Site last updated: Sunday, June 16, 2024

Log In

Reset Password
Butler County's great daily newspaper

Karns City, Petrolia show oil’s legacy in Butler County

Historical photo of a flowing well near Petrolia, circa 1870s. Courtesy of the Drake Well Museum

For more than 150 years, oil has been flowing through the veins of Butler County.

Karns City and Petrolia, two neighboring towns in northeastern Butler County, serve as living reminders of Western Pennsylvania’s dynamic oil “boom” of the 1870s and represent the deep-rooted oil heritage of Western Pennsylvania.

The oil boom’s beginnings

Not long after the 1859 completion of the Drake Well in Titusville, Pa., oil prospecting spread throughout the neighboring counties. Speculators and entrepreneurs streamed into Venango County and the northern portions of Butler County.

In 1871, the A.L. Campbell farm along Bear Creek in northeast Butler County became a premier location for successful oil drilling in the county, according to “The History of Butler County, Pennsylvania,” published by Robert C. Brown in 1895. This success resulted in the creation of Argyle City, the progenitor to Petrolia Borough, on the Campbell farm.

In February 1872, however, another promising drilling location was discovered just south of Argyle City. A saloon, grocery and the first houses were erected within months. Word spread like wildfire, and the new town of Petrolia, which would later incorporate the area known as Argyle City, grew to an estimated 3,000 by the summer.

Meanwhile, as landowners along Bear Creek drilled successful wells, an oil prospector named Samuel D. Karns leased 214 acres of Hugh P. McClymond’s farm, located a few miles south of Petrolia, in a bid to strike it rich.

In June 1872, the McClymond’s farm was purchased in its entirety by Karns alongside four other investors. The oil — and the profits — quickly followed. As new settlers arrived, the early workings of a town were under construction.

General view of Petrolia, 1875 Drake Well Museum photo
The boom in bloom

As the boom town of Petrolia continued to grow, residents showed interest in becoming an official borough of Butler County. The borough was officially established in February 1873, less than a year after the town was founded.

By December 1873, according to Brown, the community boasted “four hotels, twelve grocery stores, two hardware stores, two dry goods stores, three clothing stores, two bakeries, seven barber shops, three machine shops, two meat markets, two drugstores, two billiard halls, one news room, and the offices of three physicians and several lawyers.”

The number of saloons at that time, he writes, was not provided.

The town built on the McClymond farm saw similar success, with hotels, stables, restaurants and homes dotting the landscape. The name of Karns City was chosen in honor of its enterprising founder, and the town became officially recognized as a borough in January 1875.

Throughout the oil boom years, both Petrolia and Karns City saw massive population growth. Between 1875-77, according to “Oil on the Brain: The Discovery of Oil and the Excitement of the Boom in Northwestern Pennsylvania” by Gary S. McKinney, Petrolia reached a population of 6,000. Karns City had a population of 2,000 around the same period. Notably, both towns matched, or exceeded, Butler in population.

An oil well in Petrolia gushes in the late 19th century. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

These populations were not considered permanent, however, according to McKinney. As the towns existed primarily for the oil boom, some residents stayed in hotels or utilized other housing options as their plan was not to permanently settle.

Like many towns birthed by the oil boom, Karns City and Petrolia saw their share of misfortunes, including floods and a litany of fires throughout the decade.

Tragedy struck on July 26, 1879, when Bear Creek, which flowed through both communities, spilled over its banks during heavy rains. The flooding destroyed at least 50 buildings in Petrolia and swept several buildings from their foundations in Karns City.

Less than a week later, on Aug. 1, Petrolia was dealt another blow when a catastrophic fire effectively destroyed every notable building that had survived the flood.

The boom moves on

The Western Pennsylvania oil boom was not destined to last. By 1880, as the production of the wells slowed, prospectors moved on to new regions.

According to the census of 1880, the population of Petrolia was massively reduced to 1,100. Karns City’s population halved to around 1,000.

While some oil operation continued through the 20th century, the momentum went with the boom to the fields of Texas and Oklahoma. Yet the towns serve as compelling reminders of the history of the region.

The sun sets behind an idle pump jack near Karns City in 2020. Associated Press file photo
Remembering our heritage

Whispers of the region’s past remind residents and visitors of the boom days.

Karns City’s 175 residents and Petrolia’s 179 residents — figures reported in the 2020 U.S. Census — for example, can get lunch or hear some music at the aptly named Oil Boom Saloon on Main Street in Petrolia. Fevers and twisted ankles can be treated at Petroleum Valley Medical Center on Church Street.

And even today, oil continues to fuel the economy of Karns City and Petrolia. Both towns export oil and oil-based products through their remaining active refineries, owned by Calumet-Penreco and HF Sinclair respectively.

What started as an oil “boom” in the 1870s and quickly faded nonetheless boosted the region’s development and contributed to the nation’s economic growth, a contribution which continues to the present day.

Sol McCormick is a senior at Slippery Rock University, majoring in strategic communication and media with a concentration in multimedia journalism.

Specialty petrochemical refinery Calumet, 138 Petrolia St. in Karns City. Submitted photo

More in America 250

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

* indicates required