Christ Episcopal Church on Central Avenue, in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Image credit woodsnorthphoto via Shutterstock

These Small Towns in Pennsylvania Have the Best Historic Districts

Established as a religious colony in 1682 by William Penn, Pennsylvania later became the second state to join the Union in 1787. As European settlers and travelers moved in, its towns experienced booms in different industries and witnessed events that redefined and shaped the United States. Their historic districts bore witness to these events and now shed light on many events, such as the first oil drilling in 1859 and Lock Haven’s lumber boom. From Civil War battle remains to the first mining pits and aircraft firms, these exhibits have something for everyone. Not only are these towns great locations for family or school field trips, but they also have scenic hiking trails and sites that are ideal for outdoor activities.

Lock Haven

Downtown historic district of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania with people walking across the street
Downtown historic district of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Image credit Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lock Haven’s rich history and background are primarily attributed to Bald Eagle Creek's intersection and the Pennsylvania Canal's west branch. Its historic district, the Water Street Historic District, was recently recognized for its importance when it received signage. After the town’s establishment in the 1840s, Lock Haven experienced a lumber boom, transforming it into a vital location for building new settlements.

With trade and lodging centered around the crossing of Bald Eagle Creek and the West Branch of the Susquehanna, Canal Park has earned its spot in the historic district near The Heisey House, showcasing a collection of archaeological artifacts. The town has also had its share of achievements in aviation and transportation, with the Piper Aviation Museum displaying restored old war planes such as the L-4 "Grasshopper." Lock Haven’s hidden gem is Tiadaghton State Forest, which stretches to three other counties and is a popular destination among hikers for its rolling hills and scenery.


Old Theatre building on Frederick Street in Hanover, Pennsylvania
Old Theatre building on Frederick Street in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Image credit Pereze75 via Shutterstock

The historic town of Hanover is less than an hour away from York, Gettysburg, and Baltimore. Hanover’s strategic location has contributed to its unique mixture of cultures and diversity. The town's museums tell the stories of the Battle of Hanover and the influence of German folklore on the area. The Warehime-Myers Mansion showcases this history in the Greek Revival Mansion, built in 1913 on Baltimore Street. This exhibit lies in the heart of the Hanover Historic District, which encompasses contributing architectural masterpieces such as the Hanover Area Historical Society, Pipe Organ at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, and Conewago Chapel.

The district also includes 2,632 contributing buildings, four contributing sites, three contributing structures, and one contributing object (The Picket) in Hanover's central business district and surrounding residential area. The Hanover Fire Department is a perfect place for an educational trip as it guides visitors through the town's history and all the major disasters the fire department has fought ever since 1951. The town is also home to the largest arcade in Pennsylvania. Colonial Revival and Queen Anne-style buildings are the long-standing gems of Hanover's downtown. Other popular tourist sites include the Codorus State Park, which has a swimming pool and picturesque views of the outskirts of the town. The park is a great place to witness the immigration of several bird species that inhabit the park.

Oil City

Oil City, Pennsylvania, A military memorial with a Vietnam war era cannon on Central Avenue on a sunny day
A military memorial with a Vietnam War era cannon on Central Avenue, in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Image credit woodsnorthphoto via Shutterstock

The tribal settlement was home to the Seneca tribe in the 1600s until new landowners transformed it. However, the underrated town of Oil City remains a reserve for indigenous and Native American heritage and history. Oil Creek State Park displays landmarks from the 1850s, a critical time during which the town became an oil exporter due to its proximity to the infamous Titusville, the site of the first oil drilling pit in 1859. Oil Creek State Park showcases this history, wetlands, and unique terrain that contributed to this vital resource's discovery. The town has three historic districts, with the largest, North Side Historic District, encompassing 1,223 parcels.

The South Side Historic District houses 910 parcels, while the Downtown Commercial Historic District has 65 parcels. Situated along the Allegheny River, a downtown stroll offers stunning views. The biodiversity of this river has earned it its reputation as Pennsylvania's richest watershed.


The Colonial Courthouse, in downtown York, Pennsylvania.
The Colonial Courthouse, in downtown York, Pennsylvania.

Sitting in York County, and home to over 40,000 residents, this historic town is a family-friendly lodging destination. Paving the town's route into becoming a popular destination amongst tourists and settlers, the Golden Plough Tavern opened in 1741 as one of the first of many lodgings. The adjoining General Gates house also tells the story of politicians who visited the lodge in 1778 and greatly influenced the area. The historic district encompasses more than 300 buildings. Ensure you pass by Colonial Courthouse, a museum that documents the history of York County.


Memorial Day Parade through the Stoystown Historic District in Pennsylvania.
Stoystown Historic District, Pennsylvania. Image credit Emma Lee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stoystown is in the Laurel Highlands and is frequented during the fall when the weather is warm, and hiking trails are open. The town’s historic district is located along Old US Route 30 and includes all of Main Street and Forbes Road, Meadow Street, East Penn Avenue, and South Somerset Street. The district also includes 81 contributing buildings, two contributing sites, and one contributing object. The town is home to the Flight 93 National Memorial, which commemorates victims of 9/11.


Downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania in autumn.
Downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Image credit Oksana Tysovska via Shutterstock

Carlisle's primary residents during its founding in the 1750s were Irish and Scottish. Therefore, Carlisle’s architecture resembles that in 18th century England, as amplified in the features of the prison built to hold criminals in the newly established county seat at that time. To experience and learn about Carlisle's Historic District, Carlisle's Old Neighborhoods League organizes an annual historic house tour.

The town paved the road for independence as it is home to the second-oldest military post in the United States, the Carlisle Barracks. You can find the Molly Pitcher statue in Carlisle, which showcases the bravery of the lady who replaced her husband on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War. The Letort Spring Garden Preserve is also a great spot to soak in the scenery and enjoy the 40-acre preserve. The garden's preservation was managed by some of the first European settlers during the 1700s. The garden has trail access to Boiling Springs, the Appalachian Trail, and Yellow Breeches Creek.


Aerial view of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania
Overlooking Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

Gettysburg, one of Pennsylvania's quaint towns, earned its reputation as the "Birthplace of Freedom" in the United States from its records of Civil War battles. Gettysburg Battlefield Historic District displays where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought on July 1, 1863, and has over 300 buildings attesting to the events that unfolded during the time. The best place to begin your learning journey is in the Gettysburg National Military Park, where the second massive invasion of the north was propelled. The park displays the details of the fierce battle that took place.

The visitors center provides a sneak peek of the historical roadmap and facilities such as the museum, film, and Cyclorama Painting, which have separate fees for entry. There, you can take a look at relics from the Civil War and join some of the guided battlefield tours, which provide an insightful look at the details of the Civil War. You can also participate in some of the "spooky season" activities in the town, such as the haunted Farnsworth house, which earned its reputation from being a hospital during the revolution. You can go on a horseback tour on the Confederate Trails of Gettysburg and enjoy the scenery of the picturesque town.

Visit Historical Towns in Pennsylvania 

These Pennsylvania towns are ideal for an educational trip, from Civil War memorials to quaint garden preservations. But that is not all these historic districts have to offer. These locations have sites and activities, so you can have the best of both worlds. Make sure you visit these towns in the spring or fall, to avoid the crowds in summer and the weather in the winter, and make the most out of your trip.

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