The Oil Museum of Canada

Birthplace of Commercial Oil in North America

Oil Springs, Ontario Canada

June 25th, 2001

I have always liked those historical trivia that can be tossed into a conversation when the talk slows down, so my curiosity was piqued when I was asked by a friend "Where was the first commercial oil well?". Well now, I immediately guessed Texas. Nope. Then I tried Iran. Not there either. Would you believe Oil Springs, Ontario? I was skeptical so our friends, Melvyn and Sheila Burrell, both long time residents of the area, invited us out to see the site of the very first commercial oil well ever drilled, well actually "dug" in this case. The next day, Mel and his wife drove us to the outskirts of Oil Springs, to the Oil Museum of Canada, and for the next several hours we explored the relics and artifacts of a time and business which is still in operation today. As we stood beside a scale model of the existing 20,000 barrel per day refinery built in Sarnia in 1958, Mel began his story. So the story goes, long before the introduction of the automobile, back around the middle of the 1800s, a couple of brothers named Tripp immigrated, looking for the "gum beds" they had heard about. Gum beds are pools of oil that have seeped up to the surface. After some experimentation they were able to boil down the black goo to a point that it became asphalt. This was an extremely valuable product to the ship building world as it is used to waterproof the hulls. The very first refinery was a large cauldron in which the oil was heated. It was noted that the lighter kerosene was removed and sold as a newfangled lighting oil. The work was hard and the brothers less diligent than was needed to be successful, and within a year one brother had wandered away and the other sold his holding to a man named James Miller Williams, who today is the accepted "Father of the oil Industry". James wasn't so much interested in asphalt, as he was this new kerosene product that could be refined from the oil. The market was growing and demand was outpacing production. Williams abandoned attempts to recover the surface oil, electing instead to dig a large pit in the middle of a "gum bed". At 14 feet he hit free-standing oil and was soon pumping 50 barrels a day with a hand pump. The year was 1858 and Williams and his associates had the very first commercial oil well and refinery, in an oil field which they had pretty much to themselves. Their exclusive little industry was short lived as word spread of the "black gold" to be had for the taking in Oil Springs. Within a year a boom town had sprung up and thousands were working in the oil industry, buying land, drilling, pumping or carting off the oil and its by-products. The secret to this success was a small, simple, but highly effective mechanical oil pump. It is used today exactly the way it was in the 1800s. The pump uses an up and down motion supplied by a walking beam to create a vacuum and suck up small portions of oil. Two metal pipes are fitted into an outer sleeve with the lower insert securely fastened to the outer pipe. Leather washers are attached to the inner pipes to prevent oil from seeping around. Attached to the end of the lower pipe was a chamber containing a ball. When the upper pipe is raised, 6 in. to a foot, a vacuum is created in the chamber. The ball blocks the upper opening and oil is pulled into the chamber from the ground. When the pipe goes down, the ball blocks the lower opening preventing the oil from returning to the ground, and the only way out is up. Thus a one-way valve is created.
With war looming in the U.S. and the only other well producing oil located in Pennsylvania soon to be shut down, Oil Springs found itself the sole producer of oil in the world, supplying 90 percent of the kerosene in North America. The pits grew deeper
until bedrock was hit. Not wishing to stop, the ingenious drillers bit through rock with spring pole drilling rigs powered by two and three men on a treadle. The drilling rig was an ash pole tree trunk six to eight inches thick placed parallel to the ground with the heavy drilling bit suspended from one end of the pole by a chain. As the men threw their weight forward, the treadle yanked the end of the pole downward and allowed the cutting tool to strike the bottom of the well hole. It was about this time that Hugh Nixon Shaw straggled into town with $50 in his pocket and title to one acre of ground. Driven by an indomitable will, Shaw began digging in July 1861. His cash was gone by the time he reached rock at 50 feet down. He raised credit and began drilling further. Month after month, broke and hungry, his credit having long ago petered out, he had drilled to a depth of 157 feet into bedrock. Town folk said he had sweated enough to fill the hole.

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