If you think the North American oil industry had its start in Texas or Alberta, think again. It began in Oil Springs, Ont. (about 90 kilometres southwest of London).
In the 1850s, the first oil explorers discovered oil seeping to ground level, creating bitumen ponds or ‘gum beds.’ From these deposits, the bitumen was boiled to manufacture asphalt and eventually refined to develop burning fluid for lamps. The growing need in the mid- 19th century for affordable lamp fuel, such as kerosene, spurred the exploration of oil.
In 1858, when James Miller Williams dug for water but hit oil instead, he triggered North America’s first oil rush. He kick-started the modern oil industry with his integrated company that pumped oil, refined it, transported it and marketed it. Within a few years, hordes of prospectors and fortune seekers flooded Oil Springs. The town grew to more than 4,000 residents.
With so many people coming to Oil Springs, local hotel owners rented bunk beds by the shift, forcing some guests to leave at midnight to make room for new arrivals. At its heyday, the town boasted some of the most modern of conveniences – paved roads, horse-drawn buses and street lamps, as well as twice-daily stage coach service from Oil Springs to Sarnia on a 20-mile planked road.
In January 1862, a man named Shaw struck Canada’s first oil gusher. With no immediate way to stop the flow, oil spewed on the ground and down the frozen (and nearby) Black Creek. When the gusher was contained, this ‘rock-flowing well’ made Shaw rich, but it also caused his death a year later when he drowned in his oil well.
John Henry Fairbank, a surveyor turned oil man, arrived in Oil Springs in 1861, and quickly made his mark.
At this time, each oil well had its own steam engine, which was expensive to maintain. In 1863, Fairbank invented a jerker line system of wooden poles attached to strings of steel chains that connected several oil wells together, sharing the power of one steam engine to pump oil. Once proven to be successful, this innovation was exported to oil fields in the United States and around the world, forever changing how oil was pumped and delivered.
Through the 1860s and 1870s, as the price of oil fluctuated, the fortunes of Oil Springs ebbed and flowed. By 1880, the town’s population stood at 522, and, except for a brief boom in the late 1880s, its glory days faded. Yet its history remained.
Today, a handful of companies continue to pump oil in Oil Springs. Operated by Western alumnus Charlie Fairbank, BA’63, Fairbank Oil Properties comprises 650 acres with 350 working oil wells. Its land is home to Canada’s first oil gusher and the first jerker line system, as well as to original underground storage tanks for oil.
The Oil Museum of Canada and Fairbank Oil Properties share the designation as a National Historic Site. The area is also a provincial Industrial Heritage Conservation District. A move is underway to declare the area a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Read the Impact Western article about Charlie Fairbank here.
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