Cradle of the Global Oil Industry
In 1851, when Henry and Charles Tripp came to the area in Ontario
roughly sixty miles northeast of Detroit they had heard of the region's
"gum beds." Although the Tripps could not know it, the gum beds were
part of the Michigan Basin, where the Dundee formation outcrops in what
is today Oil Springs, Ontario. If Michigan could borrow twenty miles of
Canada, it could lay claim to being the cradle of the worldwide oil
The Tripps originally hoped to make a fortune out of what
others considered useless by waterproofing ship hulls with the oily goo.
The Tripp brothers, however, were inquisitive and began to experiment
with what other uses the goo might have. After a year or so, they
applied for a manufacturing charter to make something very different;
which they called "auphill."
The Tripp's distilled the plastic like gunk they gathered and
dug from the ground (and incidentally recovering fluids to be used for
lighting) into a paving product. Their newly formed International Mining
and Manufacturing Company received Honorable Mention at the 1855
Universal Exhibition in Paris for their product: asphalt. Theirs was the
first commercial use for petroleum and suddenly the worthless gum beds
had great value. The Tripps ingenuity proved their undoing. As land
values near the gum beds increased dramatically the undercapitalized
Tripp Brothers, already hampered by the lack of a railroad on which to
ship their products, fell on hard times. Henry just drifted away,
leaving Charles with the land and a handful of bills. By 1856 he began
to sell the company's land holdings in the "gum beds".
Tripp sold the west gum bed and a great deal of his other
property to a carriage and railway car maker named James Miller
Williams. Williams had his eye on a new market: illumination fuel. As
the availability of whale oil, which was then the most frequently used
source of fuel for illumination, declined, Williams saw a mass market
for a new fuel. In 1854 a Nova Scotian named Abraham Gesner had
developed such a fuel, which he named kerosene, which could be made
economically from oil. Although the surface soil near Oil Springs had
oil in it, Williams was impatient with the time and labor involved
chopping and boiling the plastic-like soil in order to release the oil
needed to make illuminating fuel. He reasoned that the source of the goo
must be somewhere below the surface. So, instead of chopping and
boiling surface soil, in 1858 he tried something new and revolutionary;
he ordered workers to dig into the west gum bed, hoping to find a more
fluid form of lighting fuel under ground.
Fourteen feet down, the bottom of the hole filled with
free-flowing oil. Soon Williams was hand-pumping 50 barrels a day from
the well. Quickly he devised a refinery to distill illumination fluids
from the oil. The well and the refinery were the world's first
commercial developments of underground oil deposits. Briefly Williams
and his associates had the field mostly themselves.
Williams soon added drilling to his digging. One well was dug
46 feet to the bedrock. He then drilled 100 feet deeper to produce
about 60 barrels a day. With five wells operating producing 600 to 800
gallons of oil per day (the concept of a regular measure of 42 gallons as a standard "barrel" was not to be implemented until 1862)
Williams was the boss of the first oil field in the world by the end of
1860 and had produced between 200,000 and 400,000 gallons of oil.
Williams soon had competitors. By 1860, a full-fledged boom
began. The area attracted people from every part of the United States
and Canada. The newcomers all wanted oil to make kerosene, which as
becoming a popular illumination fuel. Some came with cash and equipment.
Others came with little more than a shovel. Like the California gold
rush a dozen years before, the world's first oil field a few miles from
the Detroit River attracted water drillers, farmhands, teamsters,
blacksmiths, "hangers-on", highbinders, and confidence men. By late 1861
more than 400 wells were active in the field of which 32 had been
One shoestring operator who arrived in the wave of fortune
hunters was Hugh Nixon Shaw. A man of about 50, Shaw was squeezed out of
a partnership in experimental drilling about nine miles to the north
and came to the first oilfield area with about $50 in his pocket. Shaw
began digging in July of 1861. His cash was gone when he reached rock
about 50 feet down. Like several other drillers Shaw began to pound
their way through the rock with spring pole drilling rigs powered by
three or four men on a treadle. A spring pole drilling rig was an ash
pole from a tree trunk six to eight inches thick placed parallel to the
ground with a heavy drilling bit suspended from one end of the pole by a
chain. As operators threw their weight forward, the treadle yanked the
end of the pole downward and allowed the drilling bit to strike the rock
at the bottom of the well hole.
Raising some credit, Shaw began drilling. After drilling for
more than six months to a depth of 157 feet, Shaw's credit was exhausted
and he told locals he would give it one more day before giving up on
the hole, which was already drilled deeper than any other producing
well. The next morning, January 16, 1862, Shaw went back to drilling and
one foot later heard a loud crack. A few minutes later, heavy thick oil
shot over the tree tops, wrecking his drilling rig and blackening the
The world's first gusher flowed out of control for three
weeks, daily spewing 2,000 barrels of oil into the air. Eventually, by
stuffing flax-filled bags down the three inch wellbore and then creating
a column of diminishing-sized pipe that eventually measured over twenty
feet high, the well was brought under control. By then the oil on the
ground measured between three and four inches deep. Others drilled as
close as they could get to Shaw's well and the area produced rivers of
The field Shaw discovered was remote. Because of the costs of
hauling oil through logs, boulders, clinging mud and bottomless
potholes, oil sold for $1 per barrel at the well and $10 per barrel at
the railway a dozen miles away, giving rise to the world's first
While all of this activity was occurring within the Michigan
Basin, in August 1859 Colonel Edwin L. Drake drilled the United States'
first commercial well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, striking oil at 69
feet. The Drake well lays claim to being the first commercial oil well
drilled, in contrast to the wells being dug in Oil Springs, but Colonel
Drake was not very far ahead of James Williams. Oilfolk from the Oil
Springs field made their way to the U.S. and all parts of the world to
lend their expertise to the burgeoning oil fields.
