Tales of ingenuity: The birth of Canada’s oil and gas industry

It is an industry where Canada has always been a leader and continues to be a leader today with innovations in new technologies, new refining processes, new ways of concern and caring for the environment.

Did you know oil was first discovered in North America in southwestern Ontario–near a town that became known as Oil Springs? Or that the first attempt at fracking involved dumping nitroglycerin down a well, then running for safety?

Energy Examined chats with Christina Sydorko, education program coordinator at Oil Museum of Canada: a national heritage site featuring a working oil well site at Oil Springs. Sydorko shares some of the fascinating stories of the characters who birthed the North American industry, and discusses how their spirit of innovation is reflected in Canada’s oil and natural gas industry today.

Transcript of the Podcast

Tracy: Hello, and thanks for tuning in. This is Energy Examined. If you’re new here, welcome to the podcast community, where we talk about a wide range of topics across Canada’s natural gas and oil industry. I’m Tracy Larsson, and today I’m going to take you on a bit of a journey back in time to learn about the history of Canada’s oil industry. Our guide today is Christina Sydorko, educational program coordinator at the Oil Museum of Canada. That’s in the village of Oil Springs in southern Ontario. Christina, welcome to the podcast.

Christina: Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here today.

Tracy: There is a lot of history at the heart of Canada’s oil industry, so why don’t you start by taking us back in time and tell us where it all started?

Christina: So, most people find it interesting that the oil industry got its start in southwestern Ontario or what at that period of time would have been called Upper Canada, and it got its start here because you can literally step in it.

So, we do know that the Indigenous Peoples here of this part of North America were utilizing the resources for many, many generations. They were harvesting the raw crude from the ground to use in traditional medicines or to use to steel the bottoms of their canoes as a waterproofing agent.

But starting in the 1840s, the Canadian Geologic Survey was going about surveying this land. So, they were running from East to West, surveying everything that they could see. This was like a preliminary condition leading towards Confederation, what was out there and what was in these newly acquired territories. So, there was, the survey came through, and in the Logan Report of 1842, they made note of this remarkable sticky, black substance that was oozing out of the ground in the Enniskillen swamps. There were local entrepreneurs in nearby communities of Hamilton and London, Ontario, that heard about this black, sticky substance, and they decided to come try their luck.

That first person was Charles Nelson Tripp. So, he was a bit of a shyster. He was a dreamer. He thought, very importantly of himself. He was very charismatic. So, he came to this area. He was investigating this black, sticky substance, and he knew if he boiled it right down, it would make a paving substance. We today, we call it asphalt, but he was making this paving substance. He was just using a pickax to harvest the gum beds, which were the natural oil seeps that come out of the ground in this area. And he was just boiling it down, and he was selling it as a paving substance. He was a very good salesman. He was trying to sell this substance. And in fact, he almost convinced King Louis Napoleon of France to buy five shiploads to pave the streets in Europe in his kingdom.

The problem was there was no good way to get this raw substance and this refined product out of the swamps of Enniskillen. It took you a couple of weeks to transport it over some sticky quagmire roads to the Port of Sarnia. That would take you a couple of weeks. Today, it takes us about 30 minutes to drive, but you’re thinking three to four weeks to get this substance to the port in Sarnia to load it into ships to send it overseas. So, he went bankrupt.

So, he had this amazing product, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t know how to get it to market. He sold his company and his lands to an individual named James Miller Williams, who in fact, Tripp owed money to James Miller Williams. James Miller Williams was a carriage manufacturer, and he was a man who was a very astute businessperson. And James Miller Williams was fortunate in that at the same time he bought this company, which was the first petroleum company in North America, it was called the Mining and Manufacturing Company, the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, which was granted a royal charter.

He purchased this company, and he was fortunate in that nearby in Wyoming, the rail lines had come through. So, this problem of getting the product to market easily and efficiently was solved because 10 kilometers down the road was the railhead in Wyoming, so he could easily just load the raw crude or his refined products onto the railhead. And in 1858, while James Miller Williams was poking around his new lands, he dug that first commercial oil well. It was only 14 feet deep, and it produced 50 barrels of raw crude a day, which he then took and put it in a refinery, a simple still and through simple distillation, refined kerosene from that raw crude oil, which he then sold on the open market to New York and all throughout North America and Europe for illuminating oil so that people had light at night.

