Franklin exists because of its location on French Creek where the creek flows into the Allegheny River. More than two centuries ago, both the French and the English would come either south from Lake Erie by way of the French Creek waterway or north from Pittsburgh following old Indian trails or the Allegheny River. The imperial and colonial interests of both eighteenth century European powers interacted and clashed along this north-south route in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania. Both the French and the English occupied forts in Franklin. After the French and Indian War and the War of Independence, Franklin began to prosper as a commercial center and the seat of government for Venango County, a very large Pennsylvania County in the early nineteenth century.
French Creek was Franklin’s most essential natural resource. The creek provided power, water power, to operate a number of grist mills, saw mills, woolen mills and iron works situated in the 1840′s and subsequent decades along its banks. Dams were constructed in the nineteenth century across French Creek to provide the necessary water pools. The mills are all gone. The dams are all gone. The surviving evidence of this thriving, mid-nineteenth century commercial activity can be seen in Franklin’s Greek Revival residential architecture from the period. A concentration of examples in the 1200 block of Elk Street, just across from the old public commons, is particularly impressive. Other vestiges of Greek Revival architecture and the contemporaneous, less stylish National Folk houses of the times can be seen scattered along Franklin’s nineteenth century streets.
In the early 1860′s oil was shipped down the river from Oil Creek to Pittsburgh. The Atlantic and Great Western Railroad arrived in Franklin in 1863. Some of the crude oil coming down the river from Oil Creek was then transferred to the railroad and shipped either north and east to New York City or west to Cleveland. A second rail line, the Jamestown and Franklin, entered the Oil Region at Franklin in 1867. The competition between these two railroads for the crude oil traffic to Cleveland almost immediately led to favorable rates and rebates for the owners of the Cleveland refineries at the expense of refiners in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and the Oil Region, itself. One Cleveland owner, John D. Rockefeller, exploited this advantage to its fullest.
Franklin prospered as a rail terminal. Many of its citizens became particularly successful oil producers. In the late nineteenth century, Franklin became a center for refining crude with its largest facilities being owned by Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Most of Franklin’s fine Victorian homes represent the prosperity of these times.
The Galena-Signal Oil Company Building on Liberty Street is also representative of this success. Built in 1902, the Galena-Signal Oil Company Building is an elegant example of Italian Renaissance architecture. That building provides an interesting contrast to the more flamboyant and picturesque Italianate County Courthouse situated in the nearby commons area, a structure completed in 1869.
Just upriver from Franklin you can easily see the Joseph Sibley mansion, River Ridge, situated on a hill and looking back down on the valley and across the river to Route 8. Sibley made a fortune as a young man in partnership with Franklin resident, Charles Miller. Sibley and Miller were the two principals who created and organized the Galena-Signal Oil company, a refining company specializing in lubricants and kerosene lamp oil for the railroad market. The company early on became a subsidiary of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. In the 1890′s and the first decade of the 1900′s, Sibley was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for five terms. President McKinley, the Speaker Of the U.S. House of Representatives, Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller were all his close friends and were entertained by him in his original residence on Elk Street at 12th in Franklin or at his vacation home on Lake Champlain. President McKinley was traveling in 1901 with Joseph Sibley in Sibley’s private rail car when the President was assassinated in Buffalo. Sibley built River Ridge in 1913 after the death of his first wife. The River Ridge estate grounds were operated as an experimental farm.
Franklin’s downtown retail and commercial district, immediately adjacent to its nineteenth century residential neighborhoods, remains firmly rooted in its Victorian past. The Victorian character and integrity of Franklin’s downtown testifies to the long prosperity enjoyed by the community and the appreciation later generations have had for this Victorian architectural legacy. Nestled in the valley of French Creek between two high and wooded hillsides, the place seems enchanted, as if by means of some wonderful magic it was taken from another place and time.
“Walking Tours Of Historic Franklin”, Franklin Rotary Club, 1990
“Oil, Oil, Oil”, Michener, Venango County Historical Society, 1997
“Views Of River Ridge Farm”, Mong, 1999 reprint of 1925 publication
“Franklin, A Place in History”, Michener, 1995
Quality Inn and Conference Center, 1411 Liberty Street 814-437-3031
D’Casa B&B, 1501 Liberty Street, 814-432-7699
Holiday Inn Express, 225 Singh Drive, Cranberry, 814-677-2640
The Witherup House (an eco-friendly B&B) 828 Liberty Street, 814-437-7203
Idlewood Motel, 1566 Mercer Road, 814-437-3003
Wurlitzer Military Band
at DeBence Antique
Jake’s Favorite Machine and
the Loudest in the Collection
Barrow Civic-Theater, Liberty Street, (814) 437-3440
DeBence Antique Music World, 1261 Liberty Avenue (814) 432-5668 (A museum housing the largest collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century musical machines and music boxes in the country)
Venango County Historical Society (Historical and Genealogical Research), 301 South Park Street (814) 437-2275
For Visitor Information On The Franklin Area
Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce, 1327 Liberty Street, Franklin, PA 16323 (814) 432-5823
Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, 217 Elm Street, Oil City, PA 16301 (814) 677-3152
Interstate 80 to Exit 29, then north on Route 8; Interstate 79 to Exit 34, then east on Route 358 and Route 62