Canada’s first oil gusher exploded with a roar in Oil Springs, Ontario 160 years ago in January. It was January 16, 1862 when John Shaw chiselled 52 metres into the rock formation, much deeper than anyone thought sane and struck oil.
With the force of a firehose, enormous amounts of oil spewed high over treetops. The continuing roar could be heard for miles. Oil flowed down the frozen Black Creek to the Sydenham River then on to Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. It gushed 2,000 to 3,000 barrels of almost pure oil each 24 hours, and it couldn’t be controlled for days.
Finally, Americans who had seen gushers in Pennsylvania, brought the roar under control using a 4-metre leather bag filled with flax seed. The seed, engorged with oil, plugged the cavity around the pipe that rose 7 metres into the air. It quelled the flow, and four 120-gallon tanks collected the oil. Once controlled, it continued to flow huge amounts of oil for four months.
The news travelled fast, far and wide, even reaching the New York Times. In a frenzy, hundreds of men flocked to Oil Springs from all directions. This oil rush soared beyond the first rush when James Miller Williams struck oil in Oil Springs in 1858, a year ahead of Pennsylvania’s first well. And it was far more than the 1860 rush when Leonard Baldwin Vaughn struck the first “flowing well” in Oil Springs. Flowing wells gush a great deal of oil with no pump. Shaw’s gusher was viewed as a terrible “waste”, not as an environmental disaster, as it would be today.
Petrolia Oil Development Pivot to Oil Springs
In a strange twist of fate, Shaw’s gusher delayed the development of Petrolia’s very early budding of oil. In 1861, John Shaw was working wells with two other oil partners on the flats of Bear Creek when the main street was just “a streak in the bush”. Shaw was reportedly a difficult man and to get rid of him, the partners gave him an acre of land in Oil Springs.
“The news soon spread and a tremendous rush took place to Oil Springs, while Petrolea dropped back to its ancient solitude,” reported the Petrolea Topic on January 29, 1902. Historian Victor Lauriston retold the story in his book Lambton County’s 100 Years 1849-1949. “Fate laughed.”
Shaw was a travelling photographer, believed to be American, who drifted north, became broke and would exhaust his credit in Oil Springs. For six months, he laboured at his well with a spring pole chiselling into the bedrock along with partners Hugh Smiley and J. Coryell. Discouraged, he very nearly gave up when he struck the gusher.
This was all happening five years before Confederation, when Canada was called British North America. Ontario was called both Canada West or Upper Canada.
Oil was a “new” source of energy for producing kerosene for lamps, a relief for areas without coal, like Canada West. Whale oil grew too expensive and distilling solid coal to make coal oil for lamps was difficult and costly. Lubrication would swiftly be another key use for petroleum. The combustion engine, which would find many more uses for oil, was still decades away.
The allure of oil made 1862 a stunning year in Oil Springs. Before the year ended, an incredible 32 more flowing wells were struck, heightening the oil frenzy. The most amazing was the Black and Mathieson well which was producing 7,500 barrels each day for several days. These flowing wells produced incredibly high amounts of oil for weeks or a few months, then a pump was added and it continued to produce. At the end of 1862, Oil Springs had 1,000 wells producing 12,000 barrels daily and 10 refineries.
With such a glut of oil, the price of barrel of oil plummeted from $4 a barrel to a mere 10 cents. Transporting oil to the Great Western Railhead in Wyoming in 1862 became impossibly slow. The 18 km. road between the two spots was so deplorable, it was nicknamed “the canal”. Horses waded up to their belies in the clay, which was said to be “the most adhesive mud to be found anywhere in Canada.” Stone-boats, which were like sleighs, were used and one team of horses could carry no more than two barrels at a time. By May 1862, a plank road of squared off timbers was laid which improved the road …somewhat.
After the Gushers
As men flocked to Oil Springs, the population ballooned to over 4,000. By 1866, Oil Springs boasted 1,500 wells, 12 general stores, nine hotels, 27 refineries and a daily newspaper. But there were signs in 1865 the boom was ending. In May, the American Civil War had ended so many Americans left. Oil Springs had no more flowing wells after 1862 and oil men noticed more salt flowing into their diminishing wells.
People also feared a war between the U.S. and British North America. Heavily armed Fenians, who wanted Ireland to be free of English rule, started invading Canada, thinking if they seized land here, the British would give Ireland independence. On June 1, 1866 more than 1,000 Fenians crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo and the Battle of Ridgeway ensued, killing 9 Canadians and wounding far more. However, the Fenians did not prevail. In 1866, Oil Springs was abandoned, almost overnight, and many fled to Petrolia hoping it would become the next boom town.
John Shaw vs. Hugh Nixon Shaw
In the early 1860s, there were two men named Shaw who were pursuing oil in Oil Springs. John Shaw was one, the other was the highly respected Hugh Nixon Shaw who helped layout the village. Though they were two distinctly different men, their stories were blended into one Hugh Nixon Shaw. From the 1940s right through to 2010, the prevailing story was that Hugh Nixon Shaw struck Canada’s first gusher and later was asphyxiated in his own well. Finally in 2010, Dana Thorne researched a vast number of newspaper reports and books to conclude that the gusher was indeed struck by John Shaw. At the time, she was on a Robert Cochrane Fellowship in Oil Springs and she now heads the Heritage Museum in Grand Bend.
And what became of John Shaw?
It appears John Shaw’s boastfulness and unpleasantness made him universally disliked. He soon lost his wealth to bad business deals and swindlers, drifted down to Pennsylvania and died broke in 1871 at the age of 42. He died in Petrolia but it is not known where he is buried.
Today, the Shaw Well and the site of many other flowing wells are on Fairbank Oil Fields. Owner Charlie Fairbank erected a three-pole derrick at the Shaw Well, visible east of the barn on the flats of Black Creek. Fairbank Oil Fields and the Oil Museum of Canada (on the site of Williams 1858 well) together form one National Historic Site.