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Fairbank Oil is an Oil Field Like No Other.

See More Oil History on the Nature Trail

An Outstanding Example in the Budding Age of Oil

Today the oil industry is a global juggernaut producing everything from plastics to jet fuel. It is the basis of our world economy. But up until the 1858 developments in Oil Springs, whale oil and coal oil were the primary sources of light.

In 1846, Abraham Gesner, of Nova Scotia, developed the process for distilling solid coal into liquid kerosene. His distilling method was used in Oil Springs to distil liquid petroleum to produce “illuminating light”. It is far easier to distil liquid petroleum than solid coal and this meant that petroleum would begin to replace coal as a major energy source. Better lighting and lubrication for domestic and industrial use transformed the world.

Global Influence of Oil Springs

The technology, the tools, and the expertise of the Oil Springs oilmen spread first to the developing village of Petrolia, 12 kilometres to the north, and helped Petrolia become the oil capital of Canada before 1900.

Beginning in December 1873, the drillers of Oil Springs and Petrolia took their expertise to 86 countries to help open new oilfields. Their rich knowledge of how to drill, extract, store and transport oil went to all continents other than Antarctica. They also took their specialized tools or had them designed in Petrolia and exported to distant countries. The Canadian Rig was found in many countries.

The jerker system did not travel internationally because it is designed for the local shallow oil fields.

A Fully Preserved Authentic System of the 1800s

Nowhere else in the world is there a fully functioning authentic 19th century system of producing crude.

The Sites of Importance on Fairbank Oil Fields

1) The Authentic 19th Century Technology

The authentic equipment and technology of the 19th century is fully functional and used daily here. It is not a static display. This technology predates Canada’s confederation and this area of Ontario was then known as Canada West. Once common in Oil Springs and Petrolia, it is now the last in existence. No other operating oil field in the world dates back this far and still operates with this kind of technology.

It is important too that this is a complete system. This includes: the powerhouses and jerker lines, the field wheels, the pumpjacks, the separating tanks and disposal system, the wooden and the underground storage tanks. Details on each of these may be found in our Technology section.

2) Historic Wells

  • The Shaw Well

The site of Canada’s first gusher, the Shaw Well of 1862, is here. On January 20, 1862, the Hamilton Times was the first newspaper to report from a correspondent in the field, “today at half past eleven o’clock, a.m., Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C.W., tapped a vein of oil in his well…the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day, (twenty-four hours) of pure oil…”

He dug 50 feet through the clay, then drilled 48 metres (158 feet) into the rock when he struck the gusher. No one present had ever seen a gusher! It spewed high over the treetops and spilled down to the frozen Black Creek, leaving a layer three to six inches deep. After several days, an oilman from Pennsylvania said it could be controlled with a bag of flax that would swell with the liquid oil. A four-metre leather bag of flax wrapped around a pipe to successfully stem the flow and the oil was directed into storage tanks.

The Shaw gusher triggered an even more frenzied oil rush and within the year, Oil Springs experienced 32 more gushers/flowing wells.

  • The East Gum Beds

The East Gum Beds are untouched since the 1840s or earlier and preserved in the bush, east of Crooked Road, at the end of a gated lane. Along with the mounds visible here are two dug wells and underground tanks.

This is the unmarked site is where bitumen was first found between 1849 and 1853 and then sent to the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), based in Montreal. After analyzing the samples, the GSC chemist Sterry Hunt wrote in his 1849-50 report to Sir William Logan that the substance could be used to make gas for lamps.

Logan’s interest was aroused and he dispatched Alexander Murray to study it further. In his report of 1852-53, Logan said he found the East Gum Beds and he reconfirmed that the material would make gas fuel for lamps. When studying the area, he found evidence that others had been taking samples too. It’s now believed this was Charles and Henry Tripp and probably First Nations.

Additionally, the valley wall of Black Creek has evidence of oil exploration from the early 19th Century earthworks or earlier.

