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The Oil Springs Of Ontario


A gusher that occurred in Petrolia in 1902.

Before there was the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, before supertankers and pipelines, in 1858 there were two men with shovels and a swamp in Canada. One of the men was a luck-starved entrepreneur with the appropriate name of Tripp. The other was a steel-nerved businessman named Williams.


The swamp was in Lambton County in southwestern Ontario and in the 1850s it was one of the least settled regions in what was known as Canada West. The reason for its desolation was simple: While surrounding counties enjoyed fertile farmland and easy access to the Great Lakes, Lambton was a landlocked quagmire that contained a dark oily substance.

Since biblical times, humans had tried to find a use for crude oil. Its nasty smell and taste occasionally encouraged a quack doctor to promote it as medicine, and its gooey texture made it somewhat useful as a waterproofing agent, but oil’s propensity to catch fire ensured its limited use. Indeed, anyone who tried using it as heating or lamp fuel was put off by clouds of nauseating black smoke.

And yet in 1858, Charles Tripp and James Miller Williams were stomping the Lambton swamps looking for a good source of oil. Just a year before, Tripp had gone broke trying to make road asphalt out of Lambton crude. At first, he looked as if he was going to be rich. Samples of his asphalt had won an award in England and impressed French officials so much they gave him an order for nine shiploads. Unfortunately, Tripp’s asphalt factory was 20 miles deep into the Lambton County wilderness, and the only road was a wagon track so muddy it was known as “the canal”. Tripp ordered a fleet of sturdy wagons, but his money ran out and his dreams came crashing down. One of the people he owed money to was Williams, a Hamilton carriage maker.

In a move that must have seemed like financial insanity to the ever-cautious business community, Williams allowed Tripp to pay off his debt with hundreds of acres of Lambton swamp. He then hired him to help find more oil. Williams did this because he knew something most people did not. He knew the world was experiencing a shortage of whales, and that the various industries of the day depended on whale oil to lubricate the machines that produced everything from button hooks to buggy whips.

What’s more, many of those same factories were operating 24 hours a day and their production depended on the availability of artificial light. Also, mass literacy turned reading into a popular pastime–day or night–and this helped fuel the demand for cheap, efficient lamp oil.

During the War of 1812, the 10th Earl of Dundonald patented a lamp that could burn oil distilled from boiled chunks of asphalt. Unfortunately, this process was too expensive to be practical because natural asphalt was rare. In 1849, a Scottish inventor named James Young used coal to produce lamp oil and industrial lubricants. His lamp fuel, dubbed coal oil, was superior even to whale oil, but was still expensive. In 1854, a Nova Scotian geologist named Abraham Gesner found a way to distill a similar lighting oil from petroleum. He dubbed his product kerosene, from keros, the Greek word for wax.

And so Williams believed that riches would await anyone who could find sufficient quantities of petroleum and get it to market. He sold his carriage business and together with Tripp searched the Lambton swamps for the richest site. In 1858, near a remote hamlet called Black Creek, he registered the world’s first commercial oil well.

Williams’ oil well was exactly that–a primitive hole in the ground where the oil bubbled to the surface. Operators merely dipped in a bucket and filled up barrels by hand. The crude was then distilled much the same way whisky was made. A large cauldron was filled with petroleum, covered by a lid and then carefully heated over a wood fire. As the petroleum’s temperature rose, gases would begin to evaporate. These gases escaped through a hole in the lid and ran through a pipe where it condensed into liquid and then flowed down into a container. The kerosene extract was put in a barrel to be shipped to market.

At the end of the process, what remained in the cauldron was a thick, slimy sludge called grease because of its resemblance to animal fat. As the grease became a popular machine lubricant, the petroleum business became known as the Grease business and the men who worked in it became known as Greasers.

With his money and business sense setting him up, Williams’ fortune was assured with a stroke of good old-fashioned luck. The same year he registered his well, a railroad spur line was built between London and Sarnia. The line came within a few miles of Black Creek and this meant Williams could make money as fast as he could draw the crude out of the ground. In just two years, he shipped a million and a half litres of oil out of Lambton County.

