Where was that, again?
Sixty-five miles south of Erie and ninety-five miles north of Pittsburgh, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians of Pennsylvania (in the USA), there sleeps the quiet town of Oil City. You'll find Oil City in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania, near the middle of Venango County, in Cornplanter Township. Down the middle of this small town runs the mighty Allegheny river, named by indians that once inhabited the area, that splits the town into the North and South sides. The town itself, with its charming century old brick buildings and beautiful churches, was built around the river and then the houses spread outward, climbing the rolling hills surrounding the river valley. Sprinkled as far as the eye can see are grand victorian houses, beautiful painted ladies, that have been standing for as long as the area has been a town, and it gives you the faintest inkling that this was once a very important place. But the great horde of people and businesses that once made it a bustling victorian town have long left the city, and all that remains in their absence are country folk and memories of a time long passed.
A bit of oil history.
Chances are that you've read about Oil City at least once in your life. Almost every American middle school social studies book makes a mention of it, or surrounding cities, somewhere, and unless you were sleeping through that class, you know a little bit about this place and its history. Oil City was once a boom town during the oil rush of the mid nineteenth century, created almost over night as a shipping area for the flat bottom boats full of barrels of oil collected from the oil derricks of the area. The Allegheny, though unreliable as it was for such oil shipping because of how shallow it is in the summer and how utterly blocked it becomes by ice in the winter, was the only way to transport the barrels from Oil City to Pittsburgh or Franklin in the early days of the oil business. Often they had to dam the river in many places to get the boats down the river, waiting until the water rose enough at one dam for them to float, and then releasing the water, boats and barrels to the next dam to do the same. It was very common for the boats to crash into one another or against the piers of the Center street bridge, and for the beautiful river to be coated in a thick blanket of crude oil. Not long after the boom began, however, much to the delight of those making thier fortune drilling the oil, railroads were laid down and provided a much more reliable way to transport this black gold.
It wasn't long before those that struck it rich began building personal monuments to their success as grand victorian homes, large beautiful churches, business buildings of great design, and the single, lovely stone library along the river. Most of these homes and buildings were built on the South side of town, called Latonia at the time, where high society went to shop or just to socialize. If you were one of the lucky, wealthy people living in or near Latonia, you could hop a trolly and take a relaxing ride west from the library and into the wooded area beyond the city limits. Eventually, it would take you to a wonderful amusement park, called Monarch Park, situated right in the middle of a deep forest. It featured many things for the wealthy lady or gentleman to do to while away those long summer days, including beautiful gardens with reflecting pools, dancing halls, carousels, and so much more.
The city a century later.
If you visit the city today, you'll find it very hard to believe that it was once so grand. Most of the victorian houses are still standing, as well as the churches, buldings, library, and many old brick roads untouched by time and city road workers, but the greatness and charm that once encompassed the entire area has slipped away, like sand through clenched fingers. A drive down West First Street, one of the longest roads in Latonia, isn't what it used to be. There are many tall, ancient trees shading the old houses, creating an air of simple beauty and importance, but as you continue to drive, the houses lining both sides of the street become smaller, less grand, and even broken down, and further westward along the street, they houses are almost completely replaced by barren parking lots, transportation companies, tire manufacturers, and even a sewage plant along the river as you near the city limits. All of the mighty railroads that once saved the oil industry from the temper of the Allegheny, save one, have been torn up and removed because they no longer serve a purpose. Even beautiful Monarch Park fell and disappeared long ago. You can no longer see the dancing halls or Rainbow Gardens, let alone find any information about it to prove that it ever existed. All that remains is a single pond and a club for those that like to shoot for sport.
Y'all come back now, y'hear?
The city wants to thrive on tourism, trying to convice those from out of town that the history of the oil industry really is interesting. Every year, there is a festival called Oil Heritage in Justice Park, next to the river. People come from all over to see the festival (I've seen license plates from as far as Kentucky and Georgia), but many return home feeling disappointed at how little it had to offer. A park full of concession stands, a few bands playing on the band stand, and a handful of fireworks to end it all with a bang. It's been years since I've been to Oil Heritage, though, simply because I've seen it all before.
Another way Oil City tries to rope those curious few in is by advertising Oil Creek State Park, which is just north of Oil City, in Rouseville (which is, by the way, known for its lovely odor from the huge plant just inside the town). It's a very lovely park in itself, with wonderful hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, and plenty of historical facts on plaques all through the park, but it's not somewhere your average Joe wants to spend his vacation. Not too far from Oil City is Titusville, where you can hop the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad at the Perry Street Station. The train will take you on a two and a half hour tour south to Oil Creek, giving you information as you pass by a handful of interesting historical sites, including a working replica of Drake's Well. And, of course, it will give you a chance to admire the beautiful Pennsyvania countryside.
Aside from all the history connected to Oil City, the town is a rather boring place to anyone that doesn't like to take care of animals, can't grow anything but weeds, and who doesn't like being around a lot of nature all the time. It's in northwestern Pennsylvania, which is, of course, the poorest area in the entire state, with almost nothing or nowhere of interest within an hour's drive. A great teacher of mine would always complain to my class about the lack of things to do in this area, and how everyone would spend their weekends in the "cave", letting their brains rot into useless mush. Despite the lack of things to do and places to go, it's a nice place to raise a family, or just to live to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. And, really, who doesn't want to have Amish neighbors?
Every now and then, while you're hiking or driving though Oil City, you'll come across a strange looking contraption that looks something like a long necked metal bird, deep in the green forests outside the city or smack dab in the middle of a farmer's field, that whirrs and creaks loudly as it draws up the precious sludge from beneath the soil as if pushing against the strain of time, or simply sits silently. Or you'll meet a small wooden shack connected to rusted pipes that smells of earth and toil, quietly waiting to be turned back on and do the work they've done for generations, or to be torn down. If you know where to look, you might even come by large iron tanks that once held the stuff the world runs on, sitting proud but disabled. When you see these things, you find yourself momentarily transported back a century, to a time when life was simple and every man was treated equally, for you never knew who had just hit it rich.
We live beneath a shadow of yesteryear.
We live beneath a shadow of what we once were, here in Oil City. We strive to make this place as wonderous and as magnificent as it was when our great grandparents were alive, but we get further from our past and our heritage a little more every year. This town has become something far different than it used to be, and we can never change that. Instead, I suggest we look back with pride for our past, but at the same time, look ahead with hope for our future.
Thanks to my loving mentor, who shall remain nameless, for all the great advice. Also, many thanks to all those everythingians that helped me out. :)
Still interested? Here's some information and a few pictures: