To fully appreciate both the natural beauty of Oil City and the essential transportation, management and financial roles in the oil industry the community played in the late nineteenth century, you must get out on the town’s four bridges…and look around. The Allegheny River flows from east to west as it passes by. Oil Creek completes its journey south to join the Allegheny River at Oil City. Oil City did not exist before the discovery of oil along the banks and small tributaries of Oil Creek in the early 1860's.
The crude oil was shipped down Oil Creek in wood barrels carried on flat bottom boats. The boats were of shallow draft, but a successful journey still required the creek be flooded by natural rains or snow melt. In the dry weather, dams were constructed until the pools behind were of sufficient height for a man-made flood. The dams were let go in sequence, and the resultant rush of water allowed hundreds of boats filled with thousands of barrels of oil to race wildly down the Oil Creek Valley to a fate not always certain. Sometimes, the stampede of oil-filled boats did not make it to the river before wrecking on the piers of the Center Street bridge and creating a massive pileup of splintered boats, broken barrels and a monumental black, foul smelling, oozing mess. Ice jams and major floods are not uncommon along Oil Creek. In the nineteenth century, several catastrophic fires occurred as a result of these floods. The Great Flood and Fire of 1892 destroyed most every structure constructed of wood in Oil City’s North Side commercial district on both sides of Oil Creek. The loss of life was heavy.
In the 1860's, Oil City was the staging area where much of the oil gathered in the Oil Region was shipped to the rest of the world. For five years the oil from the creek was transferred to larger flat bottoms or bulk barges for shipment down the river to Franklin or Pittsburgh. Difficult, if not impossible, to navigate in the summer, the river proved alluringly beautiful and frustratingly undependable for shipping crude out of the region. More dependable transportation was required and was provided by the coming of the railroads.
The railroads approached Oil City three ways. The Allegheny Valley Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad affiliate, came up the river from Pittsburgh and reached Oil City’s South Side, then called Laytonia, in 1867. In 1866, the Oil City and Pithole Railroad, built by Oil City residents Jacob J. Vandergrift and George Forman, arrived in town from Oleopolis up the river. The Oil City and Pithole was obtained that same year by the Warren and Franklin Railroad which had a line up the Allegheny River to Irvine on the Philadelphia and Erie, a major carrier to the seaboard and another Pennsylvania Railroad affiliate. That same year, 1866, the Atlantic and Great Western arrived in downtown Oil City by crossing a bridge over Oil Creek. The Atlantic and Great Western was allied with and eventually owned by the Erie Railroad. In 1870, the Jamestown and Franklin was extended to Oil City on tracks parallel with the Atlantic and Great Western’s, though it went through the tunnel on the west side of the creek and then up the valley. The Jamestown and Franklin was associated with the New York Central. The competition for the crude and refined oil trade being shipped from the region among the big three, long distance trunk lines – the Pennsylvania, the Erie, and the New York Central- resulted in distorted freight rates and rebates which favored the Cleveland refineries and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Ohio. The railroad bridge over Oil Creek is particularly significant because it leads west to Cleveland and is a tangible reminder of where and how the railroad rate wars of the late 1860's and early 1870's played out.
Pipelines were used in the 1870's to gather the oil from the producing wells and transport it to the tank cars at railheads. In 1877, a number of local men including J. J. Vandergrift and Marcus Hulings combined their pipeline interests and those of others to form the United Pipelines. The pipeline company was in fact controlled by Standard Oil of Ohio and operated as a Standard Oil subsidiary. Vandergrift was not only the President of the company but sat as a director on the Standard Oil board. In 1881, the National Transit Company was formed with the purchase of the entire stock of the United Pipelines with its 3000 miles of pipelines and over 30 million barrels of storage capacity. To this gathering and storage system was added Standard Oil’s long distance pipelines to Buffalo and Cleveland and one under construction from Olean, New York to Bayonne, New Jersey. Operational headquarters remained in Oil City. Very soon, this Standard Oil pipeline transportation company was regularly pumping crude oil long distances and taking crude and refined oil traffic away from the very railroads that had treated Standard Oil so favorably in previous decades.
At the corner of Center and Seneca Streets, the National Transit completed the erection of a particularly fine commercial block in 1890. The somber, austere rectangular mass and prominent arches of this building are reminiscent of H.H. Richardson’s commercial structures built of rough cut stone. This five story structure of thick, self-supporting masonry walls is finished, however, with a smooth red brick and red terra cotta ornament. Note the terra cotta ornament is completed in abstract geometric designs with no historical precedent. The building’s corners have no sharp edges being given ample radiuses from the foundation to the attic. This building, designed by the Fredonia, New York firm of Curtis and Archer, looks very much to have been inspired by the work of the great Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root and can correctly be called a Chicago Commercial Block. John Wellborn Root’s red brick commercial blocks appear quite modern when contrasted with the contemporaneous Italianate, High Gothic and Queen Anne commercial buildings of the late nineteenth century.
