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The Early Years of Canada’s Oil Story – 1842-1866

Early Oil Springs

In the early days, Oil Springs was a forest of three-pole derricks above each well. Photo courtesy of Lambton County Archives

Ahead of Oil Springs’ 8-year boom and bust, geological reports pointed the way

Years before oil was unearthed in Canada, geologists pointed to where it was to be found and what could be done with it. This is why Canada’s oil story began in Oil Springs, Enniskillen Township, Ontario.

Here is a quick timeline of the early years that cover the boom and bust of Oil Springs from 1858 to 1866. The truly curious can find the sources listed at the end.

1842 – The Geological Survey of Canada is established with William Edmond Logan appointed as its first director. Born in Montreal, he was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and remained the head of the Geological survey until 1869.

1844 – Alexander Murray, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, reports that limestone in the Corniferous limestone in western Canada (now called Ontario) is often bituminous and that the cavities are often filled with petroleum.

1846 – Dr. Abraham Gesner of Nova Scotia, Canada, produces a product he names “kerosene” from solid hydrocarbon (partly formed crude seeping out of shales) he found in three Maritime provinces. He makes three grades of kerosene and thought the most volatile one could be converted to a gas for lamps.

1848 – James Young of Scotland uses Gesner’s process to produce kerosene from crude.

1849 – Geologist T. Sterry Hunt describes bitumen from Mosa and Enniskillen Townships and said it would be good for making pavements, sealing ships and for manufacturing illuminating gas.

1850 – James Young, the Scottish chemist, obtains British patent for his distilling and refining process that he used on coal.

1852 – Jan Jozef Ignacy Lukasiewicz, a Polish pharmacist, is credited with being the first to distill crude oil into lamp oil.

  • Charles Nelson Tripp starts buying more than 587 hectares (1,450 acres) of land in oil Springs.
  • He sends raw bitumen from Oil Springs to New York chemist Thomas Antisell to be analyzed. Antisell reports the sample had “a very valuable variety of Bitumen” and that lighting in either liquid or gas was “its most appropriate use.”

1854 – In Oil Springs, Charles Nelson Tripp successfully establishes North America’s first oil company, the International Mining and Manufacturing Company. This was his fourth attempt. The charter granted permits the company to “erect works for the purpose of making oils, paints, burning fluids, varnishes, and other things of the like from the properties of Enniskillen.”

  • Dr. Abraham Gesner patents his process for creating kerosene from crude oil.

1855 – Paris International Exhibition – Charles Tripp win honourable mention for his exhibit of asphalt and Napoleon III awards William Logan with the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

  • The International Mining and Manufacturing Company is mired in debt despite receiving a large order from Paris, France to pave its roads.

1856 – James Miller Williams gradually acquires Tripp’s properties and his company. Tripp leaves to prospect in the U.S.

  • For his abundant Canadian exhibits at the Paris Exhibition, William Logan is knighted by Queen Victoria.
  • James Miller Williams begins distilling bitumen to make lamp oil.

1858 – In July, during a drought in Oil Springs, James Miller Williams digs well to a depth of 4.2 meters (14 feet) hoping to find water. He strikes oil, refines it and markets it as “illuminating oil”.

  • Great Western Rail way opens between London and Sarnia providing much-needed transportation for oil. The closest railhead to Oil Springs is 16 km. north, at town of Wyoming. An unreliable plank road lies between them.

1859 – Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA – Edmund Drake drills a well and strikes oil.

1861 – T. Sterry Hunt is among the first to state the anticlinal theory explains how oil is found where the underground layer of limestone curves upward (like an underground hill) in Enniskillen Township of Lambton County.

  • John Henry Fairbank arrives as a surveyor in Oil Springs, leases land and sinks his first well.
  • Abraham Lincoln becomes US president.
  • American Civil War begins.

1862 – Oil Springs – John Shaw, strikes first gusher in Canada, 32 more flowing wells produce prolific amounts of oil that year.

  • At the London International Exhibition, James Miller Williams’ Canadian Oil Company in Oil Springs receives a medal for “introducing an important industry by sinking artesian wells in the Devonian Strata for petroleum.”
  • Canada’s first oil newspaper, The Oil Springs Chronicle, begins publishing.

1865 – In November 1865, the American Civil War ends.

1866 – Oil Springs is virtually abandoned as Captain B. King strikes oil in Petrolia 12 km. north and the conclusion of the Civil War.


1844 – Geological Survey of Canada finding petroleum in Ontario:
– Report of the Geological Survey, 1846, Page 87
– “Notes on the History of Petroleum or Rock Oil”,
by T. Sterry Hunt of the Geological Survey of Canada
Journal of Board of the Arts and Manufacturers, October 1861, Page 266.
(Abridged from the Canadian Naturalist, July 1861)

1846 – Gesner invents kerosene to produce gas light:
Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: the birth, evolution and challenges of a global industry, by Earle Gray, 2008 Page 7 & 10:

1848 – James Young, of Scotland, produces lamp oil from liquid crude:
Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: the birth, evolution and challenges of a global industry, by Earle Gray, 2008 Page 10.

1849 – Geological Survey of Canada on uses of petroleum:
“I had already in the Report (for the Geological Survey) for 1849, page 99, described this bitumen from the specimens in the Museum of the Geological Survey, and called attention to its economic applications, remarking that ‘the consumption of this material in England and on the continent for the construction of pavements, of paving the bottom of ships, and for the manufacture of illuminating gas is such that the existence of these deposits in the country is a matter of considerable importance.’”
– T. Sterry Hunt, History of Petroleum or Rock Oil, Journal of the Board of Arts and Manufacturers, Oct. 1861, Page 268.

1852 – Charles Tripp’s bitumen sample analyzed for usage:
Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: the birth, evolution and challenges of a global industry, by Earle Gray, 2008, Page 18.

1854 – Abraham Gesner obtains U.S. patent to distill crude to produce lamp oil:
Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: the birth, evolution and challenges of a global industry, by Earle Gray, 2008, Page 17.

1854 – First Oil Company in North America:
Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: the birth, evolution and challenges of a global industry, by Earle Gray, 2008, Page 17.

1856 – James Miller Williams buys Tripp’s oil lands:
– New York Times, April 2, 1866, Page 8.
Petroleum. The Oil Field of Canada West

1861 – Sterry Hunt shows anticlinal theory explains Oil Springs’ petroleum
T. Sterry Hunt, History of Petroleum, Journal of the Board of Arts and Manufacturers, Oct. 1861, Page 269.

1862 – The 32 flowing wells of Oil Springs
Sketches of Creation, by Dr. Alexander Winchell, Harper & Brothers, Publishers. New York, 1870, Pages 286-287,443-444 –

– London Universal Exhibition medals:
Medals and Honourable Mentions awarded by the International Juries, Printed by her Majesty’s Commissioners by George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, London, 1862, Page 5.