Tracy: Well, that is a big deal at that time, and this oil well, you said it was 14 feet deep. That was hand-dug right?

Christina: It was hand-dug and hand-cribbed. So, this was the first commercial oil well in North America. It was hand-dug at this period of time. And he was just wondering, he was actually looking for water because, you know, you get thirsty out in the oil fields and it’s a swamp, so you don’t want to drink any of the standing water. And he didn’t find that. That’s the myth that has been handed down to us at the museum. So, he was looking for that. He dug it next to his gum beds, and it just filled with this light sour crude that was just oozing in.

And before this, people were using whale oil in their lamps at night, which means you have to go into the North Atlantic and kill and butcher a whale and then refine its blubber. This was really expensive, time-consuming. I don’t know about you, but whale hunting sounds like a dangerous occupation, and the whales were slowly going extinct because everybody from Europe was harvesting these whales to render them into whale oil for their lamps. With the development of kerosene, James Miller Williams was marketing this stuff. We have his newspaper marketing.

He was selling it for half price of what you could pay for whale oil. It was clean. It was bright. It wasn’t exploding. It did have a bit of an odour to it. They called it the swamp oil or the skunk oil. But it was cheap and people wanted to see at night. If you didn’t have a ready supply of candles, then you were using oil lamps and you had to go to bed when it got dark. And it gets dark very early out here in North America, 4:30 in the afternoon, in the middle of winter. I don’t want to go to bed at that time, so you need it light at night. And not only could they refine kerosene very simply through simple distillation, but they were also refining lubricating oils and machine oils that they could send to the newly industrialized nations that were just burgeoning on their industrializations.

Tracy: You are a great storyteller. Christina, why do you enjoy telling this story so much?

Christina: Because it still impacts us today. So, I find it, the innovations that they were doing and all of the things that combined and the struggles that they had with the swamp and the mud. That’s just so relatable to, still today we have swampy soils out here. How did they overcome these obstacles? What kind of innovations and tools and techniques did they get to do these things and why was it here and not, you know, overseas somewhere? And that this is in my own backyard and it still affects me today. I still use petroleum products every day, whether I’m putting gasoline in my car or using other products that come from that. It’s just so relevant to my daily life. And it affects my community still today as we still have an active oil industry here in southwestern Ontario.

Tracy: And how does the Oil Museum of Canada fit into the picture?

Christina: So, we are really committed to preserving the site of the first commercial oil. We are really committed to preserving the history and the heritage and the innovation and the creativity that goes into, how did this get its start? Why here? Why not some other place and the individuals and the characters? There were a lot of interesting people that got involved in it. There is James Miller Williams, who was a family man who didn’t enjoy living in Oil Springs because he missed his wife and children.

But then you have other crazy characters that were in here that this was a boomtown. There was heavy drinking. There was, you know, in the span of two years, the population went from 100 people to 5,000 people. And what does that change the landscape and the social history of this community? And, you know, illustrate all the stories dealing with the black gold rush. This was a boom rush town. People were coming to make their fortunes and lose their fortunes at the same point in time. There’s an old phrase that goes, ‘If you came into Oil Springs with money, you left dry, but if you came in with nothing, you might have left as a millionaire.’ And that still exemplifies many things about the industry still today.

Tracy: Now the museum’s actually designated as a national historic site. Is that correct?

Christina: It is. Yeah, we received national designation in 1925. So, people in this community knew even in the early 1900s, that this was significant. It was the first commercial oil well in North America. It is one of the oldest continuously active oil fields still using that 1800s technology even today. So, people, even throughout our history, understood that significance. And it’s that significance in ingenuity and innovation that we tried to preserve to share with our community and our patrons and all of the people that come to visit us.

Tracy: I understand there’s also work going on to have the site declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, what does that involve?

