters, the trading prices, the import and export figures­ – but Venango County can claim a most significant “first”: it started here.


For Further Reading

Babcock, Charles A. Venango County, Pennsylvania: Her Pioneers and People. 2 vols. Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1919.

Darrah, William Culp. Pithole, The Vanished City. Gettysburg, Pa.: William C. Darrah, 1972.

Giddens, Paul H. Early Days of Oil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948.

History of Venango County, Pennsylvania: Its Past and Present. Chicago: Brown, Runk & Co., 1890.

Martens, Charles D. The Oil City. Oil City, Pa.: First Seneca Bank & Trust Co., 1971.

Miller, Ernest C. This Was Early Oil. Harrisburg: Penn­sylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1968.

Newton, J.H., ed. History of Venango County, Pennsylvania. Columbus, Ohio: J.A. Caldwell, 1879.

Venango County Historical Society. Venango County Panorama: A Pictorial His­tory. Franklin, Pa.: Venango County Historical Society, 1983.


Carolee K. Michener is executive editor of The News-Herald, the daily newspaper in Franklin, Pennsylvania. She is chairman of the publications committee for the Venango County Historical Society and most recently chaired the committee editing the new pictorial history, Venango County Panorama.


Michael J. O’Malley III, assistant editor of Pennsylvania Heritage, serves as special features coordinator for the Penn­sylvania Historical and Museum Commission; he joined the PHMC staff in 1978.