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The Early Refining Of Black Gold In Lambton County

Twenty-seven Refineries Operating in Oil Springs??!! Strange but true!

This guest blog has been written by Colleen Inglis, a former archivist with Fairbank Oil. The information has been condensed from her essay Early Refineries in Lambton County, published in Oil-Industry History, Volume 23.

The history of refining in Lambton County’s Enniskillen Township during the second half of the 1800s grew quickly in sophistication. Here is a quick romp through those incredible decades of growth and innovation.

It all began in Oil Springs. In 1852, Henry and Charles Nelson Tripp boiled surface deposits of bitumen in cast-iron vessels to make asphalt. Five years later, James Miller Williams distilled bitumen in a simple retort to make burning oil for lamps. The first crude oil refineries were simple stills built near the oilfields. Crude oil was heated in two large kettles placed on top of each other to form a globe. Vapor was filtered inside a pipe before passing into a worm. This helical section of tubing was where the vapor cooled and condensed. Light hydrocarbons with low boiling points escaped but the kerosene fraction drained into a collecting tank.

In the 1860s, oil refining diversified. As many as 27 small refineries were built in Oil Springs to process crude oil from the great flowing wells of 1862. Newspaper articles listed the number of stills (one or two) in each refinery and the number of barrels of oil produced per week, (usually less than 50). Larger refineries were built in Petrolia after oil was discovered there. The Boston Company’s Refinery was built in 1861 and largely processed oil from Oil Springs. Situated on three acres surrounded by a fence, it had a tall brick chimney, offices, six stills, large storage tanks, and a vat house where deodorizing took place. They could produce 300 barrels per week. Enniskillen crude was also transported outside the oilfields to refineries in Hamilton, Toronto, Port Credit, London, Woodstock, Komoka, Welland, and Sarnia.

From 1869 to 1873, the Carbon Oil Company operated the Big Still in Petrolia. Over 1,000 barrels of distillate were shipping to Hamilton each week for refining. When they went bankrupt, their facilities were bought by the Englehart Company. The still, underground storage, and pipelines formed the basis of the new Silver Star Refinery. In 1878, it claimed to be the most modern refinery in the world. When Imperial Oil formed in 1880, Petrolia’s Silver Star Refinery became the nexus of their enterprise. At that time, there were nine refineries in Petrolia. During the 1890s, nearly all folded into Imperial. In 1897, the Standard Oil Company purchased a refinery property in Sarnia. They spent $160,000 to expand then operated under the name Bushnell Oil Company. In 1899, this Sarnia site became the new home of Imperial Oil. Several refineries started up again in Petrolia, but the die was cast. Refining in Enniskillen, at the source of production, declined and eventually ceased.

By the 1880s, refineries like the M. J. Woodward & Co. operation in Petrolia were quite sophisticated. Lithograph of Woodward’s Refinery at Petrolia c. 1880. Holland Paisley Photograph H102-010, courtesy of the Lambton Archives, Wyoming.