Christina: So, that involves us doing so, we’ve made our initial bid and we were unsuccessful a couple of years in that initial bid. But that doesn’t — we’re not turned off by that. So, we were shortlisted and our proposal was submitted to Parks Canada to try and make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’ve taken the reasoning behind why we did not successfully win that first bid. And we are resubmitting the bid in a couple of years. You can submit a bid to be shortlisted for Parks Canada to submit to the national United Nations for UNESCO’s World Heritage. So, this is part of, we are creating thematic studies with Tiki. So, this is a fanatic study about how does the industry affect today, the past and the future. We are renovating the museum to upgrade our facilities so that if one day we do successfully win a World Heritage Site, we are more than ready to welcome the world to Oil Springs and southern Ontario to share this incredible history of human innovation and technology.

Tracy: And why do you think this bit of history is so important not just for southern Ontario, but for Canadians in general to know about?

Christina: The ideas of technology and innovation, those are themes that we are still proud of today. Those are things that we export this expertise all around the world. We’ve been exporting our expertise in this industry since 1879, when those first oil drillers left Lambton County to go overseas to Borneo. It is an industry where Canada has always been a leader and continues to be a leader today with innovations in new technologies, new refining processes, new ways of concern and caring for the environment so that we do not leave the environment in a worse situation than when we found it in order to access this valuable resource. So, we are very, I think it’s important to understand where we came from, to understand where we are going and where we are today.

Tracy: So, in educating people and making this connection from past to present, what is your ultimate goal?

Christina: So, my ultimate goal is to get people the facts. Everybody has an opinion. Oil and petroleum resources are controversial. Everyone has an opinion about this resource. How we should utilize this resource or not utilize this resource. And our main goal is that you at least have the facts to make an informed decision. The Oil Museum is independent, so we are not beholden to any one corporation or company or anything like that. We are completely independent in the presentations and the history that we present, but what we are very concerned with is no matter what your viewpoint on this resource is, that you at least have the facts to make an informed decision.

So, we want you to understand where did it come from, what is it exactly and what is it not so that you as an individual can make your own opinions about this resource and it’s a safe place to have these conversations. The museum welcomes all different viewpoints into its doors. It is a community-based organization. We are a place where if you have questions, you can ask them and you can try and find the answers. And there’s no silly questions and nobody’s going to attack you for whatever viewpoint that you have. It’s a place where you can make informed decisions.

Tracy: So, in what ways do you think we would see the history then of the oil industry reflected in the modern oil industry that we have operating across Canada today?

Christina: So, we are still utilizing some of the same tools and techniques, so you’re, if you looked at a historical pump jack, you’re going to steal it, see the similarities as a modern pump jack. While the old ones were made out of wood, they look very similar to the nodding donkeys that you might see today in a modern oil field. You’re going to see some of the same tools and techniques. You’re going to have the same concerns about natural gas and explosions.

When you’re drilling down, you’re going to need people that have the expertise in these and you’re going to need people that still think creatively about problem-solving: how do we build the tools? How do we access the resource? How do we clean up this resource? How do we use it in a way that people can find valuable? So, we still have those same generations and it’s still the same product. It still comes out of the ground looking the same way that it did 160 years ago. It’s still this black liquid substance. But how do we use it in an interesting way that’s good for the public? So, and we have the same problems today.

Charles Tripp went out of business because he didn’t know how to get his product to market because of poor transportation networks. Those are problems that are still reminiscent in the current oil industry today, and we have to think as creatively as some of those individuals, like James Miller Williams, whether he built his own plank road or they built their rail line to get the product to market. So, I find there’s so many similarities between the creative thinking styles of individuals in the past and the creative thinking styles of individuals today.

Tracy: You know, I’ve been noticing that throughout this conversation, is your references to things that happened in those early days to what’s happening now. And you know that they need to be able to access markets and the creative thinking that was needed back then and the innovation. And those are all really big topics today still. Particularly right now when we’re talking about innovation in the industry and improving and deploying these new technologies. So, that’s something we’ve seen all along.

Christina: So, it’s something that I always find fascinating. As much as things change, they stay exactly the same in many ways. So, the tools and techniques may change, but the problems remain very similar to what they may have experienced in the 1860s or the 1850s. So, and throughout that growth of the industry, I just find it so interesting to me personally and the characters. There are characters in the oil industry today, and there were characters back then.

