Oil Springs & Petrolia

Oil Springs & Petrolia

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It's not generally known that North America's oil industry was born in the tiny village of Oil Springs, 40 kilometers southeast of Sarnia, and that until 1900, the Oil Springs/Petrolia field produced 90% of Canada's petroleum. In 1851 gum beds were noted in the area, and a year later entrepreneur Charles Tripp began exploiting surface asphalt at Oil Springs. In 1854 Tripp had his workers dig a well to supply his factory with water, but smelly black oil began seeping into the hole when it was barely two meters deep and the digging was abandoned. Tripp failed to recognize the bonanza beneath his feet, and sold out to James Miller Williams.

Ontario, PetroliaWilliams converted Tripp's operation into the world's first incorporated oil company, which began digging in a more focused way. In 1858 Williams struck black gold with North America's first commercial oil well, and over the next two years his company produced a million and a half liters of crude oil. Lambton County became the focus of a frenetic oil rush with hundreds more wells dug, including the world's first oil gusher uncovered by Hugh Shaw in 1862. Then just as the Oil Springs wells began drying up, a new oil field was discovered at Petrolia, 10 kilometers north, and the boom moved there. Over the past century this region has produced 10 billion barrels, and some oil is still pumped today using 19th century technology. However, by the turn of the century the main boom had come to an end, and the drillers moved on to new fields in the Middle East, South America, and Russia, exporting to 87 countries the drilling technology developed here.

Ontario, PetroliaThis heritage can be experienced on a daytrip to Petrolia and Oil Springs. The site of the 1858 strike is now occupied by the Oil Museum of Canada, with a rich collection of period and petroleum industry paraphernalia. The gentle creak of the jerker lines once used to pump oil can still be heard, and the nostalgic atmosphere of a bygone era can be felt on a drive along the back roads past the old pipelines and working wells which surround this tiny settlement of under a thousand souls.

It's obvious that much of the region's wealth went into the town of Petrolia (current population around 5,000), where imposing brick Victorian mansions line the streets. A pioneer village and museum called The Petrolia Discovery, just outside Petrolia, includes an authentic 1860s oilfield (open May to October only), and in summer a theatre in town stages performances which bring this colorful era in Canadian history to life. Bridgefield Park, a former oilfield you pass on the way into town, has a covered bridge and picnic tables.

From the series Unknown Sights of Canada by David Stanley

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