Relics of an old pumping rig are kept.
Photo: Al Hayward
A robin's nest hides outside the blacksmith shop.
Photo: Al Hayward
An oilman greases the threads of a pipe collar.
Photo: Willy Waterton
An oilman tightens the collar on a scraping tool.
Photo: Willy Waterton
A curious deer stops to view the onlooker.
Photo: Larry Cornelis
This 5-horsepower rig pumps 20 wells.
Photo: Al Hayward
Oil Springs, Ontario
Hooray! We’re celebrating our 160th anniversary this year! It seems miraculous that Fairbank Oil has survived, and even thrived, throughout all the tumultuous decades since it was founded in 1861. It’s been 160 years of producing oil in the tiny village of Oil Springs, in rural Southwestern Ontario.
In an ever-changing world, Fairbank Oil Fields today is a rare preserved pocket of historic oil technology and systems. Surrounded by fields of soybean and corn, it is an unassuming place 104 km southwest of London.
Established as a Canadian National Historic Site in Canada 96 years ago, it is finally drawing global attention with an international conference of industrial heritage experts planned for later this year. (See Industrial Heritage Conference blog.)
Oil Springs burst into existence when Charles and Nelson Tripp established in Oil Springs the world’s first petroleum company in 1854. They produced asphalt from the sticky gum beds of oil that had seeped to surface. By 1858, James Miller Williams triggered North America’s first oil rush by digging a well, producing oil, crudely refining it and selling his “illuminating oil” for lamps. Word spread like wildfire. Petroleum was an exciting new source of energy.
But these were still early days. When the penniless 29-year old John Henry Fairbank arrived in the spring of 1861 as a surveyor, he was shocked to find hundreds of men toiling to find oil. Word spread that it was so much easier to distill liquid oil than solid coal from far away. Lighting with whale oil had grown expensive as the whales died out. These were horse and buggy days and in the U.S., Abraham Lincoln had just been named president. This was pre-Confederation and this part of Ontario was known as Canada West. (See The Early Years of Canada’s Oil blog.)
Always a family business, Fairbank Oil has passed through four generations of Fairbanks and since 1972 has been owned and operated by John Henry Fairbank’s great-grandson Charlie Fairbank. What makes Fairbank Oil Fields stand out is that it still uses the authentic technology of the 1860s. These are not static displays, the technology works around the clock each day, producing roughly 24,000 barrels of oil annually that is shipped to Sarnia’s Imperial Oil refinery.
Fairbank Oil has survived two world wars, the Depression, and a roller coaster ride of booms and busts. We never imagined that we’d be in the midst of a global pandemic during our 160th anniversary! Fairbank Oil Fields are still pumping its 350 wells around the clock and, as an essential service, we have not stopped.
We’re looking forward to a time we can host events again! Until then we’ll be celebrating our anniversary through blog posts with photos and stories. Stay tuned!
We have stories!
Navigate through our history, technology, nature pages above and info below.
Touring Fairbank Oil Fields
Normally, we offer three ways to tour here: The Driving Tour, our Horse-drawn Wagon Rides in summer, and for touring on foot, there is our Nature Trail.
The good news is that anyone can take our Driving Tour any time of year, even during the pandemic. This tour is narrated and you can tune in on your vehicle’s radio. (See FM Radio box at right.)
Our two other ways of touring Fairbank Oil are on hold at the moment. Our popular guided horse-drawn wagon rides through our oilfield may be offered this summer but we are not certain. It will depend on Covid-19 restrictions. Not only is this 45-minute ride fun to do but you also learn a lot from the Oil Museum of Canada guide onboard.
Our Nature Trail is currently closed for bridge repair. The trail’s walking bridge across Black Creek needs new foundations and they may be in place by summer. The foundations date back more than 100 years when the A.W. Parks and his family built the bridge to their house. It was built so that cars could drive across it. Many decades later the bridge was taken down and Fairbank Oil replaced it with a wooden walking bridge.
The Oil Museum of Canada here in Oil Springs is currently closed as extensive renovations are underway. It is expected that the museum will be able reopen in August to welcome visitors back and marvel at the changes.