Tracy: What do you, if you have another story that you’d like to share about one of the characters from back then that would be awesome.

Christina: So, one of the major, starting in about the 1870s, they started fracking. Fracking is not new technology. It’s something that’s been present in the industry right from its origin stories in the 1800s. So, fracking in the historical context is very different than it is in the modern context. Fracking back then was a little bit like Wile E. Coyote. You would want to increase productivity of your well.

So, in order to increase productivity, you would take nitroglycerin and load it into a torpedo and drop it down your oil well and run away. And hopefully, that you ran for enough that the explosion would happen and nobody would get hurt. There were accidents and the people that were employed in shooting wells — that is the term — were called oil well shooters. And there were two types of oil shooters in that day: those that drank before a job and those that drank after a job.

According to many of the old-timers that are still living today that participated in this industry, those that drank before you did a job didn’t live very long. They were drinking to calm their nerves because it was, you’re dealing with a highly volatile substance and you’re blowing stuff up. But those that took their jobs very seriously and sober thought and mind tended to live very long lives, and they would have a drink to calm their nerves afterwards. These are kind of the things I’m like, ‘really this, like Wile E. Coyote, you drop a nitro torpedo and you run away and you wait for an explosion there?’ And they’re like, ‘yup, that was just, that’s how we did it back then.’ And that’s how it was continued up until about the 1960s.

And we have stories, so many stories coming out about how did you manufacture this product? How did you transport this product? And the different people that actually participated and some of them were risk-takers, and some of them were cavalier about it, and some of them took it very seriously. And I find that those that took their jobs very seriously and thought this was very important lived long lives to tell these tales and those that were cavalier and were not and imbibed in dangerous substances didn’t live very long. So, it’s lessons for today.

Tracy: Well, the process of hydraulic fracturing has definitely improved and changed since those days. What do you hope that people take away then from the exhibits that you have at the Oil Museum of Canada?

Christina: I hope they take away a sense of wonder and excitement and a willingness to investigate technology and appreciation for where we’ve come and how far and different the industry is today. The incredible safety regulations that are in today, the incredible care that the modern industry puts in towards environmental stewardship and sustainability as compared to where we started in the past. The industry today didn’t grow up in a vacuum. It grew up with making mistakes and learning from those mistakes to create a sustainable industry that doesn’t have a boom and a bust that impacts the community negatively, that these industries grew up and learned and have matured, and that this is a really innovative, creative type of process that is here to benefit the entire community.

Tracy: At the museum, you’ve got obviously the onsite exhibits, but there’s also a lot that people can engage in virtually. Do you want to just let people know a bit about where to go online and what they can expect to find?

Christina: So, I’m hoping people can come visit us at our website at www.oilmuseum.ca. So, this is our major place where you can find us online, where you’ll find all of our educational programs. We are offering a full slate of virtual education. You can access asynchronous learning programs so you can go on and find downloadable slides with videos and worksheets and rubrics and lesson plans for teachers or those that happen to be homeschooling their children right now due to the pandemic.

You can also access live sessions where you will meet with one of the museum’s educators to virtually talk to your class or your social group or your seniors group. Not only are we accessing or creating content in a virtual sense, but you can access and find us on Facebook, on Instagram. We are under Twitter and we have a YouTube channel where you can look at our little videos. We have a whole new slate of videos called Drilling Deeper, where we look at the history of certain things, like the history of a light post or the history of a flashpoint tester that protected Canadians from people doctoring their oil. We have all of these different little stories that we are trying to access when maybe you physically can’t see us in person.

Tracy: Alright, thank you so much, Christina, for being on the podcast today. Thanks for the history lesson. It was really good talking with you.

Christina: No problem. Thank you for having me.

Tracy: And that wraps up another episode of Energy Examined. I hope you enjoyed hearing some stories about the early days of Canada’s oil industry. Please tune in again soon and of course, subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode. I’m Tracy Larson, and I will catch you next time on Energy Examined.