The man dug, sinking the blade of his shovel deep into the foul-smelling muck that oozed around his boots. Bending into the shovel for leverage when the saturated ground resisted his efforts, he gained a purchase on a clump of the sodden, gritty material. With a mighty heave, he lifted the goo from the ground and tossed it onto the heap that was growing amidst a small crowd who watched his progress.
The group had trudged deep into the dank swamps of still-unsettled central Lambton County in Ontario (then Canada West). One seemed a bit of a dandy--a Hamilton wagon maker with greying whiskers. Was he possibly a businessman, grown soft behind a desk in the city? Perhaps, yet here he stood in this frontier wasteland, eagerly awaiting the result of this excavation.
The man was James Miller Williams. He had come to this spot where he had been told a sulphurous black substance seeped to the surface and congealed to a gum. He was eager to learn what it was he and his partners had gotten themselves into when they purchased the land. A trickle of black began to ooze from the bottom of the hole the labourer dug and a grin came to Williams' face.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we have found it." This is a dramatization of Williams' first encounter with oil. It took place in the summer--likely July--of 1858. By August, newspapers were reporting that the oil was being barrelled up and sent to Hamilton for refining. By December, agents in Sarnia and London were selling the refined product--kerosene. So, in quick order, Williams was mining, refining, and marketing a petroleum product--something no one in North America had done before.
The discovery near what is now Oil Springs represents "the beginning of the worldwide modern oil industry," according to Emory Kemp, an American industrial archeologist who has made a career out of researching early industrial sites. He thinks it should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However. that view is not unanimous, as there are other places that lay claim to being first. (See accompanying story "Slippery Distinctions.")
As the second most common liquid on planet, people have known about oil for millennia. They found it in swamps, wells, and other places where it made its way to the surface through fissures in rock. They used the substance to waterproof boats, caulk stone buildings, and to try to cure whatever ailed them. In fact, local aboriginals had long utilized the oil of Lambton County's "gum beds" for medicinal purposes.
One of the first white settlers to take an interest in Lambton County's oil was herbalist Andrew Lucas. Travelling from Beckwith Township near Ottawa, he had aboriginal guides lead him to the site in 1835. Once there, he spread a woolen blanket over the ground to soak up the oil, then wrung out the blanket into containers.
It is not known exactly what Lucas did with the crude. But family lore suggests his clothing reeked so badly from the sulphurous petroleum that on the return trip innkeepers banished him from their doorways.
Two decades later, when Williams made his trek to the still wild and unsettled region, he smelled an opportunity that went far beyond odiferous rock-oil potions. The world was changing. The industrial revolution and an increase in literacy had fuelled demand for light. At the time, lamps were powered mainly by whale oil. But whales were hard to hunt and their oil became prohibitively expensive as demand soared. Alcohol, turpentine, and other lamp fuels were either too smoky or too dangerous.
Then, in 1846, Nova Scotia geologist and chemist Abraham Gesner made a world-changing discovery: he found a way to turn liquefied coal into a burning fuel, which he called kerosene. That invention was perfected seven years later in Poland when chemist Ignacy Lukasiewicz made kerosene from "seep oil"--or petroleum. Overnight, petroleum became a hot commodity. The race was now on to find a steady supply.
Petroleum, while plentiful, was difficult to extract. People had usually collected it in small quantities from the surface. But Williams, by digging down deep enough--fifteen and a half metres--hit on a steady flow, an underground river of oil. Oil could now be collected in quantifies not even imagined before.
Williams' discovery sparked a stampede of fortune seekers to what became known as Oil Springs. Newspapers painted it as a Wild West frontier town and nicknamed it "the city of grease" or just "Olicia." Workers rented beds in shifts in boarding houses that sprang up overnight on the main street. Whisky flowed ceaselessly, no doubt taking the edge off the horrible living conditions. An eyewitness account found in the Lambton Library described life in Oil Springs' this way:
"Close by the principal hotel there runs a small sluggish flowing stream. In it, diggers covered with oil washed their dirty selves after the day's work, swilled the mud off their boots and quenched the thirst of their horses. From this ditch also was regularly procured the water of which the tea and coffee were made and in which the salt pork, the staple article of food for many long months, was boiled."
The early petroleum industry was raw and dangerous. When drillers struck a gusher, oil flowed across the landscape, fouling creeks and rivers, many of which routinely caught fire. In the Tweedsmuir History of Oil Springs, a Mrs. A.J. Yates recalled a fire on Black Creek:
"The fire, which made a terrific blaze, the smoke which could be seen in London, threatened to run all the way (downriver) to Wilkesport. But after many trees were felled, flesh sods cut and used with clay to make a barricade, it was put out. Many amusing stories were told of geese, pigs, cattle and sheep that went to the (burning) river to bathe."
