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Oil and Water

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This region of northwestern Pennsylvania is made up of Erie, Crawford, Venango, Mercer, and Lawrence counties. The region's topography is unique in the commonwealth, composed of relatively flat land creating a gently rolling surface formed by glacial action nearly 15,000 years ago. Covered with fertile soil and watered by several rivers, including the Allegheny, the region is well suited to farming. The state's northern border is Lake Erie, which has had a profound impact on the region's economy, especially in Erie County, opening it up to trade with neighboring states.

Settlement began in the late eighteenth century. In 1785 and 1786, over 600,000 acres of land in Mercer, Lawrence, Crawford, and the northern half of Butler counties were surveyed and divided into more than one thousand 200- to 500-acre plots labeled “Donation Lands.” They were earmarked for Revolutionary War soldiers as a supplement to the badly depreciated Continental currency with which they had been paid. From the end of the war through 1810, soldiers could apply for a plot sized according to their rank. Many soldiers, preferring cash to land in this remote place, sold their plots to land speculation companies. The Holland Land Company bought a million and one-half acres, while the North American Land Company and the Pennsylvania Population Company acquired smaller portions. Confusion over who held the title to these lands—the large companies or the squatters who came and built farms—plagued the courts for decades and slowed development.

Architectural influences initially came from Connecticut settlers, who after 1825, often arrived via the Erie Canal in New York. Frame and stone Greek Revival buildings characterize the older building stock, with occasional multisided houses and octagonal barns for variety. When Edwin Laurentine Drake discovered an efficient method of pumping oil in 1859, investment to the area boomed, and houses in the architectural styles popular in the 1870s followed. Many remain intact since the boom went bust within a generation and the pressures for development slowed markedly by the turnof-the-twentieth century. Small towns with populations ranging from 1,500 to 10,000 dot the landscape, except on the outskirts of Erie, which is rapidly suburbanizing. In the twenty-first century, tourism, agriculture, lumbering, and some manufacturing occupy most residents.

Writing Credits

Lu Donnelly et al.

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