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Operating Oil Technology of the 1800s

Fairbank Oil Fields is a complete system 19th century oil production. It is intact, authentic and still operating today. It can surprise visitors. It certainly surprised Dr. Emory Kemp, then director of the Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology of West Virginia University. He first visited here in the late 1990s. “It was as if they had been studying dinosaur fossils and stumbled upon a living, breathing dinosaur,” Charlie told a London Free Press reporter.

The technology at Fairbank Oil Fields was closely examined in the Lambton County Oil Conservation Study of 2010. This system here contains the components for drilling, extraction, power supply, storage, brine collection and shipping. According to the study, there are more than 700 features of fixed material and if movable objects were added, the inventory would reach more than 1,000.

Much of the technology dates back to the 1860s, which is very early in the history of the modern petroleum age. The Williams Discovery Well in Oil Springs was struck in 1858. With the roots of this technology dating so far back in this fully operating system is rare in the world.

The Rigs or Powerhouses

It begins at the powerhouse. A pump is needed to extract the oil from a well and the pumps have always required power. Over the decades, these powerhouses or “rigs” have evolved to meet the needs of the oil property. They are crucial to the oil field. If they are shut down for any reason, the oil wells don’t pump and lower production naturally means lower revenue. They operate 24 hours each day.

Inside the powerhouse, it feels like a dizzying flashback to the early days of the industrial revolution. It’s the strong smell of oil that hits the senses first. The clanking and banging is loud. Machinery is coated in thick, gooey, glistening black oil. Nothing is blacker.

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Originally, steam engines were outfitted to each rig and beginning in 1918, they were replaced with electricity. Oil was one of the first industries to use the hydroelectric power of Niagara Falls. Each rig operates around the clock, and surprisingly, they only require a 5-horsepower motor.

Today, there are six rigs located throughout the 600 acres here. (The Orchard Rig, North James Rig, South Rig, East Flats Rig, East Rig and West Rig.) Together, the six supply power to 200 of the 350 wells here.

Each rig has its speed reduced to 11 strokes per minute and the power is then transferred through the jerker lines to pumpjacks at each well. Download a map of the jerker lines.

The wooden bullwheel varies at each rig but most are approximately 1.8 metres in diameter.

The Jerker Line

Outside the rig, the power is transferred horizontally to long wooden rods of the double jerker line. The rods run parallel to the ground and about 20 centimetres above it, suspended by iron hangers. The jerker line swings or “jerks” back and forth much like a pendulum. They move slowly (11 times a minute) like two stiff arms pulling back and forth.

Wood is used because it is light and inexpensive. It does not expand and contract with temperature as metal does.

Each pole has what are called Pitman arms, moving vertically. These arms rest on a set of sliding blocks leading into the rig. Both wooden rods have large turnbuckles that can release the tension when repairs are needed.

The jerker system, devised by J.H. Fairbank in 1863, is often the first thing visitors notice when they come to Fairbank Oil because it looks, well, from another era. Many people find the jerker line primitive or quaint.

For Oil Springs, the jerker system was a great leap forward in reducing costs. Earlier, a steam engine was needed for each well and that was expensive. It’s a system that works only on shallow oil fields and here the wells are only 122 metres deep.

The jerker “sings” as it swings at 11 times per minute. This singing varies with wind and weather. It is an intangible aspect of the oil heritage. It sounds just like it did in the 1860s.

At Fairbank Oil Fields, if the jerker lines were stretched from end to end it would measure close to 10 kilometres.

Photo: Larry Cornelis

“Some realize that it is a lot of trouble,” says Charlie Fairbank. “One man watching it said it couldn’t work. When people ask why I don’t modernize and go to pump jacks or secondary recovery, I give them simple answers…To convert to pumpjacks would produce no more oil, cost a great deal, save the labour of only one man and triple power consumption…

“The real reason, the one I don’t give, is also simple. I don’t modernize because it isn’t up to me. Oil Springs is a legacy and transcends the individual. It is the creation of all the men who ever worked here. It reminds us of our beginnings. Stripped to the essentials, it teaches men the elements of our business.”

The Field Wheel

Photo: Al Hayward

The jerker works in straight lines, however, oil wells are scattered and not in straight lines. For this reason, the field wheel was devised. It acts as a hub, radiating jerker lines in different directions. It is an essential component to the oil field.

Made of cast iron, they are built to last. A “bent” of heavy timber holds the field wheel horizontal to the ground. In decades past, the field wheel was common, now it is rare. Fairbank Oil has 12.

The Pumpjacks

Photo: Tony White

In Oil Springs, the oil lies in rock 116 to 122 metres beneath surface and requires an open hole and a pump to get it out of the ground. Metal tubes, called casings, are inserted into the well to keep out shale, water and debris. Two different types of casing are used. The one that runs from surface to the bedrock 9 to 24 metres below is a conductor pipe. It’s made of wood. A second, narrower casing fits inside it and runs right down to the oil formation. It’s called the production casing.