Just to the north of the National Transit Building is the Transit Annex. This structure was completed in 1896. Finished with luxurious, gold Pompeian brick and ample use of golden terra cotta with classical forms and panels, the design represents how architects after the death of H.H. Richardson interpreted his seminal work. With the arcade in the attic, the pronounced molding, or archivolt, delineating each arch, and the unusual corner entrance, this building looks very similar to work the celebrated Pittsburgh firm of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow was creating in the early 1890's. This renowned firm, directly descended from Richardson’s shop, in fact designed the similar, precedent-setting Conestoga Building built for J. J. Vandergrift in 1892, a building thankfully still standing on Water Street in Pittsburgh.
Just across the Allegheny River from Route 8 by way of Route 62 is Oil City’s old Victorian residential district. Known today simply as the South Side, in the nineteenth century it was commonly referred to as Laytonia. The successful oil producers and brokers, the pipeline owners, the refiners, the oil goods manufacturers, the bankers and the prominent merchants of the time built their fine residences on the South Side. Remarkably, most of these homes have survived in an extensive Victorian, tree-lined neighborhood which recalls the pleasing ambience of a different day. Proceeding up Petroleum Street to West Third you come upon the house built by Marcus Hulings in 1878. The Hulings House is noteworthy for its sheer size and bulk. The roof eaves feature prominent Italianate overhangs with deeply drawn brackets. The decorative window surrounds are consistent with the Italianate influence and unusually thick in cross section. The roof is unique, not representative of the Italianate but probably a stubborn northern Pennsylvania concession to rough winter weather.
Several blocks to the west on Third Street you come to Innis. Up the hill to Fourth Street at the corner with Innis is a particularly large Victorian residence built on a sprawling lot. William J. Innis was an Oil City inventor and manufacturer. This house is his monument. Built originally in 1874 and remodeled several times in the nineteenth century, the house now features large and elaborately decorated trusses and a full classical veranda wrapped about a fundamentally Stick mass. In the 1880's this house featured a large, well appointed observation cupola above the central roof where Mr. Innis was reported to “communicate” with playful “spirits”, look down on the valley below, and probably smoke cigars. After his death in 1894, his survivors wasted little time in eliminating the observatory and remodeling the place as you see it today.
(More Oil City Victorian Homes Can be Found in the “Styles” Section)
“Oil City’s Victorian Houses”, McElwee, 1998
“The Oil City”, Martens, 1971
“Sketchbook of Victorian Architecture” in the Oil Heritage Region, Pacior-Malys, 2003
Days Inn – Oil City, 1 Seneca Street, (814) 677-1221
Turtle Bay Lodge, 472 President Village Road, Tionesta, (814) 677-8785
Holiday Inn Express, 225 Singh Drive, Cranberry, (814) 677-2640
River’s Edge, located inside the Days Inn-Oil City, (814) 677-1221
HM Mulligan’s, 220 Sycamore Street, (814) 676-8180
Yellow Dog Lantern Restaurant, 218 Elm Street, (814) 676-1000
Villa Italia Ristorante, 904 East Second Street, (814) 677-1264
Whimsy’s Restaurant, 219 Seneca Street, (814) 670-0218
Famoore’s Family Restaurant, 18 East First Street, (814) 676-4789
Mosaic Cafe, 257 Elm Street, (814) 676-4773
A number of national fast food and chain restaurants are located on Seneca Street
Venango Museum of Art, Science and Industry - Oil City’s Official Visitor Center
Featuring oil industry memorabilia and displays from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as a Wurlitzer Theater House Organ.
270 Seneca Street, Oil City, PA (814) 676-2007
Transit Fine Arts Gallery, National Transit Building 206 Seneca Street, Oil City, PA (814) 676-1509
Venango Genealogical Society (genealogy and historical research), inside the Oil City Library, 2 Central Avenue, Oil City, PA (814) 678-3072
For Information On The Oil City Area
Venango Area Chamber of Commerce, 41 Main Street, Oil City, PA 16301 (814) 676-8521
Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, 217 Elm Street, Oil City, PA 16301 (814) 677-3152
Venango Museum of Art, Science & Industry, 270 Seneca Street, Oil City, PA 16301 (814) 676-2007
North on Route 8 from Franklin; South on Route 8 from Titusville; South on Route 62 from Warren.