Hemmed in by the steep northern bank of the Allegheny River and a hill, Emlenton grew on a floodplain less than half a mile wide. The land around Emlenton was purchased in 1796 by Samuel Mickle Fox of Philadelphia, and named for his daughter-in-law, Hannah Emlen, who married Joseph Mickle Fox in 1820. A few settlers came to Emlenton as early as 1798, but no houses were built in the settlement until 1834. In the 1820s, commerce consisted of poling a flatboat upriver from Pittsburgh, loading it with raw lumber and building stones, and returning to Pittsburgh. Lumber mills and a general store were built, and by 1839, there were twenty iron furnaces operating within sixteen miles of Emlenton, and warehouses for the iron and lumber products lined the riverbanks.
When oil was discovered near Titusville in 1859, Emlenton was already a small trading center and had built a wooden covered toll bridge (demolished) over the Allegheny River. The first oil well was drilled near Emlenton in 1867, and natural gas, a by-product of oil drilling, was harnessed to provide commercial lighting and fuel. In 1882, the third natural gas company in the United States, Emlenton Gas Light and Fuel Company, was formed; it later became part of Columbia Gas.
In the late 1860s and 1870s, several small rail lines opened to bring oil, timber, coal, and farm products to Emlenton where they could be transferred to the Allegheny Valley Railroad and shipped to Pittsburgh. The nearby town of Foxburg built a competing railroad, and by 1881 bought controlling interest in Emlenton's narrow-gauge railroad and dismantled it. At the time, frame buildings were the norm in these lumber areas, as the white, frame Gothic Revival St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church (1884–1886) at 512 Kerr Street attests. The hillside site and soaring steeple accentuate this small building's verticality. The former parsonage east of the church built c. 1870 is a five-bay, frame, central-hall house with Italianate touches.
Nineteen regional oil firms merged in 1931 to form the Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation, which maintained a presence in Emlenton until 1990, when the company moved to Texas and sold all of its local refineries. The story of oil is presented at the Crawford Center (603 Hill Street), built as the Emlenton School in 1928 in the Jacobean style that was popular for schools. W. Holmes Crosby from Oil City and Pressley C. Dowler from Pittsburgh collaborated on the grade school/high school combination with its 600-seat auditorium and library. The Borough of Emlenton has used the building, which sits on a ledge overlooking the borough, as a community center since 1996. Down the street at 413 Hill Street, the Emlenton Area Ambulance Service, designed in 1930 by W. Holmes Crosby, is housed in what was formerly the Emlenton Borough Building. Its brick construction, corner quoins, and parapets are similar to those on the school building.
Emlenton's commercial buildings include the unpainted wooden Old Emlenton Mill Café and Company (1879; 201 Main Street) and a two-story brick building (c. 1880; 502 Main Street) with its original storefront and window trim. The Farmers National Bank (1904; 612 Main Street) has the requisite Ionic columns and housed the Masonic Temple on the third story. It has a central stairway and open second-story, skylit foyer with four apartments-offices around it. A frame commercial building (1887; 702–704 Main Street) has most of its original details intact. A Sears and Roebuck catalog house of 1923, one of nearly 100,000 built in the United States, stands at 611 Hill Street.
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