The pump inside the open hole has lengths of one-and-a-quarter-inch pipe screwed together, reaching a total of 116 metres. At the bottom of the pipe, there is a brass cylinder called a working barrel. Inside it, are two valves. The lower one is stationary. The upper valve is connected to the walking beam of the pumpjack by metal rods. The working barrel screws onto a strainer sitting at the bottom of the hole.

Photo: Al Hayward

A pumpjack is the “nodding donkey” seen at each well. The pumpjack has become recognized as an international symbol for oil. Whenever one is sighted in Alberta, Texas or anywhere else on the globe, it instantly spells oil country.

Here, every pumpjack has a 3 to 3.6-metre walking beam that rocks up and down like a teeter-totter. The jerker line pulls down one end of the beam, the other end pulls up the rod string and the valves that are in the well. This forces the oil to surface. It then enters a “tee” called the head and is piped to the separating tank.

Photo: Al Hayward

Pumpjacks at Fairbank Oil receive power in one of three ways. Approximately 200 wooden pumpjacks receive power from the rig. The jerker line transfers this power.

Another 50 are metal Jones and Hammond Jacks powered by a gearbox. This style of pump jack allows two wells to be pulled in the same direction. Two to six pumpjacks can be powered by one gearbox.

The third style is a conventional metal nodding horse pumpjack and there are about 100 of them on site. These are temporary because they require an individual motor for power. It’s more economical to replace three or four of these with one power source.

To keep track of the 350 wells on site, they are numbered and also described by their section on the property. Over the years individual wells have occasionally acquired names for a variety of reasons. Any oilman working at the site readily knows where to find The Kenny Rain Dance Well, The Irv Falling Down Well, or The Gang of Four.

The Separating Tanks & Disposal System

When the crude is pumped from the ground here, it’s not pure oil. It’s mixed with salty water called brine. The annual production of 24,000 barrels of oil is usually mixed with about 400,000 barrels of brine. The oil and brine are separated in a separating tank. In the early days, there was very little brine and some wells produced pure oil.

Each separating tank has what’s called a “look box” opening with a lid. Looking inside, the producer can see several pipes pouring oil mixed with water into the tank. Each pipe comes from a specific well so at a glance he can see which of his wells are pumping properly and which are not.

The water must be separated before the oil can be sent to storage tanks. If it sits long enough, the lighter oil naturally floats to the top of the heavier water. The water is siphoned off and since new Ontario regulations were introduced in 1990, the water sent to a disposal well.

The system is comprised of four disposal wells: one at Fairbank & Shannon, one at East Matheson, one at James, and another at the West Baldwin site.

The disposal system begins with a 15-centimetre line collecting waste water from an average of 85 wells. The water flows into a tank where it is siphoned into lined tubing taking it 137 metres underground to the porous Detroit River formation in the rock.

Charlie is proud to point out that the design of his disposal system depends only on gravity. Because Charlie uses no surface pumps to move water, only occasional maintenance is needed.

The disposal well can get clogged in the same way a kitchen sink can. Instead of using Drano, as you do in the kitchen, with a disposal well you may add acid. At Fairbank Oil Fields, “going on an acid trip” means you’re on your way to pick up a barrel of acid.

The Storage Tanks for Shipping Oil

Photo: Willie Waterton

Once oil is pumped from the ground, it’s stored until there is a sufficient quantity to ship in bulk to Imperial Oil’s refinery in Sarnia. Early oilmen were painfully aware they were storing a flammable liquid and they feared fire. There were two horrific oil fires. In 1867, virtually everyone would have known that John D. Noble’s oil field in Petrolia went up in flames a mere 91 metres from Petrolia’s biggest wells.

After helplessly watching his oil field destroyed on the night of July 25, Noble wrote, “I looked up and saw that my last tank was gone, and the burning, fiery oil flowed over the land, the flowing well was aflame with all its tanks and the oil hissed and burned and the flames covered a space of ground about a quarter mile wide by a quarter mile long, and leaped 100 feet, and great columns of black smoke rolled up to the sky.”

Within a week another disastrous fire struck in Petrolia. “The great heat melted steel tanks. These steel or wooden tanks as they caught fire, burst and sent oil along a ditch into a tributary to Bear Creek; the crest of this rushing wave of burning oil gave the creek the appearance of a fiery dragon winding along the valley…At the time he estimated the loss of $100,000 and the fire was still burning.”

The two infernos would be a turning point for all oil operations. It led Noble to believe that the safest way to store oil was to deposit it underground. In fact, he poured it right into the clay and claimed he never lost a drop.

For the most part, oil has been stored underground ever since. The soil shields the oil from lightning strikes. It also eliminates temperature changes that can cause problems in winter when separating out the water. (Separating tanks do a good job of removing the water from the oil but some water remains.)

This method of storage was unique to Petrolia and Oil Springs said Dr. Emory Kemp, of West Virginia University. It was not used in United States. Of course, the heaviness of the clay in this area is quite unique too. “It’s really very ingenious and I think it’s entirely safe,” he said. Inside these underground tanks was a light cribbing of wood to keep the walls from caving in.

