Hello! and welcome to the Petrolia150 blog.
2016 marks 150 years since the incorporation of the Village of Petrolia on Dec. 13, 1866.
In early 1866, Petrolia was beginning to supplant Oil Springs as the center of new oil exploration in Lambton County. Oil Springs’ great flowing wells were exhausted and promising new wells in Petrolia were attracting an increasing number of people to the burgeoning settlement. All were looking to make their fortunes.
By mid 1866, a ramshackle collection of clapboard hotels, shops and shanties, had sprung up around a refinery at the top of the east end hill. Petrolia soon reached the requisite population needed to be incorporated as a village.
At the same time, a group of Petrolia oil men, including John Henry Fairbank, grew frustrated with the refusal of the Great Western Railway to build a spur line from Wyoming. They raised $50,000 and took on the job themselves, so that they could get their oil to market. Construction of this line began in August of 1866.
In the beginning, most exploration at Petrolia took place in and around the ‘flats’ of Bear Creek. An oil spring had been found near the creek in 1860 and many drillers still believed that oil was more likely to be found around water courses. But, as land on the flats became scarce and expensive, a few began to explore further afield.
In late 1866, far to the northwest of Petrolia, in undeveloped bush that most considered “outside territory”, Capt. Bernard King, drilling on behalf of a syndicate of prominent St. Catharines businessmen and politicians, began to put down a well.
On Nov. 23, 1866, as Petrolia prepared to incorporate and the spur line neared completion, Capt. King struck Petrolia’s best known flowing well, gushing more than 800 barrels per day!
The King well was not Petrolia’s first “flowing well”. There had been others, going back to the early 1860s and Petrolia’s first oil boom was already well underway. But, the King well was, by far, the most prolific strike up to that time. Located beyond the producing region, where conventional wisdom said oil should be found, the well caused a sensation.
Drillers flocked to the “King Territory” and with the additional draw of the new railway, the village began to migrate from the east side of the creek to the west. By 1872, the town hall had been moved to the west end. The east end’s glory days were over.
The King well, coming in as it did, on the heels of the railway arriving and the village incorporating, all served to seal the deal for Petrolia. The new oil boom town never looked back. From then on, it would claim the title of Petroleum Capital of Canada. It would hold that title for the better part of four decades.
Petrolia150 aims to celebrate and commemorate this trio of seminal events in Petrolia’s history. Remarkably, all three occurred within what must have been an exciting three weeks, in the waning days of 1866:
- the King well was struck on Nov. 23
- Petrolia was incorporated on Dec. 13
- the railway spur was opened on Dec. 17
None of these three events, on their own, or even in combination with but one of the others, would have brought about the subsequent boom, in quite the way it unfolded, nor set the stage for the unique story that became the founding mythology of Petrolia.
The day after the railway opened, prominent Petrolia oil men and railway officials of the Great Western Railway, arrived for the first time by train. They gathered at the United States Hotel for a raucous celebration. Speeches and toasts were made, songs and cheers rang out and all three events were praised as proof of greater things to come.
The importance of these events to Petrolia, and in turn, of Petrolia to the future of the entire world, as the petroleum age dawned, can hardly be overstated.
Charlie Fairbank, whose great grandfather, J.H. Fairbank, relocated from Oil Springs to Petrolia in 1865 and became one of the town’s most prominent citizens and its most stalwart booster, emphasized the significance of Petrolia:
“In 1866, Petrolia became the oil capital of Canada,” stated Fairbank. “Soon after, local oil men took Petrolia technology and expertise around the world. They helped to open up oil fields on every continent. Many of those oil fields still produce to this day.
That’s world class history that’s worth remembering and celebrating.”
Join us as we celebrate these momentous events and the legacy of Petrolia’s great discovery.
[Special thanks go out to Pat McGee and Charlie Fairbank, for their continuing support and advice – S.L.]
[cover image courtesy of Lambton County Archives]