The History of the Oil City/Franklin Trolley Companies


written by Bill Bowen of Oil City and expanded in 2009 by William L. Passauer
The original article was published in the Venango County 2000: The Changing Scene, Vol. I and was used by Bill during his many presentations about Monarch Park. It is used here and expanded with permission but is shortened to cover only the development of the local trolley companies. The whole article is located on the Monarch Park “A Detailed History” page.
About John B. Smithman

John B. Smithman was born in 1844 near Shippenville. Although he attended school only three months each year, he began a teaching career in Shippenville, Knox, Hill City, and finally near South Oil City, where, at age 20, he drifted almost accidentally into the oil brokerage business. From that he went into a mapmaking business aimed at attracting oil promoters, and, by age 22, he also owned a shipping platform at Reno. At age 23 he drilled an oil well near Oil City and from that entered expansively into oil production in Butler, Clarion, McKean, Warren, Washington, Allegheny, and Venango Counties. Later he became chairman of the committee that, in 1877, secured the charter for the new Oil City Oil Exchange, and he chaired the committee that developed its rules and regulations. His numerous business affiliations and ventures continued to grow over the years. He was both successful and respected.

By 1886 he was also manager of the Keystone Oil Company at a time when Standard Oil Company was flexing its muscles over the control of all phases of the oil industry. Without going into detail over his problems with the beleaguered Keystone Oil, it is important only to note here that, in his role as a whistle-blower in the conflict between independent producers and the giant Standard Oil, he made two enemies who would later haunt him in his attempts to develop the Oil City Street Railway.

The editor of the Oil City Derrick, as an informer, had sued Smithman for $80,500 in 1888 for an alleged violation of an 1878 Act of the Assembly aimed at protecting owners of oil in the custody of others who were transporting or storing it. The Derrick was said to be “controlled by Standard Oil interests”. Whether it was or not, its behavior over the years would cause historians to continue to raise the question.

Smithman’s case was being watched by the entire oil region. By having the case moved to Butler County away from Venango County’s Judge Taylor, Smithman won. When The Derrick’s editor attacked the verdict in his paper, Smithman took the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where the verdict was confirmed. Judge Taylor and The Derrick would not soon forget.

The Oil City Street Railway (The Street Car System)

It has been published many times that Mr. Smithman narrowly missed the distinction of having the first electric street railway in the world. In 1886 he had secured a charter from the state of Pennsylvania for the Oil City Railway Company. Earlier he had visited Baltimore and Washington where he’d seen miniature cars impelled by electricity run around a circular track and quickly realized that this was bound to supplant the existing horse power of existing streetcars.

Smithman’s 1886 charter faltered because the law under which it was granted was declared unconstitutional. Though his efforts were delayed, he constructed a successful model of his new street railway in the basement of the family mansion on West First Street. Three years later in 1889, an ordinance was passed by city council granting him the right to construct and operate his street railway.

In 1890 he incorporated the Oil City Street Railway. His first big problem was getting across the Allegheny river. He was unable to make arrangements to run the street cars across either the Petroleum Street Bridge or the Petroleum Bridge (now Veterans Bridge) two blocks away at State Street. Both were toll bridges. An 1878 law prevented construction of a “highway” bridge within 3000 feet! of a toll bridge without consent of the toll bridge owners. With great determination he secured in 1891 an act of the Pennsylvania legislature to permit street railways to build bridges with the consent of local governments. Yet another setback was suffered when Governor Pattison vetoed the bill after the close of the session. In addition, the county commissioners had refused to let Smithman run his streetcars over the County bridge crossing Oil Creek.

He tackled the problem of the bridge over the Allegheny first. Rather than wait two more years, Smithman did considerable investigation and determined that the prohibition on building bridges within 3000 feet of a toll bridge was invalid. He went to the Secretary of State for confirmation and secured a charter to build a bridge from the foot of Central Avenue to Relief Street…within 400 feet of both toll bridges.

The problem of a street car extension over the County bridge crossing Oil Creek was appealed to the Supreme Court in Pittsburgh, but, before the case could be heard, a similar case was resolved with the court ruling that bridges were public thoroughfares and should accommodate electric cars.

In 1892, just after Oil City’s disastrous fire and flood, he began construction of the bridge piers and the street railway. Because of the gloomy economic outlook resulting from the disaster as well as the enormous added costs, his associate stockholders had all dropped out, so he undertook the venture alone.

The bridge was to pass over the tracks of the Allegheny Valley Railroad at a height of 19 feet. The railroad insisted that the clearance must be 22 feet despite the fact that the adjoining toll bridges were both lower than the 19-foot clearance proposed by Smithman. The city engineer refused to allow the level of Front Street to be raised, and the railroad stood ready to serve and injunction since there was a nest of Western Union wires running along the right-of-way just where the roadway of the bridge would cross. To make matters worse, Judge Taylor, who was also the attorney for the railroad, was still nursing his wounds from several previous skirmishes with Smithman. In addition, The Derrick was attacking him at every turn, making every step he took difficult and expensive.