On Gum Bed Line, an above-ground tanks can be clearly seen. The tank, inherited from the purchase of the Baldwin property, has never been used here. To the delight of Charlie’s two young sons, he hired Renée Ethier to paint the tank to look like Thomas the Tank Engine in 1997.

When the storage tanks at Fairbank Oil are reaching 34 cubic meters (equal to 213 barrels), the foreman calls the Harold Marcus Ltd trucking company to the deliver the crude to the Imperial refinery in Sarnia.

The Imperial Oil Receiving Station

The crude in the Oil Springs area used to be collected at an Imperial Oil receiving station. The one-acre site was leased from Fairbank Oil at the southeast corner of Gum Bed Line and Kelly Road, in Oil Springs. “The station in 1933, consisted of four iron tanks and a loading rack 150 feet long with a two-inch pipeline (running) 560 feet long from the station to the loading rack on the Michigan Central Railway siding,” according to Don Smith’s manuscript Imperial in the Beginning.

“The office and pumphouse, 30 feet by 12 feet, of wooden construction, had a five-horsepower motor pump for transferring crude oil. Railway cars were loaded and shipped to the 12th Line Station at Petrolia.” (The 12th Line is now called Lasalle Rd.)

Tom Evoy, of Oil Springs, was the receiving station operator, a job previously held by his father. In the early 1950s, Imperial Oil closed the Oil Springs receiving station. Producers then had to make their own arrangements to ship their crude for refining. It’s not clear if they had their oil trucked to the Petrolia receiving station or directly to the Imperial refinery in Sarnia.

Shortly after the Oil Springs receiving station closed, a producer from Oil Springs accused Imperial Oil of mixing up the payments. Imperial Oil responded by saying that it “wouldn’t purchase anymore crude oil from Oil Springs producers unless they each showed proof of clear title to their oil properties,” wrote Smith. This posed a further problem for the oil producers.

“Charles Fairbank (Sr.) came to the rescue,” Smith wrote. “Charles went to Imperial and proposed that he would purchase the crude oil from the Oil Spring producers and issue them oil receipts, then he would sell the crude oil to Imperial, as the only person Imperial would deal with. Imperial Oil agreed, requesting Fairbank put up a bond.”

The agreement lasted about 20 years. After the railway to Oil Springs closed in 1960, the receiving station was still used as a central tank. Harold Marcus trucked the oil to Sarnia from the receiving station.

When the Oil Springs receiving station finally closed in 1974, it was the last of all the old Imperial receiving stations. It marks the end of an era in the history of Imperial Oil and of oil production in Oil Springs. The Petrolia receiving station was the second last to close, and it closed in 1955.

The Oil Museum of Canada has an oil tanker displayed on the exact spot where the railway siding once stood for so many decades.

The Blacksmith Shop

Photo: Al Hayward

The blacksmith shop was essential to early oilmen because the blacksmith’s work was highly specialized. In the pioneer days, virtually everyone did his own blacksmithing. The blacksmith repaired all oil field equipment and forged thousands of hanging irons for the jerker system.

At Fairbank Oil Fields, the blacksmith shop came into use about 1918. Earlier, it housed a boiler for the steam engines to power the oil wells. Once electricity arrived at Fairbank Oil around 1918, the boiler room was no longer needed for power.

Photo: Al Hayward

Charlie Fairbank used to regularly blacksmith his own hangers after watching and listening to Henry Wheeler at work. Wheeler was a long-time employee, working from about 1917 to the early 1970s. Taking a blacksmith course in Detroit in the 1980s, Charlie picked up the finer points of the trade.

Traditionally, the blacksmith also supplied horseshoes. Workhorses were used here right up until the 1950s.

Fairbank Oil Goes Green

Conventionally, the pumping of oil is considered dirty, greasy, large-scale business creating wasteland landscapes. At Fairbank Oil however, things are done on a much smaller scale in woods and fields. Here, oil is considered a precious resource. The oil formed millions of years ago, cannot be replaced. It’s non-renewable.

For this reason, alternatives to oil are used at Fairbank Oil where possible. The family house, an 1888 farmhouse formerly used by generations of foremen, now uses ground-source heating and cooling. It was converted from propane heat in 2003 when the addition to the house was built.

When building the garage, a hydronic radiant heat system was integrated in the cement floor. Hot water is circulated through loops and this heats the garage, the library upstairs and a greenhouse at the back. The greenhouse faces south to also harness the power of the sun.

In the summer of 2003, Charlie learned that the 1913 barn with the mural needed a new foundation. The barn was hoisted on I-beams and a new foundation was laid. At that time, a hydronic radiant heat system was laid in the floor section where the sheep are kept with their newborn lambs. Now dubbed “The Sheep Hilton”, this cozy heated section of the barn helps prevent pneumonia and hypothermia in the newborn lambs.

The sheep have functioned as motor-less lawnmowers on the property. By keeping the grass down with their grazing, they have reduced the danger of a grass fire in the oil field.

Sheep are also helpful in furnishing the family’s organic vegetable garden with fertilizer. Their manure is an excellent substitute to petroleum-based fertilizers.

In the oil field, Charlie designed the new disposal well system using a gravity feed instead of an electric pump.