Williams’ discovery triggered the world’s first oil rush. By 1859, the swamps around the village of Black Creek looked like a battlefield as hundreds of men converged on the area felling trees and pockmarking the land with drill holes. Makeshift hotels, restaurants and blacksmith shops sprang up to serve the miner’s needs. Land prices skyrocketed and within a few years of the discovery, Black Creek was a bustling town of 4,000 prosperous souls. The town’s name was changed to Oil Springs and in its peak days boasted paved roads, horse-drawn buses and street lamps.

New wells came into production almost daily, and created two problems. One, prices fluctuated wildly as oil alternately flooded the market or slowed to a trickle when prices dropped so low, the oil in the barrel was worth less than the barrel. Secondly, with so many wells drawing oil, the crude no longer bubbled to the surface under its own power. Greasers had to dig deeper and coax it up by inventive means.

The word petroleum, incidently, comes from the Latin words for rock and oil. That’s because oil sits inside porous rock like water in a sponge. Sometimes, pressure from groundwater forces the oil up to the surface, but when enough oil is removed, the oil level drops. When that happens, the only way to get it out is to drill through the rock and pump it out.

One of the earliest methods was the springboard, a simple device that used a long springy pole that suspended a primitive drill bit on a chain. By stepping on and off a treadle board thousands of times an hour, one man could use the drill to chip through solid rock. Extra links in the drill chain could be added as needed, and when oil was located, it was drawn out by hand pumps.

In the early days, if a greaser did not strike oil near the surface, he moved on to another site because the common wisdom was that oil was not found deeper than 20 metres. But in 1862, a man named Hugh Nixon Shaw refused to give up on what appeared to be a dry hole. Risking ruination, he kept drilling and on Jan. 16, at just past the 60-metre mark, a sudden rumble shattered the peace and suddenly a huge geyser of black muck blasted out of his drill hole. The first gusher in Canada was created.

Being completely unprepared for the gusher, it took Shaw and his men four days to cap the well. The event created two oil rushes. The first was the crude itself which turned Black Creek black. It flowed freely–sometimes a foot deep–down the Sydenham River–all the way to Lake St. Clair. The second oil rush had a more lasting impact. When news of the gusher reached the newspapers, investors across Canada and the United States descended on Oil Springs to make a quick buck. Shaw himself was offered $10,000 for his discovery. He turned it down, and a month later died tragically from breathing noxious gases while cleaning his well.

Deep oil wells became the rage and the more wells that were dug, the deeper the holes had to go. Hand pumps gave way to steam pumps. However, running a steam engine was an expensive proposition, and hundreds of oil producing wells were abandoned when the cost of running the engine outweighed the value of the oil being produced. The oil boom seemed on the verge of faltering until John Henry Fairbank, a surveyor turned greaser, invented the jerker line.

The line resembled something right off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. A single steam engine was connected to a large wheel mounted horizontal to the ground. From there, jerker lines radiated out from the wheel like legs on a spider. Each line consisted of wooden rods suspended in the air by wooden poles and these could go for hundreds of yards. As the engine chuffed away on the spot, the jerker line gently swung back and forth. This turned the crank on the pump over an oil well. By connecting more field wheels and jerker lines, Fairbank found he could run dozens of wells off a single engine. Many marginal oil wells suddenly became profitable again.

Soon jerker lines were running everywhere through the oil fields and also in town. They ran up and down streets, under bridges and roads and sometimes through backyards. One unique Victorian touch was a special timer that turned the oil wells off during Sunday.

Fairbank’s jerker lines added another 10 years of life to Oil Springs, but the petroleum reserves were fading. And sadly, Williams and Tripp seemed to be connected by an invisible pulley: The higher Williams rose, the further Tripp sank. Williams established an oil refinery and a tin stamping factory, and became a member of Parliament. He was a wealthy man when he died in 1890. Tripp left Canada after a number of unsuccessful ventures, and died penniless in New Orleans in 1866.