Like everyone else, we are all hoping to return to Normal as soon as possible!
From the comfort of your car, see the oilfield in action and life-sized metal sculptures depicting oilmen as they worked in the 1800s. Pick up map and guidebook at the Oil Museum of Canada and from May to October, you can tune into a narrative on your car radio. You’ll also see our barn mural, the most photographed barn in Lambton County.
OIL HISTORY NATURE TRAIL
Take the family on foot though woodlands wetlands and meadows to see oil history interpretive signs as well as the pumpjacks pumping oil. Highlights include the Foreign Driller art and the wonderful bridge over Black Creek is perfect for watching dragonflies. The diverse habitats draw deer, turtles, frogs and many species of birds and butterflies. Use the parking lot on Gypsie Flats Rd. and grab a trail map there.
Fairbank Oil Fields by Numbers
Number of oil wells now operating: 350
Number of oil wells operating in 1974: 70
Number of years since most oil wells were drilled here: 120 +
Number of acres: 650
Number of barrels of oil pumped here annually: 24,000
Number of barrels J.H. Fairbank pumped when he was the largest oil producer in Canada in the 1800s: 24,000
Number of barrels the Black and Matheson flowing well produced in Oil Springs in one day in 1862: 6,000
Year that Lambton County started sending its 500 Foreign Drillers to 86 countries around the world to open new oilfields: 1873
Population of Oil Springs on the February 1861 census: 54
Population of Oil Springs in 1865: 4,000
Population of Oil Springs in 2016: 648
Number of Munro Honey bees living at Fairbank Oil: 500,000
Number of acres farmed with crops here today: 100
Number of years that sheep have been raised here: 80
Ratio of oil wells to sheep: 3 to 1
Ranking of the abundance of flora and fauna biodiversity of Fairbank Oil in Lambton County: 2nd
Ranking of the abundance of flora and fauna biodiversity of Walpole Island in Lambton County: 1st
Number of butterfly species identified here: 29
Number of grassland bird species identified here: 43
Year Imperial Oil was formed in London, Ontario: 1880
Number of years Fairbank Oil has been shipping crude to Imperial Oil so far: 139
Number of years ago that glaciers covered this part of the country: 10,000 +
Number of years ago that the oil here was formed by plants and sea creatures: 350 million
Number of litres in a barrel of oil: 154
Number of Imperial gallons in a barrel of oil: 35
Number of American gallons in a barrel of oil: 42
Hours each day that the wells are pumping: 24
Average price of a barrel of crude in 2018: $69.52 U.S.
Average price of a barrel of crude in 1972 before the oil embargo on the Middle East: $1.82 U.S.
Average price of a barrel of crude in 1974 after the oil embargo: $11.00 U.S.
Number of wells the big Fairbank & Shannon rig had pumped in 1906: 212
Horsepower need for each of the six power rigs: 5
Number of km. of wooden jerker line on Fairbank Oil: 12
Number of km. if the depth of all the wells at Fairbank Oil were laid end to end: 37 km
Number of metres beneath the ground the oil is here: 133
Ratio of water to oil when it comes up to surface here: 50 to 3
Cost of installing the first disposal well in 1991: $250,000
Number of individual metal sculptures of real people here: 22
Number of donkeys: 1
Current number of domestic geese wandering the property: 7
Number of deer wandering the oilfields and woods: Countless
What else is here?
Lots! In all of Lambton County, only Walpole Island has greater biodiversity than Fairbank Oil Fields.
As the county is farmed more intensively and urban development grows, the forests, wetlands and meadows have largely disappeared. This makes Fairbank Oil Fields very important to preserving these habitats.
There are two key reasons the biodiversity is so huge here. One is that Black Creek meanders through the northern and western sections of our land. The second reason is that our various landscapes are large enough to be brimming with life.
Within our 600 acres of woodlands, wetlands and grasslands, we have sheep, geese, deer, wild turkeys, owls, beavers, possums, turtles, frogs, butterflies, more than 80 species of birds, plus we have 500,000 Munro Honey bees and a donkey named Jack.
And in total, we have 315 species of plants. A number of the trees and plants here are rare for Ontario or rare for Lambton County.