It's a warm Friday evening, and we sit comfortably in Petrolia's attractive
Victoria Hall, enjoying
Neil Simon's popular play,
The Odd Couple. This is a Canadian National Historic Site, originally a fire hall, municipal office, police hall, jail and opera house, completed in 1889 for $35 000, designed in the
Queen Anne style by Ontario's foremost architect,
George Durand. There are photo albums and oil memorabilia inside. Stained glass windows in the entrance are by celebrated artist
Christopher Wallis, commissioned to mark the 150th anniversary of Fairbank Oil in 2011. And from this cursory evening's glance of "Canada's Victorian Oil Town," we are inspired to visit again Saturday.
In 1857, Hamiltonian
James Miller Williams began distilling "tar" around Oil Springs, a few kilometers south of Petrolia. In 1858, he struck an oil deposit, sparking the oil drilling industry. In 2008, the 150th anniversary of the discovery, Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating this first commercial oil well.
Petrolia's 1866 major oil well discovery resulted in an oil boom that caused many to abandon Oil Springs in favour of this new settlement. Some wells sunk in 1938 initially produced 100 barrels per day at a price of only $2 per barrel! Petrolia houses the Petrolia Discovery Museum, and some oil fields remain operational today.
Saturday morning, we employ a walking tour brochure obtained in Victoria Hall. We ease through Victoria Park, originally purchased by
John H. Fairbank for $8,200 and later sold for the same amount to the town fathers to be used as a market square. We saunter along Petrolia Line, the main street of this town of 5,500.
The Old Post Office on the west side of the park is an imposing red building turned into a gift shop, while straight ahead, the Petrolia Library is a splendid example of early railway architecture (Queen Anne Style), built in 1903 by the
Grand Trunk Railway, the service discontinued in 1930. Inside, I view the well-preserved interior and ladies and gentleman waiting areas.
Victorian buildings with seasoned, intricate facades abound along Petrolia Line including the Crown Savings and Loan Company, (Royal Bank) a private bank established in the 1890's by some of Petrolia's leading oilmen. A short walk down the street, we encounter "Sunnyside," a mansion built in 1890 for John Henry Fairbank, an oilman, banker, politician and entrepreneur. This elegant Victorian Queen Anne building was one of the largest and finest in Ontario. The exterior was built from rare Ohio red clay bricks, each individually wrapped in wax paper before shipment to Petrolia. "Sunnyside" boasts 22 rooms including a third floor ballroom which hosted high society galas featuring orchestras such as that of Guy Lombardo. Sadly, it is now in deep disrepair, a haunting reminder of past glory.
Tank Street is named for the oil tank-wagons that lined the road, waiting to be unloaded at the refineries. The nodding heads of beam pumps on oil wells can be seen on both sides of the road.
Seven churches crowd the downtown with the Presbyterian's tower the most impressive, jutting enthusiastically into the sky. At Karen Watson's shop, the Petrolia Mercantile & Tea, we try delicious, complimentary cranberry tea. A picture of Queen Victoria appropriately presides over myriad gift items, many imported from the U.K. It's a great shop for tourists to explore.
The 1800s oil rush was staged in three nearby towns -
Oil Springs, Bothwell and Petrolia. In Oil Springs, by 1852, Charles Nelson Tripp and his brother Henry were using the gum beds to produce asphalt for paving, knowing there was a ready market in Paris, France which had asphalt sidewalks in 1838.
James Miller Williams wanted to produce inexpensive lamp oil. In 1854,
Dr. Abraham Gesner of Nova Scotia obtained the US patent for making it from crude and by 1858, Williams dug the well that changed the world, producing ample lamp oil. Both men have been called "The Father of Refining." By 1861, 400 wells had been dug or drilled.
Bothwell's first gusher was in April, 1863, producing 200 barrels a day, and it took four days to bring it under control. In the spring of 1898, Bothwell shipped 7,000 barrels of oil. By 1902 there were 200 wells.
By 1866, the action had swung to Petrolia with another boom underway that lasted for decades. In the 1870s, Canada's first pipelines began here, and for the first time, oil producers united in Petrolia to regulate prices. In the 1880s, 19 refiners formed Imperial Oil in London. Within four years, it moved its barrel plant to Petrolia, bought a refinery and made Petrolia its headquarters. Petrolia bustled with major manufacturing businesses opening such as the Stevenson Boiler Works and the Petrolia Wagon Works.
Old brick buildings still line the main street, and attractive houses were built including Fairbank's mansion, and the stately Victoria Hall. Petrolia's famous
"Foreign Drillers" exported their expertise to the far-flung corners of the globe to open new oil fields.
We spend the entire morning exploring pretty Petrolia, its streets festooned with beautiful flowers. We head to nearby Sarnia for lunch, bypassing the Oil Museum of Canada for a future visit, tied in, of course, with Petrolia's fine live theatre.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Our story began in 1880, when 16 refiners in southwestern Ontario created The Imperial Oil Company, Limited. Today, we operate from coast to coast and are best known for our familiar brand names: Esso and Mobil.
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