Lambton County’s glory days appeared over until a former Great Lakes ship captain named Bernard King struck oil at Petrolea, a stagecoach stop about 10 miles north of Oil Springs. King’s discovery in 1865 was so impressive, a second and larger oil rush erupted. Thousands of wells were dug in the space of a few years and Petrolea, which eventually changed its name to Petrolia, quickly replaced Oil Springs as Canada’s oil capital.

The early Petrolia was a ramshackle place. Taverns, stables, hotels, stores, factories, rooming houses, slaughter houses and refineries sat cheek to clapboard to each other with no building or fire codes. Added to this mixture were streets crowded with wooden wagons full of crude oil and petroleum products, and hundreds of men walking around in oil-soaked clothes.

Two major fires in 1867 lead to the establishment of fire departments at opposite ends of the town. Each was supposed to serve half the town, but because the firemen were paid by the fire, they had no qualms about poaching on each other’s territory. If both crews arrived at the same fire at the same time, the right to extinguish the blaze was occasionally settled with fists.

Besides the major fires, local refining stills either blew up or burned down with an alarming regularity. The refineries that did not self-destruct poured a constant smog of wood smoke and petroleum fumes into Petrolia’s air. Until the turn of the century, gasoline was still considered a waste product and its indiscriminate dumping tainted Petrolia’s drinking water.

After 1872, the expression “boom town” took on a more tangible meaning when Petrolia greasers began using nitroglycerine to fracture their wells. Virtually every nitroglycerine factory in Petrolia blew up at least once. A local woman named Kathleen Stokes was even caught concocting nitro in her downtown apartment. Politicians wisely banished the nitro factories to beyond the town’s boundaries, but police had to constantly watch out for nitro delivery wagons trying to use Petrolia’s bumpy streets as a shortcut to the oil fields.

Despite its rough origins, Petrolia’s oil reserves proved so stable that the town quickly took on a sense of permanence. New laws forced builders to use fire resistant materials like brick and stone, and Petrolia became a showplace of fine Victorian brick architecture.

For the first 30 years, the Canadian oil industry was essentially a free-for-all where small operators drilled holes and refined oil in an economy protected by Canadian tariffs. By the 1870s, these tariffs were beginning to loosen and in 1880, a group of entrepreneurs from London, Ont., led by Jake Englehart and Frederick A. Fitzgerald, created the Imperial Oil Company Limited. The group’s aim was to prevent Canada’s oil fields from being swallowed by the American oil baron John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil conglomerate.

Despite a promising beginning, Imperial Oil soon found itself in trouble because of Rockefeller’s ability to flood the Canadian market with low-priced American products. In 1891, Imperial Oil became a branch of Rockefeller’s empire. Petrolia’s economy suffered a serious blow as Rockefeller closed the Imperial refinery and moved it to Sarnia.

In 1901, a smaller Canadian independent started up in Petrolia under the name Canadian Oil Refining Company. Its gasoline product was better known as White Rose. This company too passed to foreign ownership in 1963.

The echo of Lambton’s oil boom still resounds. A fourth generation Fairbank still pumps oil in Lambton County using jerker lines. With more than 130 years of continuous operation, Charles Oliver Fairbank Oil Properties Ltd. is the oldest petroleum company in the world.

By 1946, Canada’s domestic oil wells supplied only 10 per cent of the nation’s oil consumption. The following year–on Feb. 13, 1947–Imperial Oil discovered a major oil field at Leduc, Alta., a development that launched the modern era of western Canadian oil production. Foreign companies moved in during the 1950s and ’60s, leaving virtually all of Canada’s oil companies in the hands of multinationals. The Foreign Investment Review Act of 1974 and the establishment of Petro-Canada in 1975 marked the Canadian government’s first efforts to reduce this domination.

For history fans, Lambton County is well worth a visit. Petrolia’s many stately brick homes, stores and public buildings are located on streets with names like Eureka and Tank. Both Oil Springs and Petrolia possess fine museums that mark the heyday of Canada’s independent oil industry. For more info, visit the Web site


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