Long before the first oil find at Oil Springs in 1858, some reports mention the presence of bituminous sands at confluence of Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers. Around 1846, Dr. Gesner of Nova Scotia developed a refining process that transmuted coal, natural tar, and eventually oil into an illuminating fuel which he called kerosene; an alternative to the expensive whale oil.
Charles Nelson Tripp was the first Canadian to recover the substance for commercial use. The year was 1851; the place, Enniskillen Township, near Sarnia, in present-day Ontario. It was there that Tripp started dabbling in the mysterious gum beds near Black Creek. This led to incorporation of the first oil company in Canada.
Parliament chartered the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, with C.N. Tripp as president, on December 18, 1854. The charter empowered the company to explore for asphalt beds and oil and salt springs, and to manufacture oils, naphtha paints, burning fluids.
Several factors contributed to the downfall of the operation. Lack of roads in the area made the movement of machinery and equipment to the site extremely difficult. And after every heavy rain the area turned into a swamp and the gum beds made drainage extremely slow. This added to the difficulty of distributing finished products.
A Hamilton asphalt producer, James Miller Williams, an ex. carriage builder, purchased the Tripp properties. He formed J.M. Williams & Company in 1857.
Williams dug a well a few yards down an incline from his plant. In 1858 at a depth of 51 ft the well struck oil. It became the first commercial oil well in North America, remembered as the Williams No. 1 well at Oil Springs, Ontario. It was a year before Colonel Drake’s historical oil find in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
William’s find launched an oil rush and soon the town’s population swelled to 4,000. John Henry Fairbank, a surveyor turned oil man who came to Oil Springs in 1861, bought some property and despite incurring debts and suffering family tragedies, founded the successful Fairbank Oil Company that is now the oldest petroleum company in the world. He also invented the jerker line, a method used to pump oil to the surface from multiple wells using a shared steam engine. By 1861 400 wells had been dug or drilled in the area. About 11 km north of Oil Springs is Petrolia, where another oil gusher was found in 1866. Oil Springs is about a 40-minute drive from Sarnia, in Lambton County, in the heart of an area known as the Oil Heritage District. Lambton County is a region of small towns, farms and beautiful beaches. The village, an enclave within Enniskillen Township, is today home to the Oil Museum of Canada.
(Image: Searching for oil in Lambton county, Canada, in the 1860’s/Glenbow archives)