Williams, Drake, and others like them filled an important
need in the mid 19th century. The world was beginning its love affair
with "rock oil", As industrialization progressed, inventors found new
uses for the stuff beyond its traditional inclusion in patent medicine
(which didn't help) and as pitch for ship hulls (which had a tendency to
catch fire, thus limiting its usefulness). Some people had the idea
that oil was a newfound cleverness of the nineteenth century. This poem
(quoted from "Sketches in Crude" a book edited by John J. McLauren in
1896 at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) called Hooray for Petroleum tried to squelch that sentiment:
Don't make the mistake that Petroleum
Like the kodak, the bike, or linoleum
Is something decidedly new;
Whereas it was known in the Garden
When Eve, fig-leafed Dolly Varden,
Gave Adam the apple to chew.
Nor deem it a human invention,
By reason of newspaper mention
Just lately commanding attention,
Because it is Nature's own brew.
Repeatedly named in the Bible,
Let none its antiquity libel
Or seek to explain it away.
It garnished Methuselah's table,
Was used by the builders of Babel
And pilgrims from distant Cathay;
When Pharaoh and Moses were chummy
It help'd preserve many a mummy,
Still dreadfully life-like and gummy
In Egypt's stone tombs from decay!
At Baku Jove's thunderbolts fir'd it,
Devout Zaroaster admir'd it
As deity symbol'd in flame;
Parsees from the realms of Darius,
Unwearedly earnest and pious,
Adoring and worshiping came.
It cur'd Noah's Ham of trichina,
Greas'd babies and pigtails in China
Heal'd Arabs from far-off Medina -
The blind, the halt and the lame!
Herodotus saw it at Zante,
It blazed in the visions of Dante
And pyres of supine Hindostan:
The tropics and zone have rich fountains,
It bubbles 'mid snow-covered mountains
And flows in the pits of Japan.
Confin'd to no country or nation,
A blessing of God's whole creation
For light, heat and prime lubrication
All hail this grand gift to man!
By the end of 1862 McLauren's "grand gift to man" was peaking
at Oil Springs. The quest for petroleum in southwestern Ontario saw
1,000 wells producing 12,000 forty-two gallon barrels of oil a day.
Teamsters were hauling 500 loads a day to the railway while the field's
ten refineries worked feverishly. Less than a month later, the Oil
Springs boom faltered as production overtook the market's demand for
oil. Crude oil prices tumbled. This coincided with the invasion of salt
water into some of the field's greatest producers, choking off the oil
within a few weeks. The oilfield phenomenon of having a well "go to
water" joined the ranks of Oil Springs' contribution to worldwide
Speculation abounded that drilling deeper was the answer to
the field's recovery but deep tests failed. Instead, the answer to
recovery was just the opposite. Smaller, less prolific wells did not
experience the saltwater-choked deaths of their more spectacular gusher
cousins. It was the expansion and nurturing of shallower wells that
brought about an eventual recovery.
By 1865 the price of crude oil had climbed back to $4.00 a
barrel and by the end of the year crude oil was fetching $11.00 a
barrel. Kerosene was more and more replacing whale oil as the fuel of
choice for illumination, and illuminating fuel was very big business.
Oil Springs shallow wells were again booming. The boom extending into
1866, fueled by a huge oil discovery a few miles north of Oil Springs at
Petrolia, Ontario, where wells, with a promise of production longevity,
were produced 200 to 400 barrels a day.
However, when the Pennsylvania field revived in the aftermath
of the Civil War those fields, and other U.S. fields that followed,
more than met the needs of the American petroleum market. Indeed the
efficiencies of the American manufacturers, and in particular John D.
Rockefeller's Standard Oil which caused the prices of refined petroleum
to fall from over 30 cents a gallon in 1869 to 10 cents by 1874 and to
5.9 cents by 1897, led Canada to adopt protective tariffs to fend off
lower priced U.S. petroleum products.
For a time Oil Springs was all but abandoned. Several
attempts to find a new production "wrinkle" were tried at Oil Springs to
no avail until J. H. Fairbanks, who had been active at Oil Springs and
Petrolia since 1860, introduced the "jerker rod system." Using a
centrally located steam engine and ash "jerker" rods that could run
great distances, Fairbanks could pump 100 or more wells from a single
steam engine. Fairbanks invention stabilized the oil business around Oil
Springs and Petrolia. Fairbanks invention included one Victorian nicety
that some today might wish reinstated; a timer that turned off the
jerker rods on the day of rest, Sunday. After 145 years, the Fairbanks
family still operates in the Oil Springs field, owning the longest lived
oil company in the world.