Abundance, sources, and historical records of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediment cores of three lakes located in northeast China were evaluated. One lake was located in a rural oil field area, one in an industrial urban oil field area, and the third in an urban industrialized area without oil field influence. Cores from each lake were divided into 1-cm sections, dated using 137Cs techniques, and 16 priority PAH compounds were measured. Total PAH concentrations were greater in industrial areas than in rural area, regardless of associated oil production. Only petroleum sources of PAHs were identified in lakes near oil fields between 1950s and 1980s, while sources of liquid fossil fuel combustion were persistently identified in the industrial urban lake. From 1990s to 2000s, PAH concentrations, especially high molecular weight PAHs, significantly increased in all lakes, which were consistent with the economic development in China, suggesting a change in energy use from wood burning and petroleum (oil) to liquid fossil fuel combustion. Environmental risk was low to moderate in sediments of the three lakes studied, and increases in high molecular weight PAHs during 1900s–2000s is a concern.