Captain King Drills

150 Years Ago Today

November 22, 1866

It’s a damp, overcast morning in the Enniskillen bush. It has snowed overnight, but the ground has yet to freeze and the ubiquitous mud makes moving anywhere but on the duck boards and corduroy of the tie road into Petrolia a misery.

With the exception of a couple of other derricks, barely visible through the Canadian thistle and scrub brush that has grown remarkably fast and high in the clearings over the summer, the North Eastern Oil Company’s 40′ tall rig is the only man made object in sight, on this dreary November morning.

Suddenly, a shrill hissing sound pierces the morning stillness. The engineer blows off the condensate in the 15 horsepower boiler that will shortly drive the engine, wheels and walking beam of the rickety looking rig. The monotonous routine of drilling a hole into the earth, in search of rock oil begins anew.

Captain King’s crew are excited. All month long, indications of oil have kept them motivated to drill ever deeper. After the wasted effort and expense of drilling three dry holes at the salt licks near Wanstead earlier in the year, the shows – more than a mile northwest of the Bear Creek flats – promise to vindicate their decision to wildcat far outside the “golden circle” on and around the Bear Creek flats.

They have reached over 370 feet from the surface and 280 in the rock. The shows of oil were good enough two weeks ago to prompt Calvin Brown, owner of the north half of Lot 11, Concession 11, to hurriedly commission surveyor George Gibson to subdivide his lot into ten sub-lots of 10 acres each. He is a principle investor in the NE Oil Co. (and future mayor of St. Catharines) and if oil is struck in paying quantities, he wants to be ready for the inevitable rush of speculators.

A half mile east, along the tie road that barely deserves the name – it is little more than a muddy trench twisting around stumps and partly planked in the worst stretches with unhewn logs – the new railway spur, which promises to banish the mud and the extortionate teamsters, is progressing rapidly.

It’s become faster to use the new railway right-of-way to reach the 10th concession road. From there, one must still traverse another half mile, across the derrick crowded and stupendously muddy flats, to reach the riot of ‘green’ clapboard on the far hill that is the village of Petrolia.

Almost every day, King gets his crew drilling and then, he and one of his crew makes the arduous trip to Fairbank’s store for supplies. While King’s buckboard is being loaded up with drilling and sundry supplies, he crosses the mud filled road to the post office, picks up the mail from St. Catharines and goes next door to the Great Western Hotel for his only hot meal of the day.

This time of year the trip can take three hours, all told and King can hardly wait until the railway is finished and he can pick up his supplies at the railhead (and return home to visit his beloved wife, Maria, more easily). Thank goodness he has a good driller running the rig while he takes care of business in town.

As King returns through the soupy mud with another heavy load of supplies and a straw and linen lined box of hot food from the hotel (a rare treat for his crew), he notes with satisfaction and anticipation the frame of the new station and freight house, rapidly rising at the terminus of the railway.

Will this be the day that they strike the big one? King urges his team on, back along the margin of the railway, as the navvies lay rails. He has a feeling something big is about to happen and if it does, he doesn’t want to miss it…

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