Venango County, created in 1800, straddles the Allegheny River and two navigable tributaries, French and Oil creeks, which empty into the Allegheny. At the confluence of each is a major town: Franklin at French Creek and the Allegheny, and Oil City at Oil Creek. The county's name derives from the Seneca tribe's name for French Creek, In-nan-ga-eh, which was corrupted to Venango. Initially very large, Venango County was reduced when Clarion County was carved out of it in 1839 and Forest County in 1866.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Venango County was claimed by France, the Iroquois Confederation, and the colony of Pennsylvania. Three wars and many court cases later, land titles cleared enough to allow settlement. Revolutionary War veterans came to settle on land given to them as a service benefit. By 1800, the soldiers who had been assigned to protect the frontier from Native American attack were being withdrawn, and many of the forts they built were demolished. The city of Franklin was a major shipping site during the War of 1812, supplying Perry's fleet on Lake Erie via an inland route that gave the United States the advantage of surprise over the British. The Federal navy brought their supplies north on keelboats poled up the Allegheny River and French Creek to Waterford in Erie County, then hauled overland by wagons to the lake.
Iron making was the first major industry in Venango. Charcoal was made from local timber, and bellows were operated by waterwheels to power the approximately twenty-four stone blast furnaces built between 1825 and c. 1845, a large number of them in Rockland and Cranberry townships. Iron, agricultural produce, limestone, sand used in glassmaking, and gravel from Venango County were shipped to Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River in steamboats after 1828.
In 1859, Edwin Laurentine Drake discovered crude petroleum in northern Venango County ( VE20), and a year later, wells were drilled near Franklin. Towns boomed during the oil excitement. The town of Pithole, for example, grew from a single farmhouse to a town of 15,000 people within five months after oil was discovered there in 1865. Historian Brian Black has noted in Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom (2000) that journalists quipped there was a saloon attached to nearly every building in town, and estimated that there were nearly 400 prostitutes in Pithole at its peak population. By 1880, the wells were depleted and a series of fires had destroyed the town; only remnants of building foundations remain today.
In 1872, Samuel Van Syckle fashioned the first pipeline, which eliminated the need for teamsters to haul oil in barrels. The teamsters rioted, but by the early 1870s, two thousand miles of pipelines shipped oil to the railroads and steamboats on the Allegheny River. From 1872 to 1892, John D. Rockefeller dominated the production and transportation of oil. He founded the National Transit Company, a Standard Oil subsidiary, in Oil City in 1876. Natural gas also was harnessed as a product to be bought and sold, in 1885. Oil City emerged as a corporate headquarters for oil drillers, refineries, oil drilling equipment companies, and transport companies. In 1921, Pennzoil incorporated in Oil City and ten years later, Quaker State Oil Refining Company formed from a group of nineteen smaller oil companies around Emlenton. As Pennsylvania's oil resources were depleted, the oil companies shifted their headquarters to Texas. McClintock Well No. 1 off PA 8 in Rouseville is the oldest producing oil well in the United States, active since August 1861. Other than that relic of the past, the oil industry is commemorated in two interpretive sites, Oil Creek State Park and Drake Oil Well ( VE20).
Grand residences dating from 1892 to 1930 were built by those benefiting from oil. Large Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, and Colonial Revival homes dot the hillsides of Emlenton and Oil City, and the tree-lined streets of Franklin. By the early twenty-first century, the largest employers in Venango County were the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Franklin and Oil City campuses, and Polk Center ( VE11). The largest industrial employer is Joy Manufacturing, maker of coal loaders. Heritage tourism is a growing interest and economic generator. Virtually nothing remains of the boomtowns today.
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