Again Smithman approached the matter calmly. A few days before Memorial Day, 1893, mention was made to local fishermen of a new trout stream in Allegheny Township in the far northeast corner of the County. The day before Memorial Day Judge Taylor was seen boarding the train with friends, their fishing rods with them.

During the early morning hours of the holiday, holes were dug in front of two telegraph poles above and two poles below the location of the bridge span. The poles were then sawed off at ground level and dropped into the holes, thus lowering the nest of wires out of the way of the bridge roadway. Before daylight the holes were filled and the ground carefully covered with locomotive cinders as before.

By six o’clock two heavy girders 90 feet long and each weighing 20 tons were up in the air on gin poles out of reach of the switch engine that came down the tracks to ram them down. The railroad yardmaster looked at the nest of wires, the poles, the ground, and the surroundings but was unable to spot what change had been made regarding the nest of wires. Front Street was lined all day with spectators cheering on the speedy workers, and by nightfall the ironwork of the span had been completed. After frantic efforts, the railroad located Judge Taylor who, the following day, served injunction papers on Smithman. Before the hearing took place, however, the streetcar tracks were in place with loaded handcars running over them. People were using the span as well. At the hearing, Smithman’s papers showed the court that he had a charter to erect and operate a bridge over the Allegheny and that the span was in daily use and did not interfere with railroad traffic. The judge took the papers and made no decision; the problem had been solved by public opinion. The Smithman bridge (called the Relief Bridge), 830 feet long, was a steel through truss structure with two streetcar tracks and a covered walkway. It connected Central Avenue with Main Street. On November 30, 1893, the line was shot hot, and Oil City, at last, had its electric cars running!

By building his streetcar bridge during a time of financial despair in Oil City, Smithman gave work to many men who would otherwise have been unemployed. He also charged one cent toll for foot passengers as compared with three-cent tolls for the two adjoining bridges, and he promised that, as soon as one-half the bridge’s cost had been recovered, it would be a free bridge. In 1900 he sold it to the County at half its cost to be made the first free bridge over the Allegheny in Oil City. The sale to the County was completed over the continuing objection of The Oil City Derrick.

The first run was from Center and Seneca Streets, down Main Street, across the new bridge to Central Avenue, and down First Street to the end of the line at Division Street, the present site of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Lines were later extended four blocks down First Street to Wyllis. Then in 1894 and 1895 they were extended on the North Side up Cottage Hill on Spring, Graff, Stout, Harriott, Bissell, Hoffman and Smithman Streets to Carroll Avenue near the hospital. Downtown Smithman extended tracks up Seneca Street. And on the South Side tracks were extended on East Second Street to Sage Run. Property values on some streets doubled within a year, and other street railways were soon introduced in Warren, Franklin, Titusville, and elsewhere.

Smithman Park

With an obviously heavy investment, Smithman soon found that the streetcar business would not pay in Oil City, so he bought 530-acres of forest land in Cranberry Township halfway between Franklin and Oil City. It had been known as Seven Springs Deer Lick, and it was here that he founded Smithman Park. While Smithman owned the park, he turned 60-acres into park lands, and built the Auditorium, Restaurant and Picnic Pavilion.

In July, 1896, despite more protests from The Derrick, he extended the West First Street car line westward and up Deep Hollow to Smithman Park with a view to extending the line to Franklin at a later date. Smithman was a hands-on entrepreneur who worked side-by-side with his engineers and surveyors in lining up rights of way and bridge placements. By 1899 he had mapped his approach to Franklin, planning to construct yet another Allegheny River bridge at Third Street.

It had taken Smithman nearly seven years from his first charter until his first streetcars ran in 1893. His pioneering effort paved the way for others. Franklin Street Railway received its charter in 1894 and was in operation that same year.

Citizens Traction Company

Smithman hoped that, in reaching Franklin, he could arrange with Franklin Street Railway to run his cars into town on their tracks on Liberty Street. When they refused, Franklin’s city council granted him an ordinance to construct tracks on Buffalo Street. Although poles were placed and wires strung from City Hall and the Opera House to the proposed Third Street crossing; no tracks were ever laid. A powerful new competitor, Citizens Traction Company had appeared on the scene.

Just one block down West First Street from the Smithman mansion lived the Geary family in an even more imposing home. Michael Geary, like Smithman, had made his fortune by much hard work. He was born in Ireland in 1844, and, when he was six, his father in America sent for his wife and children to join him in Buffalo. They arrived to learn that Michael’s father had died. Perhaps of necessity, Michael developed into a very self-reliant person. In 1861 he enlisted in the New York Volunteers and, at the close of the war, found employment at the Erie City Iron Works. Eventually he migrated to Oil City where, after several business ventures, he founded in 1881, with Daniel O’Day, the Oil City Boiler Works. Through varied affiliations and daring ventures this leading industry of Oil City eventually employed as many as 2,000 men. His success enabled him to engage in many other businesses. Among them was the Oil City Tube Works which employed as many as 600 men. His business and civic involvements seemed endless. Michael Geary died of pneumonia in 1895, at age 51, and the management of the family empire passed to his son Daniel. The Geary’s lived the high life. The family home boasted a pipe organ. Yards of pink silk festooned the walls of their parlor. Dan Geary’s second wife, Ermine Monarch from Owensboro, Kentucky, came from a family that, it was said, was heavily into horses and racing.

