Oil City lies seven miles north of Franklin at the confluence of Oil Creek and the Allegheny River. Three distinct sections of the city are connected by bridges: a narrow river plain and steeply wooded hillside west of Oil Creek; a wider floodplain and hilly residential section called the North Side, east of Oil Creek; and the South Side, south of the Allegheny River that has a floodplain and hilly residential section beyond.
Oil City lies on part of the land given to Seneca Chief Cornplanter in 1796 by the commonwealth. It changed hands several times and was known as Cornplanter and Oilville. Oil City began as a rafting site for the products of the nearby iron furnaces and gristmills. For years, oil pits would periodically form naturally along Oil Creek. The oil was used by Native Americans for medicine and as a body rub, and was sold by Samuel Kier as a natural remedy. When Edwin Laurentine Drake began to pump it from the ground in 1859, the area developed at a great rate. Oil flatboating and an oil exchange made Oil City the largest town in Venango County; it became a borough in 1862 and a city nine years later.
The town was connected to the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in 1866, and a small railroad station for the Oil City and Titusville Railroad remains on Elm Street. The population grew from 12 families in 1860 to nearly 6,000 people by 1865. A huge fire in 1866 destroyed most of the original boomtown on the north side of the river. In 1864, the hillside above Grove Avenue was sold to the United Petroleum Farms Association and developed gradually, but with most of the housing built between 1880 and 1930. The north side grew as a mixed economic area with modest brick houses for both managers and laborers, except for two very large Queen Anne houses at the intersection of Harriet and Bissell streets. An influx of Polish immigrants gave it the popular name “Polish Hill.” St. Joseph's Church (1890–1894; 35 Pearl Avenue), designed by Chicago architect Adolphus Druiding, became the centerpiece of spiritual life for the Polish population, its twin spires visible for miles.
South of the Allegheny River, the neighborhood of Laytonia, bounded by Wilson, 4th, and Reed streets and the river, was given that name c. 1863 for the Lay brothers, Charles H. and William, who owned the local Oil City Lumber and Coal Company. Charles Lay's house at 114 Petroleum Street illustrates their intention to create a suburban district of fine cottages built of wood. The south side also had a section called Venango City, which joined with Oil City in 1871.
Despite its solid housing stock, Oil City has always been part of a boom and bust cycle. In June 1892, flaming oil set the north side of the town on fire, and soon after, a flood did more damage to the town. Since the 1930s, Oil City has lost half of its population. The last of the Pennzoil–Quaker State refineries in the area closed in 2000. Today's industry is primarily heritage and recreational tourism.
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