Telling the untold tales of Northwestern Pennsylvania - Titusville Herald: News

Telling the untold tales of Northwestern Pennsylvania

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Posted: Saturday, May 11, 2019 5:00 am

As the historian for the Benson Memorial Library, Jessica Hilburn is well acquainted with the many major events from Northwestern Pennsylvania’s past. However, she has also heard several lesser known tales that aren’t as widespread.

Spurred on by these obfuscated pieces of the past, Hilburn has written her first novel, “Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania,” to bring these stories into the light.

Hilburn said she was inspired to start writing the book by a blog she writes, known as NWPA Stories, for the Benson Memorial Library once a month. Similar to the book, the blog focuses on events from Titusville area’s past, with topics ranging from reported UFO sightings to histories of local buildings. While performing research for the blog, Hilburn would constantly learn bits and pieces of lesser known history, or would find a picture that “had a story attached to it.”

In December 2017, Hilburn began to look into these fractured and obscurer bits of the past, with the goal of fleshing them out fully and compiling them together into her book. These tales include murders and major disasters to everyday working life and prominent citizens of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My book is about all kinds of lesser known stories everywhere from the Oil Region up through Erie and Warren counties,” Hilburn said.

A particular favorite topic of Hilburn’s was the many deadly train accidents which affected the region. She would end up devoting an entire chapter to train disasters, going from the Ashtabula train disaster to the so-called “Titusville Slaughter.”

“Trains were a major form of transportation in the oil boom days,” Hilburn said. “So, I focused on how trains can help us, but also how they can ruin our lives.”

One reason Hilburn found herself drawn to these disasters was due to how media at the time covered them. News articles often used wild and dramatic language when describing train accidents.

“The newspaper coverage was pretty sensation, which I enjoyed as a historian,” Hilburn said.

However, it is not just the outlandish that is touched upon in “Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania.” One particular section of the book is devoted to a topic near and dear to Hilburn personally, specifically that of Carpatho-Russian immigrants to the area.

Carpatho-Russians are Russian people who live in the Carpathian Mountains area. Hilburn said that while many people think more of German or Dutch people when speaking about Pennsylvanian immigrants, her own family on her father’s side came over from Carpatho-Russian, and there are several other families from that group in the region.

There are also parts of the book focused on African Americans in Northwestern Pennsylvania, as well as a focus on prominent women in the area, the latter of which many Titusville residents might be surprised to learn does not include Ida Tarbell. Hilburn said that she wanted to focus on names people hadn’t heard before, or figures that many don’t know are from Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Although, Hilburn said she did include former professional football played John Heisman in a bit of self-admitted personal bias.

“I talked about football, because I love football,” Hilburn said with a laugh.

Other topics include the Warren State Hospital, which was built under the Kirkbride plan that revolutionized asylum architecture and design, and the Mark’s Toys company, an Erie-based business that was once the biggest toy company in the world in the 1930s.

While some stories in the book are taken from Hilburn’s blog, she said that the majority are new. As to the exact nature of the stories within, however, she is keeping a tight lip until the book’s release.

“You have to read the book,” Hilburn said.

While only just finished with her first tome, Hilburn said that she found the experience extremely worthwhile and that she would be happy to do another book in the future.

“It was a very large undertaking, but I enjoyed it because I learned a lot more about this region that even I didn’t know before I started it,” she said.

“Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania” will be released on Aug. 5. Hilburn will be selling the book during Oil Festival this summer, and the book will be available on Amazon. It is available through The History Press, which is under Arcadia Publishing.

Ray can be reached, by email, at

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1 comment:

  • nancy 216 posted at 9:14 am on Sat, May 11, 2019.

    nancy 216 Posts: 2

    Jessica, CONGRATULATIONS on your new book! I canNOT wait to read it. I was born & raised in Titusville moving away in 1982. It will always be my hometown. It sounds so exciting with all of the "additions" you'll be adding to our wonderful city's history. What an asset you've been to the community! I've enjoyed everything you've contributed too. Best of luck & God bless! Nancy Savard Briggs Salida, CO


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