We haven’t lost sight of our goal to visit all the state parks in Pennsylvania! Not only are we back on track, we also had our first official hike outside of southwestern Pennsylvania!
Oil Creek State Park was chosen by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and its Bureau of Parks as one of “Twenty Must-See Pennsylvania State Parks”.
If you’re interested in history, a hike through Oil Creek State Park is all that you could ask for! The Oil Creek valley was the site of the world’s first commercial oil well. Visitors to Oil Creek State Park will learn the history behind the early petroleum industry’s boomtowns, oil wells and transportation.
Oil was in high demand in the 1800s. In the 1850s, its main use was as a medicine for humans and animals, until inventors discovered that oil could be broken down into different chemicals by a process called refining. Samuel Martin Kier founded the first oil refinery in Pittsburgh, where oil extracted from underground was refined into kerosene for lamps. Another byproduct of refining was gasoline, used to fuel the cars invented in the later part of the century.
The Seneca Oil Company sent its manager, Colonel Edwin Drake to drill on a newly leased parcel of land near Titusville. Despite his arduous attempt known as “Drake’s Folley”, and a loss of funding, Drake did not give up. The Drake Well was drilled on August 27, 1859. Much like the gold rush of the American West, fortune seekers poured in by the thousands and towns sprang up overnight. Nevertheless, wealth eluded Drake and he died in poverty.
Other local wells were more productive. In the fall of 1861, the Empire Well was drilled. It started flowing at 3,000 barrels a day and drove the price of oil from $10 a barrel to 10 cents a barrel!
Teamsters were in demand to transport the oil to the markets. Barges were sent down Oil Creek to Oil City. The oil was transferred to steamships and sent to Pittsburgh until the creation of the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad in 1862. In 1865, pipelines were laid next to the rail line, ending the demand for teamsters. Titusville grew from 250 residents to almost 10,000 overnight!
Oil Creek State Park has several historical tableaus, including the Benninghoff Farm Tableau. This historic site has six 35-foot tall oil derricks, an oil barge and engine house. It was believed that oil could only be drilled on flat, level terrain, until the famous Ocean Well was sunk on a steep hillside in Autumn of 1865. It produced 300 barrels of oil a day, earning Mr. Benninghoff an income of $6,000 per day!
Petroleum Centre was the most notorious of the boomtowns. It developed the reputation of being the “wickedest town east of the Mississippi”. It had no government, law enforcement, sanitation or public works. Rich in oil and entertainment; shootings, brawls, fires and other methods of mayhem were commonplace.
An event known as “Black Friday” occurred on June 11, 1880. Almost 300,000 barrels of oil burned after an oil tank was struck by lightning. Fire raged for three days. Although there was no loss of life, the oil was valued at 2 million dollars.
Oil production peaked in the late 1880s and has declined greatly since, partly due to the new oil fields established in Clarion, Butler, and Armstrong counties. Interestingly, there are still a few operating wells in the park today.
The Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad can be taken from the train station at Petroleum Centre. This excursion train goes through the park on a 26-mile roundtrip trek from Titusville to Rynd Farm. The Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad operates the only working railway post office in the United States!
Lumber became the main source of income after the oil industry’s demise. As a result, the park is a second-growth forest planted by the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
A lumber shortage led to a lack of wood needed to build barrels to contain the oil. As a result, the oil could not be confined and flowed openly into the creek, causing devastating pollution.
The Oil Creek valley is composed of deep hollows, steep hillsides, wetlands and clean trout streams. Oil Creek is an excellent source of bass and trout.
Our six-mile hike on the Gerard Trail barely put a dent in the surface of the park’s 52 miles of hiking trails. The Gerard Trail loops around the entire park for 36 miles. It ranges from moderate to difficult. There are a few steep uphill climbs and sharp drop-offs. Some portions of the trail are less groomed than others. Bug spray is a necessity and will probably need reapplied often.
There is simply too much to see in Oil Creek State Park! While our hike was fun, we felt rushed. If you really want to experience Oil Creek, backpacking is the best way to go. There is also a 9.7 mile paved bicycle trail that runs through the middle of the park, passing most of the historic sites.
However, if you are willing to hike, your efforts will certainly be rewarded! Oil Creek has at least five small, but noteworthy waterfalls in addition to its largest, Gregg Falls. Gregg Falls is sometimes referred to as Pioneer Falls. Unfortunately, mighty Gregg Falls was reduced to a small trickle at the time of our visit. July is not a good month for viewing waterfalls.
Our hike took us past the boomtowns of Pioneer, Funkville and Boyd City. Numerous remnants of the era remain, including everything from oil-stained barrels to building foundations to pipelines and old shacks. Everything is left in the woods, abandoned and unwanted, an eerie reminder of boomtowns gone bust and deserted overnight.
Even the bridges in this park have a history.
Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad Bridge
Eagle Rock Bridge, circa 1884
Miller Farm Bridge, circa 1888
In addition to many wild mushrooms, we found the unusual wildflower Indian Pipe, also known as Ghost Flower and Corpse Plant. Unlike other plants, this perennial does not contain chlorophyll. While most plants get their energy from photosynthesis, Indian Pipe is parasitic and derives its energy from trees and fungi, like this shelf fungus.
Although, I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to capture the pheasant we spotted, I did manage to catch some wildlife.
Indeed today’s Oil Creek is a sharp contrast to the Oil Creek of the late 19th century. Gone are the din of pumping wells, shouting men, and clamoring machinery. The only sounds that are heard are leaves rustling in the gentle summer breeze.