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Evans City’s transportation legacy could be its future

Oil derricks tower over houses on Jackson Street. The photograph was likely taken in the 1910s near the present-day Kwik Fill, during Evans City's second oil boom. Evans City Historical Society Photo

With oil reserves drying up a century ago and a declining population since the 1990s, Evans City is at a crossroads for opportunity, according to Evans City Borough Council President Cheri Deener-Kohan.

The growth of Harmony and Zelienople and plans for development in Forward and Jackson townships are attracting more traffic than ever, according to Deener-Kohan, with Evans City sitting in the middle of many commuters’ daily routes from Interstate 79 or Route 19.

Describing Evans City as a “pass-through town,” she said the junction of roadways could bring economic opportunities that could help preserve Evans City and its history.

“There’s a real possibility” for economic development, Deener-Kohan said, “but it’s going to take a team effort.”

And the biggest challenge, she said, is getting people to stop.

Previously a “pass-through”

The area known today as Evans City has always served as a pass-through for travelers and commerce.

Among the earliest travelers in the area were Native Americans, some of whom were displaced from the East Coast before the turn of the 18th century. A mix of Delaware, Shawnee, Munsee and Seneca traveled and camped in what would be Evans City, according to “The History of Evans City,” by the Evans City Historical Society. Native Americans referred to the area as Big Beaver Run, though the exact tribe that named the creek is unknown.

The earliest known European record of the area also documents travelers passing through, when French travelers en route to Fort Duquesne named Breakneck Creek. The waterway snakes through the borough, perpendicular to Evans City’s East Main Street.

Another traveler, George Washington, was famously attacked by a Native American in the area, as described by two markers on Evans City Road close to the Forward Township Municipal Building. While traveling the Venango Trail in 1753, Washington “narrowly escaped death” here, a sign reads, “being shot at by an Indian less than fifteen paces from him.”

Evans City was not settled by Native American tribes or by Europeans until the turn of the 19th century. The first settlement was Boggs’ Mill in 1804, situated on Breakneck Creek, straddling Jackson and Forward Township.

Local businessman Thomas B. Evans later purchased 200 acres of land adjacent to Boggs’ Mill and Breakneck Creek, calling the region Evansburg. Evans sold lots on his property and completed his first home in 1832.

Railroad and Black Gold

In a new era of transportation, the railroad allowed for quick movement of goods and people when it reached Evans City in 1878. The borough’s first narrow gauge steam route was built from Alleghany City to Zelienople and then through Evans City. It was extended into Lawrence County in 1880 and Youngstown in 1881. An additional line extended the system west to Akron, Ohio, and east to Butler. The mainline and Butler branch transitioned to standard gauge in 1887.

After the turn of the century, passengers could buy a ticket and travel “to any terminal in the United States and Canada,” according to “History of Evans City.”

Despite the railroad, Evans City’s population was only 637 in 1890, but a short-lived oil boom in 1892-1893 led to growth, with the U.S. Census recording 1,203 residents in 1900.

In 1903, a formal railroad station was erected, the first in the country to straddle a waterway. In 1908, the Harmony Line was built by a member of the Boggs family, Russell H. Boggs, and Evans City businessman Henry Buhl, to support commerce in the city and allow transport to their department store, Boggs and Buhl, located on Pittsburgh’s Northside. The electric trolley ran to New Castle, Ellwood, Beaver Falls, Butler and Pittsburgh.

During a second oil boom in 1915, at least 140 wells were constructed. Some fields, such as the White Farm oil field, pumped 900 to 1,000 barrels of oil a day. But with so many wells concentrated in an area of less than 40 acres and believed to be drawing from the same pool of oil, the second oil boom was as brief as the first, lasting roughly two years.

Fueled by investments and increasing population from the oil booms, however, Evans City built a two-story school and organized a fire department. Additional industry flooded the city with coal mining, carriage construction, blacksmiths and livery barns.

The city had received electricity, waterworks and telephone service by the turn of the century. The streets were paved with brick in 1908 and electric streetlights were installed in 1915. The first gas station in the city, Whal’s Gasoline, opened in 1919, charging $0.19 per gallon.

20th Century Decline

Through the second half the 1900s, Evans City transitioned away from its industrial past after losing its trolley, passenger cars and pool of oil, according to council president Deener-Kohan. The Harmony Line closed in 1931 and passenger rail service diminished throughout the 1950s, ceasing operations in 1964. The borough slowly retreated into a quiet, rural community, she said.

Evans City was placed on the national stage in 1968. Looking for an affordable place to film, George Romero recorded most of his claim-to-fame “Night of the Living Dead” near Evans City’s Franklin Road. Attractions and commemorative events remain to this day. Until recently, the Living Dead Museum and Gift Shop operated on East Main Street, selling zombie-themed memorabilia.

Although the sky-high oil expectations busted long ago, Evans City’s population continued to grow until it peaked at 2,299 in the 1980 census. With a population of 1,737 people in 2020, though, the years of industry and expansion may be cemented in the past.

Capitalizing on transportation once again

But Deener-Kohan said if Evans City plays its cards right — catering toward what she described as a “quaint” and “tight-knit” vibe while showcasing a strong industrial history — the borough might find itself in a position of strength once again.

Forward Township could drive traffic and growth in Evans City, she said, much like Cranberry has done for the neighboring boroughs of Harmony and Zelienople.

Deener-Kohan said she also hopes to work with neighboring historical societies and collaborate on the shared history of the region.

One idea she hopes will come to fruition is a spiritual revival of the Harmony Line by offering tours through various stops at neighboring boroughs. The project would include the purchase of the original trolley station in Evans City, an idea endorsed by the mayor and other members of the historical society, as reported in 2023 by the Butler Eagle.

The historical society also recently launched a project to revitalize a spring constructed in 1896 on the outskirts of the city.

“I see us being either very tight-knit or we’re just going to be a pass-through, and in that case, it’s going to just be the old folks that are here,” she said.

Busier than ever with increasing traffic, nearby population sprawl, new small businesses and revival plans for historical sites in Evans City, the borough is at a crossroads. And if the borough hopes to capitalize on these changes, as Deener-Kohan said, the challenge remains the same: getting people to stop.

Hayden Schultz attends Slippery Rock University, where he is completing a major in multimedia journalism and a minor in political science. He is news editor at The Rocket, the university’s student-run newspaper.

A 1900 map of Evans City shows a vibrant community with churches, industrial buildings and a railroad station. Oil derricks on the left side of the map indicate the location of wells built during the borough’s first oil boom in the early 1890s. Evans City Historical Society Photo
Residents prepare to board a trolley at Evans City Junction, a part of the Harmony Line. The trollies could reach Pittsburgh in roughly 40 minutes. The building now sits empty at the corner of South Washington and Jefferson streets, but a renovation plan could give the station new life. Evans City Historical Society Photo
A locomotive arrives at the Evans City Train Depot. The depot, built in 1878 and spanning Breakneck Creek, was the first train depot in America to straddle a body of water. The depot was demolished in the early 1980s due to safety concerns. Evans City Historical Society Photo

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