The Michigan Geological Basin

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 industry.

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 drilled.

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 ground.

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 oil.

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 "post-production costs".

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 oilpatch "firsts".

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.