Then there were the nitroglycerine factories, which gave the boomtown its boom. Oil workers used nitroglycerine to make bombs that were dropped into wells to make them flow better. The little nitro plants often blew up because workers were careless in handling the unstable liquid. In April 1891, the Advertiser, a Petrolia newspaper, reported on the worst of the nitro plant explosions:
"Some 40 or 50 people were employed in gathering together the scattered fragments of what a few short hours earlier were three living healthy human beings.
It was a sickening sight to see all those men with two pieces of shingle in their hands, each bearing some infinitesimal piece of human flesh or bone, a piece of broken rib here, a part of a skull covering there."
But young men have often scoffed at danger. A generation before the Klondike's Chilkoot Trail beckoned thrill-seekers and fortune hunters, Lambton's oil fields were littered with tales of wealth as well as tragedy. The story of Hugh Nixon Shaw contains a bit of both.
Shaw was a Bible-thumping Methodist whose exploits earned for him the sobriquet "that insane Yankee." At Oil Springs in January of 1862, he drilled the deepest well anyone had ever known--beyond sixty metres--and struck Canada's first gusher. The roar of this great fountain of oil could be heard for kilometres around. All of a sudden the "insane Yankee" was "that gentleman," eagerly sought by newspapermen across Ontario.
At the time, Shaw must have felt on top of the world. Someone offered him $10,000 for his well, but he rejected it. A short time later, in February 1863, a mechanical problem developed in his well. Climbing down to take care of it himself, he was overcome by toxic fumes and fell to his death. The oilman's run at riches had lasted little more than a year.
The coming of the railway played a major role in Oil Springs' rapid rise. In the very year Williams found his flow of oil, the railway was extended to the village of Wyoming, sixteen kilometres away. That said, it was still sixteen kilometres of howling wilderness with no decent roads. In order to transport the oil, workers put barrels of crude onto stone boats--flat-bottomed sledges pulled by oxen--and dragged them north to the rail depot. From there they went to refineries in Hamilton, and later London. In winter, sleighs made the trek tolerable; in summer, the roadway became a river of mud. Oxen sometimes sank to their bellies in the glistening muck.
By 1866, Oil Springs had grown to four thousand people. It had banks, stores, bakeries, butcher shops, hotels, and saloons. Stagecoaches were on the move night and day.
Despite its rough and tumble image, and the presence of just one police constable, there were few reports of lawlessness. There was, however, one notable exception. An ugly racist incident took place on a Saturday night in March of 1863. About a hundred oilmen, all white and likely fuelled with liquor, armed themselves with wooden clubs and iron pipes and advanced on the black section of town. The reason: A black driller had reportedly committed a perceived slight against a white woman of some standing. Four or five black families were driven from their shanties and beaten, their homes set on fire. There were no reports of deaths. Nine of the hooligans were eventually arrested but five or six of them escaped.
While Oil Springs grew almost overnight into a booming frontier community, its fall was equally swift. By 1867, nine years after Williams dug the first well, the areas wells began to run dry. New strikes were being routinely made a few kilometres north in Petrolia, which soon supplanted Oil Springs as the hub of the region's oil industry. One by one, Oil Springs' twelve general stores and nine hotels and saloons shut their doors. Today 750 people make it their home.
Eventually, Petrolia, which was a busting town in its heyday, and still boasts a magnificent opera house and streets lined with beautiful mansions, would also fade into obscurity. By the end of the nineteenth century, the world's growing thirst for crude made it clear the region could not compete with strikes in the United States and other places. However, the impact of Lambton County's pioneer oil industry was felt worldwide, since many of its oil men went abroad and grew wealthy working in places like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States, where their expertise in finding and extracting oil was in high demand.
Today, few are aware of the seminal part Ontario's Lambton County played in building an international industry. Even Emory Kemp, the archeologist, had never heard of the place. The director of the Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology at the University of West Virginia, Kemp happened upon Oil Springs during a 1999 road trip in southern Ontario. He spied a highway sign pointing to the Oil Museum of Canada. Curious, Kemp took a detour and came across an unbelievable sight--no less than a working oil field run with the same machinery that was used a century and a half ago.
What particularly fascinated him was the use of something called the jerker line system, a strange Victorian-era contraption in which a single engine is connected to a large horizontal wheel that is in turn connected to lines that radiate out as far as hundreds of metres. Each line is connected to a pump over an oil well. As the engine chugs away, the jerker lines move back and forth to turn the cranks on the oil well pumps.
John Henry Fairbank first employed the system in the early 1860s. Kemp believes he adapted it from a system used in German salt mines that perhaps goes back as far as the sixteenth century.
After his first encounter with Oil Springs, Kemp obtained United States government funding and returned with a team to produce drawings of sites and equipment. They collected archival evidence that he hopes will confirm his assertion that the area is key to the understanding of how the modern oil industry began and how the technology evolved.
