Titusville is a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, located in Crawford County, about 50 miles south of Erie. Today it is a quiet town of about 6,400 residents, but its past was anything but quiet, in fact the town played a role in one of the seminal events in the Industrial Revolution. The story of Titusville cannot be told without telling the story of the early days of the oil industry. In 1796, the town was founded by Johnathon Titus and Samuel Kerr, and remained a small rural village for over 60 years. A greasy smelly goo was seeping out of some of the springs in the area, and local native american lore was that this greasy goo was good as a linament, among other medicinal purposes, and was collected in small amounts by skimming it off of the surface of the water. As we know well today, this greasy smelly goo was Petroleum.

In 1857, Edwin L Drake rode into Titusville with an idea. Up until that time, oil was skimmed from the local springs and creeks in quantities only sufficient to fill a few bottles of linament to sell to the locals, and to a vendor who sold the oil in Pittsburgh. It was known that petroleum was flammable, and after the invention of a crude distillation process to refine the oil that there would be a large market for the stuff as a fuel for lanterns and as a lubricant, if only it could be extracted from the earth in sufficient quantity. Drake decided to drill a well, and in 1859, after a couple of false starts and some financial problems, he struck paydirt at the depth of 70 feet, which is shallower than most residential wells are drilled today. The rest they say, is history, and soon the entire valley was dotted with derricks, and the population swelled to over 8,000 in 1864. A nearby place known as Pithole grew almost overnight into a city of nearly 30,000 as well drillers, merchants,saloonkeepers, prostitutes, and teamsters flocked to the area for a share of the black gold. They abandoned the town just as quickly when the oil ran out, or piplines made their labor unneeded.

Life was hard in this first oil patch, roads were almost nonexistent, and at first oil had to be toted out by horse driven wagons. Oil Barrels were also floated downriver towards Pittsburgh, which often resulted in busted barrels. Once the entire river caught on fire when a dam was released upstream to allow the barrels to float downstream. The barrels jammed up, broke apart, and caught on fire, catching parts of Titusville on fire as well. Liquid nitroglycerin was used to torpedo wells to fracture the rock to allow more flow of oil. In its liquid state Nitroglycerin is very unstable, and accidental explosions were not uncommon while handling or transporting the explosive liquid. There is a picture of a demolished Nitroglycerin wagon at the Drake Museum that shows a severed hand clinging to the demolished Nitro wagon. Torpedoeing oil wells was a dangerous business, and many men were killed in the process.

I drove through the region back in 1999 on a back roads tour of Pennsylvania. Today, most of the oil wells are gone, but a remmant of the oil industry survives in Oil City where Penzoil still operates a refinery. Titusville today shows many signs of its past prosperity, and subsequent decline. The Town's Main Street is clean and the storefronts are well-kept, but many of the apartments above are boarded up and abandoned. Titusville has not really sold itself out to tourism the way other towns such as Gettysburg have done, most likely due to its remote location. The town does have an active Chamber of Commerce, whose website I used for some of the research. While the website does little to downplay the town's role in history, it mainly promotes the town as a nice place to live or set up a business, as is typical of many small towns its size.

Things to See in and around Titusville

The Drake Museum is located on the site of the original Drake Well, and is a modest and dignified memorial to the dawn of the oil age. The museum was built in the early 1950s and contains architecture much the same as one would find at a service plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Inside is told the story of the early players in the oil business, how drilling and pipeline technology developed, and of some of the disasters that struck the region. Outside are sheds full of old pump engines, drilling rigs, and a "functioning" well. Although it only manages to pump a few gallons of a mixture of oil and water each day, it still serves as a nice demonstration of the early wells.

Casey's Whistle Stop

The old rail yard in the center of town has been converted into a motel. There is an old mill building that houses a restaurant and shops, and in the yard about 15 old cabooses have been converted into motel rooms. I stayed in one of the cabooses the night I was there. In the morning, I stopped at the local hardware store and mentioned the cabooses to the clerk. The clerk explained proudly that he was the one that actually converted the old cabooses to motel rooms, and we had a long pleasant talk.


Tours are available of Pithole, which during its heyday was a city of 30,000 but is a ghost town today. I didn't go there during my visit, but maybe in the future sometime.

Titusville Oil Festival

The third weekend of August. Features a parade, festival and demonstrations around town.

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