Franklin is poised to become the next big “outdoor town”
Even the drive to franklin from Pittsburgh feels a bit like an escape. From the Interstate 80 exit onto Route 8, farms and highways give way to endless acres of trees. The route hints at what’s to come without revealing any of the National Wild and Scenic stretch of the Allegheny River.
franklin and the northern valley of the Allegheny River winds its way past you. After a long descent down a hill steep enough to merit a getaway truck ramp, you turn a corner and you’re in the middle of a small town steeped in history and worthy of a postcard.
Physical shops line Liberty Street, its main street. Victorian houses surround them, echoing another era. For most of the year, cars equipped with bike racks and kayaks park in front of restaurants and cafes. Don’t be surprised if you start to see franklin on one of these lists of Best Outdoor Cities soon.
It’s an identity the city is now embracing while embracing Pennsylvania’s growing leisure and tourism economy with festivals, outdoor activities and a focus on its rich heritage. From a frontier outpost to an oil boomtown, Franklin now serves as the gateway to recreation in Pennsylvania’s oil country, and beyond, the area of north-central Pennsylvania has come to be known as the name of Pennsylvania Savages.
Every year, at the beginning of October, thousands of people descend on the small town to Franklin’s Apple Festivala three-day celebration that kicks off the fall season. What started in the 1980s as a small-town baking contest has grown into an event with over 300 arts, crafts and food vendors, live music, kid-friendly activities and a car show that spans the entire main street. Organizers estimate that it draws up to 100,000 people to the area and see it as a major economic benefit for the city.
“Small business owners will tell you this is what gets them through the year,” says Jodi Lewis, executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Trails to the Brasserie d’Alès co-owner Dave Ballard echoes that sentiment: “It’s phenomenal for us. These are by far our three biggest days of the year.
More than that, says Lewis, the event, along with other small festivals (like Light Up Night on Nov. 19), helps draw attention to Franklin and its range of outdoor activities. Trail use and river recreation reflect a growth trend similar to that of the festival.
“People come to our events and say, ‘I didn’t know this was here,'” Lewis says, adding that some even move to town afterwards because of its small-town charm and the recreational opportunities in town. outdoors.
Located at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River, the area was once a strategic outpost for French and British forces during the days of the French and Indian War. It was also once the home of John Wilkes Booth and the real Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman.
Today, it offers 55 miles of trail-running railroads as well as multiple canoeing and kayaking options, as well as hiking, mountain biking, camping, hunting, and fishing.
“I think it’s the perfect outdoor recreation location,” says Bill Weller, president of the Allegheny Valley Trail Association, the group largely responsible for the region’s rail trails. “We have everything here.”
But it has not always been so.
According to Weller, 68, who has been part of the initiative since its inception, the rail-trail system was a strenuous effort that began in the 1990s.
Lewis, also a former mayor and city council member, recalls a time when the city was trying to hide the empty storefronts on Liberty Street. “We were trying to wallpaper the store windows so they wouldn’t look empty to passers-by.”
It’s a strategy she learned from another civic leader at a tourism conference.
But now the windows are full; Lewis says there’s even a waiting list.
Beyond events, a focus on recreation has been key to the city’s success and increased visitation.
“The bike path was monumental for us,” Lewis says. “Festivals have done the same thing.”
The Allegheny River Trail follows the Allegheny for 32 miles from Oil City to Emlenton and is part of the larger effort to connect the Erie Trail in Pittsburgh. It includes a branch trail at Sandy Creek and there is also the Oil Creek trail outside of Oil City at Oil Creek State Park.
The city has also received recognition for its rivers. French Creek and the Wild and Scenic Section of the Allegheny River both pass along the outskirts of the city, each having recently entered Pennsylvania River of the year honors from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers. The award is given for natural beauty, wildlife diversity and recreational opportunities. The French Creek Water Trail just received the honor in 2022, the Allegheny in 2017.
Residents and city officials agree that recreational visitation has seen a surge in recent years.
“I’ve lived here all my life and the last four or five years have really seen a huge increase in recreation of all kinds,” says Ballard, 60.
He and his business partners opened the Trails to Ales Brewery in 2018, largely to have a place where they and other bikers and boaters could grab a beer after a ride or paddle. His company isn’t alone in taking over what in Pennsylvania has become a $46 billion tourism industry according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Department of Tourism.
“Downtown Franklin has really grown over the last five or 10 years,” Ballard says, “lots of new stores, lots of new restaurants.”
“We have a bike shop,” adds Lewis, “We didn’t have a bike shop until three years ago.”
The trend also extends to accommodation. “Airbnbs (and traditional B&Bs) have taken off. People have learned that you can live on the third floor and rent out the first and second,” says Lewis. “It was fun. I got to see this region embracing the tourism industry.
Statewide PA Tourist Office estimates that Pennsylvania now welcomes 211 million visitors a year. Recreational activities alone account for approximately $8 billion in expenditures.
If you visit Franklin
A walking tour on Liberty Street, Franklin’s main street, is a must. In addition to the Trails to Ales brewery, there are a handful of restaurants, cafes, and small businesses. The street passes two large parks and the historic county courthouse.
Access to the Allegheny River Trail includes trailheads just outside of town. The paved railroad follows some of the less developed stretches of the Allegheny, with an interesting offshoot at Sandy Creek.
Oil Creek State Park The rail trail north to nearby Oil City is also worth a visit. It follows Oil Creek through what was once the epicenter of the oil boom. There’s no shortage of canoeing, kayaking, and hiking options, either. Oil Creek and French Creek are best in spring and early summer, as they become much shallower in late summer.
VisitPAthe Allegheny Valley Trail Associationthe Alliance of Petroleum Regions and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce are good places to start planning a visit. Looking for something a little closer to home? To find 10 Quirky Small Towns to Visit in Western Pennsylvania.
This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide Series for NEXTpittsburgh focused on outdoor recreation about a three hour drive from Pittsburgh.