Jonathan Titus and his uncle Samuel Kerr, surveyors for the Holland Land Company, claimed a large part of the land surrounding what is today Titusville, and settled along the banks of Oil Creek in 1796. Noticing that the “Seneca's Oil” that Native Americans soaked up from the surface of the creek was used as a body rub, they sold it in small quantities for its medicinal qualities. The first store and lumber mill opened in this small crossroads community in 1816. The population was barely 300 when the town was incorporated in 1847. In August 1859, the situation changed dramatically. Edwin Laurentine Drake, a retired railroad conductor sent by an investor from Connecticut, hired a salt well driller named William Smith, and together they perfected an oil drilling technique that allowed large quantities of oil to be extracted. Titusville's population swelled from 438 in 1860 to 9,000 in 1880.
Laid out on a grid, the town's housing stock and institutional buildings grew apace. Drake was a warden at the stone, Gothic Revival St. James Episcopal Church (1863; 112 E. Main Street). Two New York architects, Horace Smith of Jamestown and Enoch A. Curtis of Fredonia, designed some of the town's earliest houses, unfortunately now demolished. However, Curtis's design of 1891 for a two-story brick commercial structure, the Reuting Block at 122 W. Spring Street, survives. A Titusville Heraldarticle of 1870 stated, “Five years ago the citizens of Titusville, in building, paid little attention to architectural beauty.… With the firm establishment of this as the emporium of the oil regions and the centre of a great and constantly increasing trade, people came to the sensible conclusion that it might be possible to go farther.… This feeling caused an immediate demand to spring up for the services of architects and builders, and within the past year there has been a most wonderful revolution in the character of the buildings constructed, to say nothing of the number.” In 1985, nearly thirty-eight blocks of Titusville were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Locally known as the “Queen City of the Oil Region,” Titusville has a number of handsome institutional buildings. The brick Benson Memorial Library (1902–1904; 213 N. Franklin Street) was designed by New York City architects Jackson and Rosencrans in a classically inspired style. Local architect Phillip M. Hesch designed the Independent Order of Odd Fellows building, giving it a broken pediment at the center of the parapet (1899; 304 N. Washington Street). The Bryan-McKinney house (504 E. Main Street), built in 1870 and extensively remodeled by the McKinneys in 1926, was donated in 1963 as the administration building for a two-year branch campus of the University of Pittsburgh in Titusville. It opened with 50 students and has since grown to a student population of 500. The five-block campus now hosts halfa-dozen newer buildings.
As well as oil drilling, Titusville cultivated the industry's support services, such as an iron works, forges, and refineries during the boom. By the time the center of the industry moved to Texas in the 1900s, these collateral endeavors, as well as lumbering and tanning, were flourishing and kept Titusville's economy viable. Today, the buildings of the former Titusville Iron Works, including a foundry, machine shop, and steel fabricating shop, serve the borough as an industrial park between the two sets of railroad tracks south of Spring Street between Washington and Franklin streets.
Author and journalist Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944), who lived at 324 E. Main Street in her early teens, is Titusville's best-known former resident. She is often cited when the term “muckraker” is employed, for her reputation in exposing unsavory corporate business practices. Her two-volume history of the Standard Oil Company (1904) illustrated the desperate need for industrial reform. She is buried in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.
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