By 1900 Dan Geary had become intrigued with electric streetcars and, despite the struggles that Smithman was having in turning a profit, organized a competing company, Citizens Traction Company, helped considerably by editorial support from The Oil City Derrick, still seeking revenge against the man who had so embarrassed them. So Smithman, the pioneer who had cleared so many hurdles to bring progress to the area, who still had earned no profit from his venture, was faced with the threat of a competing company.

Dan Geary, with his inherited wealth and power, now had a new toy. Surprisingly, his first streetcar line was nowhere near Oil City’s downtown. It began, instead, on a north side hill a few hundred feet from Smithman’s line. Starting at the First Presbyterian Church at the top of Spring Street, it climbed steep Pearl Avenue, curving onto Seeley, Washington, Plummer, and finally down a long straight stretch/a of Hone Avenue. Later it was extended and double-tracked over private right-of-way to the Oil City Fair Grounds. Not surprisingly Dan Geary took great delight in taking over the controls of the car on the straight Hone Avenue line. Next tracks were laid on South Seneca Street, over the Petroleum Bridge, which had refused such permission to Smithman, up State Street and West Third to Cowell Avenue.

Citizens Traction Company Taking Over of the Smithman Properties

When Geary’s company failed to compel Smithman’s line to grant the use of 2500 feet of track to connect the new line on Pearl Avenue with its lines on Seneca Street, it began negotiations, and, on January 14, 1901, purchased four things from Smithman: (1) the Oil City Street Railway, (2) Smithman Park, (3) the Station Railway which had been chartered to extend the line from Smithman Park to Franklin, and (4) Mr. Smithman’s street railway franchises in Franklin. In addition, it bought the privately owned Big Rock toll bridge, built in 1879, and it purchased the Franklin Street Railway.

When Smithman sold his holdings, one of the stipulations was that streetcars would be required to stop at his home when so signaled from the house.

Citizens Traction Company promptly began construction of a long double-track bridge over the Allegheny at Reno. The great structure with its cantilevers towering more than 100 feet above the river, was, at 1700 feet, the longest bridge over the Allegheny north of Pittsburgh. This bridge now gave Citizens Traction two interurban rights-of-way between Oil City and Franklin, one on either side of the river.

Geary lost no time in getting Citizens Traction Company’s lines connected with Franklin’s line by way of Deep Hollow. Less than eight months after the purchase, the line had been extended from Monarch Park to the Big Rock Bridge below Franklin. Although passengers could travel between the two cities by trolley, they had to leave the car at either end of the Big Rock Bridge, walk across the highway deck, and re-board another car at the other end of the bridge. This continued for three years until the bridge could be strengthened to support a streetcar above the highway deck.

In the meantime, the Company worked to continue its lines down the other side of the river from Reno to Franklin. It soon became known as The Folly Line. After leaving Reno, it began climbing a steep hillside. Work was slow and done at great expense by pick-and-shovel gangs. As one drives from Franklin to Oil City on Route 8 between the OMG Plant turnoff and the Kwik-Fill station, one may see, high on the hillside, at least nine places where stone retaining walls were built to hold the road bed to the hillside. Power lines on the hillside today mark the path of the scenic ride and of the heart-stopping turn at Two Mile Run where the cars began their descent into the valley. At the bottom, the remains of a horseshoe curve across the stream may still be seen on Two Mile Run Road beyond the OMG plant.

The lines continued through Rocky Grove where they connected with other lines in Franklin. One could now travel from Oil City to Franklin on both sides of the river. On opening day everyone rode free, and thousands traveled the 25-mile loop.

This covers the transportation aspects of getting to Monarch Park. Lines were extended in both communities, through Rocky Grove, and, in Oil City, to Siverly and Rouseville. Citizens Traction at one time operated 38 miles of track and had 70 cars in operation. More than five million passengers per year were carried for many years. The scary run from Reno to Rocky Grove was plagued by landslides still evident today. Conflicting dates of the closing of this section are due to its frequent closings for repairs followed by brief re-openings. It was still operating intermittently in the early 1920’s.

On the run to Monarch Park from Oil City, the cars ran through the city’s finest residential district, and, near the end of West First Street, began a gentle climb to a scenic hillside overlooking the Allegheny river and the Reno Bridge. The cars–open ones in summer–would then glide through four miles of woodland glens to the park. Residents still recall the quantities of fragrant honeysuckle in the spring.