  • The Black and Matheson “Flowing Well” – 1862

Not quite as famous as Shaw’s, but also historic, are the remains of an 1862 well dug by hand that was the most prolific oil producing well ever tapped in Oil Springs. It was one of the 33 highly prized “flowing wells” of the day and was reportedly producing an incredible 7,500 barrels a day.

At a “flowing well” no pump is needed, the oil was under enough pressure that it simply gushes or flows to surface by itself. All the flowing rock wells and two surface flowing wells had petered out in Oil Springs by 1863.

3) Historic Sites for Well Maintenance & Transportation

  • A Three-Pole Derrick – 1860s to 1950s

A three-pole derrick was erected above each well and used for hoisting tubing from a well that needed repairing or replacing. Hundreds of them were seen all over Oil Springs and Petrolia. They were usually made from the abundant black ash trees which grew well in the swamps of Enniskillen Township.

Only one authentic three-pole derrick remains on the property; it’s on the Crooked Road. It is believed to be the last of the three-pole derricks in Oil Springs and Petrolia that is in its original location. It dates back to 1950.

  • The Last of the Old Imperial Oil Receiving Stations – 1974

For decades, Lambton County oil producers relied on trains to transport their crude to the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia. Crude was pooled at receiving stations and then pumped into rail tankers. Later, it would be sent by pipeline from the receiving stations. When the railway system in Oil Springs closed down in 1960, the receiving station continued to be used as central storage.

Charles Fairbank Sr. was able to convince Imperial that the Oil Springs receiving station should remain open. It stayed open until 1974, making it the very last of the old Imperial Oil receiving stations. The station can be found on the south-east corner of Gum Bed Line and Kelly Road.

4) The Longevity of the Family Ownership and Imperial Oil Connection

  • Family Business for Almost 155 Years

Very few family businesses last more than a generation or two. Yet Fairbank Oil Fields is in its fourth generation and has been operating as family business since 1861.

For the sake of simplicity, is easiest to say that oil business founded by John Henry Fairbank have passed from father to son three times. The reality is slightly more complicated.

John Henry Fairbank and his wife, Edna, had six children. By 1882, only two had survived; Charles Oliver Fairbank, born in 1858 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and his sister, May Edna Fairbank, born in Petrolia in 1869. Ownership of Fairbank Oil was shared by a number of relatives who had descended from Charles and May. In 1973 it became the sole property of his son, Charles Fairbank Senior (1904 -1982). Charlie, son of Charles Sr., then bought it from his father.

  • The Imperial Oil Connection

Fairbank Oil has been continually supplying Imperial Oil since Imperial Oil began in London, Ontario on April 30, 1880. J.H. Fairbank began sending his oil to Imperial Oil’s massive refinery in London as early as 1880. Imperial Oil was founded in an attempt to block the powerful J.D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in the U.S. from taking over Canadian oil interests.

Among the Fairbank family papers, two Imperial Oil receipts to J.H. Fairbank have surfaced. One is dated Aug. 12, 1880 – less than four months after the Imperial Oil first formed and four weeks before Imperial Oil incorporated on Sept. 8, 1880. The second receipt is dated Dec. 31, 1880 and shows the new incorporated name for Imperial Oil Company Ltd.

No other oil producer comes close to supplying Imperial Oil steadily for nearly 140 years.

In 1880, Imperial Oil’s refinery was in London but the country’s largest refinery was Jacob Englehart’s Silver Star Refinery in Petrolia. It sprawled over 50 acres. In 1883, the London refinery burned and Imperial Oil took over Silver Star. Imperial Oil also moved its barrel plant to Petrolia that year and in 1884 it moved its headquarters to Petrolia.

By 1897, Imperial Oil struck a deal with the American Standard Oil. Standard Oil would finance expansion in Canada and Imperial would hand over the majority of its interests. On Feb. 23, 1898, the final blow to Petrolia was struck. Imperial Oil took possession of the Bushnell Companies refinery in Sarnia and moved all its operations there, including its head office.

Imperial Oil then adopted the name Esso, which comes from the two first letters of Standard Oil. Fairbank Oil has been transporting its oil to the Esso refinery in Sarnia ever since.