Fairbank's great-grandson, Charles Fairbank III, continues to operate the oil field using the same methods and equipment as his ancestor. Fairbank Oil Properties in Oil Springs, created 147 years ago, is likely the oldest continuously operated oil firm in the world. Traditional jerker lines connect 240 of its 340 producing wells, which draw 24,000 barrels of crude annually--about sixty-five barrels a day. Imperial Oil in nearby Sarnia purchases and refines the local crude.
As one of a dozen producers still operating in Lambton County, Charles Fairbank is determined to see the tradition continue. He describes the business as "a living dinosaur." As the largest of the remaining Lambton producers, Charles Fairbank believes that he and the others who make the effort to keep their businesses operating are caretakers.
"It's a legacy," he says. "It's in our charge now, and while I'm here, it's my duty to do what I can for it."
When we think about petroleum, we think of Alberta, or Texas or Saudi Arabia. Yet this mammoth industry upon which we all rely so heavily today began in the swampy backwoods of southwestern Ontario near Sarnia. And incredibly, everything the pioneers left "is still here," says Fairbank. "This is the first [commercial] oil field in the world. And it's still running with original technology."
Canada West' s Last Frontier: A History of Lambton by John Turnbull Elford. Lambton County Historical Society, Sarnia, Ontario, 1982.
Petroleum in Canada by Victor Ross. Southam Press, Toronto, 1917.
Rivers of Oil by Hope Morritt. Quarry Press, Kingston, Ontario, 1993.
RELATED ARTICLE: What makes a gusher gush?
The classic image of an oil strike is that of a gusher shooting into the air, creating an out-of-control fountain of black crude. Such scenes, known as blowouts, were common during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century era of oil exploration, when technology was not available to control the tremendously strong flow.
Blowouts happened when drill heads pierced into petroleum reservoirs that were under high pressure. Because petroleum is less dense than water and rock, it tends to flow upward through cracks and fissures. But sometimes impermeable rock blocks its passage and it collects in a pocket or reservoir. Over time, more sediments can collect, pushing down on the oil and leading to overpressure.
Drilling into such reservoirs was dangerous and wasteful. Workmen involved in drilling were sometimes killed or injured, equipment was ruined, and the oil could flow uncontrollably for days, polluting waterways and ruining land. The first successful blowout preventer--a valve at the wellhead that could be closed in the event of a high-pressure eruption--came out in 1924. Gushers are now largely a thing of history.
RELATED ARTICLE: Slippery distinctions.
Ontario's Lambton County is holding a long list of celebrations this year to mark the "150th anniversary of the first commercial oil well in North America." However, the importance of the site at Oil Springs, which some believe should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been a point of contention.
For many years, Titusville, Pennsylvania, has gushed about its status as "North America's first oil well," which was drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859. This was a full year after James Miller Williams hand dug his well in Oil Springs, near Petrolia, and sparked an oil rush. When pressed, Titusville boosters amend the claim to say it was the first oil well drilled ill North America.
The idea that the world's modern oil industry got its start in southwestern Ontario--suggested by American industrial archeologist Emory Kemp--is also open for argument. Titusville also makes that claim, as does the Eurasian republic of Azerbaijan, where Russian engineer EN. Semyenov in 1848 drilled the world's first modern oil well ("modern" meaning not dug by hand). There are even claims that the Chinese were first in the drilling department, when, in 347 A.D., they used bits attached to bamboo poles to extract oil from depths of more than 244 metres.
But some say it all started in Poland, where Ignacy Lukasiewicz--the enterprising pharmacist who distilled kerosene from raw petroleum in 1853--formed a partnership to open an oil welt in 1854, and established a refinery in 1856.
Kemp is familiar with Lukasiewicz's work but stands by his argument that the "industry" began in southwestern Ontario.
"Other people played around with (oil), but the evidence is very strong that it all started as an industry in the Petrolia area," he says. "You've got to emphasize 'industry,' as opposed to something else."
Not that any of this debate will stem the flow of Lambton County's celebrations. For information on the web, go to www.2008celebrate.com.
ROLLING IN OIL
Canada's petroleum reserves today are second only to Saudi Arabia.
A: SAUDI ARABIA (266.7 *)
B: CANADA (178.5)
C: IRAN (138.4)
D: IRAO (115)
E: KUWAIT (104)
* Amounts are in billions of barrels. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Gary May is a freelance writer in Cobourg, Ontario, and author of the 1998 book, Hard Oiler! The Story of Early Canadians' Quest of Oil at Home and Abroad.
May, Gary. "Ontario's living dinosaur: think the modern oil industry got its start in Texas, or Saudi Arabia, or Alberta? Think again. Think Lambton County in southwestern Ontario." The Beaver: Exploring Canada's History June-July 2008: 34+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Dec. 2009.
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