Before the Nature Trail

Many people are surprised that rich wildlife can live in harmony with a producing oil field. Things are done on a small scale here and there is no rush to pump the oil as fast as possible.

Photo: Larry Cornelis

Since the 1860s, the land surrounding the trail has produced oil and gas. As prices dropped in the early 1900s and the oil slowed to a trickle, some of the wells were slowly abandoned. Decades passed and the land reverted to nature. Trees, vines and bushes engulfed the wells.

In the late 1980s, Charlie Fairbank acquired these lands and eventually found the wells. Next came the daunting task of restoring them to produce oil. Slicing through the woods and underbrush, roadways were created so that the oilmen could access the wells and power lines went in.

A new wooden footbridge over Black Creek in 2005 replaced one that had carried cars decades earlier.

Deer, surprisingly, inspired this nature trail. They have long made their own trails through the property and now, Fairbank Oil Fields has enhanced these.

The Nature Trail in a Nutshell

Our nature trail is one-of-a-kind! Combining art and the amazing oil history here, our two-kilometre trail takes you over Black Creek on a 25-metre wooden bridge, and winds through woodlands, wetlands and meadows. It offers diverse habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants.

Along the way, you’ll see intriguing original art by Geri Binks, oil wells pumping, and the remains of a historic Oil Springs house that was so lovely, a postcard was made of it. History was made here and our displays and viewing platforms will inform your mind and delight the eye.

The trail begins with our Welcome and Orientation sign, and trail maps you should take along. Then, follow the Oilmen Trail markers to a spot on Black Creek and take the Dragonfly Trail back. The trail features three stops with displays and information:

  • The Jury and Evoy Flowing Well viewing platform and stairs & Sir Sandford Fleming’s Visit in 1863.
  • The Stories Behind the Remains of the beautiful Parks’ House
  • The Foreign Drillers’ Destinations by Geri Binks. The Oilmen of the Trail.

The full trail is two kilometres with some uphill hiking of medium difficulty through a short section of woods. Pick up the brochure with map and you’ll see shorter routes are also possible.

Start at the Nature Trail’s parking lot on the east side Gypsie Flats Rd., between Oil Springs Line and Gum Bed Line.

Families, dogs and picnics are welcome but motorized vehicles and bicycles are not permitted. Sticking to the trail will spare you from poison ivy and stinging nettle. We ask that you take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.

There’s much to explore here.

Oil History Exhibits on Nature Trail

From the parking lot on Gypsie Flats Rd., take a trail map from the welcoming sign.

Sanford Fleming Maps of 1863 & the Jury and Evoy Flowing Well

In the exciting oil rush of the 1860s, everyone marvelled at the mysterious gushers producing huge amounts of oil. It only happened at particular wells. These wells flowed spontaneously for months! No pump was needed. The Shaw Gusher of 1862 was the first and there were 32 more of these amazing “Flowing Wells”.

Sandford Fleming
Photo: Library and Archives Canada

The Flowing Wells were big news for oilmen and a fascinating big puzzle for geologists. Sandford Fleming was perhaps most intrigued of these men of science. He had established the Royal Canadian Institute as a scientific society when he was just 25. He was 36 when he came here in 1863 to survey and study the Flowing Wells.

This was the year after he presented the government with his plan for a transcontinental railway. But his 1863 visit to Oil Springs was long before he invented the time zones of Standard Time (1879, but adopted worldwide by 1929); became the chief engineer of Canada’s first transcontinental railway (1871); and dubbed Sir Sandford Fleming by Queen Victoria (1897) for his incredible accomplishments.

Sandford Flemming Map

Fleming’s map or “sketch” of the Flowing Wells was the first and only one ever done. “I believe no flowing well has been struck beyond the limited area shewn (sic) on the sketch…,” Fleming wrote in his address to the Canadian Institute.

“During the past summer, at least since the discovery of the Shaw well, there have been found in all bout 30 ‘flowing wells’….in this section….They are all situated within an area of one square mile and chiefly on the south bank of the Black Creek.”

By mapping out the flowing wells, it seemed location could be a clue to the mystery of the Flowing Wells. Fleming was also trying to determine if deeper wells were a key factor. The largest Flowing Well was Black and Matheson and it was the deepest. It produced a magnificent 7,500 barrels and was drilled to 72 metres. Two other deeper wells, drilled at 57 and 65 meters, produced 6,000 barrels. The other Flowing Wells, however, did not fit neatly into this pattern. The Shaw well, for example, was fairly shallow at 48 metres.

The Thomas Jury and Richard Evoy well was one of the last two Flowing Wells still active when Fleming arrived. It was then producing 100 barrels of oil each day. Earlier, it had been drilled to 35 metres and produced 300 barrels per day. When they drilled deeper to 47 metres, they were rewarded with 2,000 barrels. (The two men were not only business partners; they became related when Richard Evoy married, Thomas’ sister, Adelaide.)

This well can be seen from the upper viewing platform or you can take the stairs down to a lower platform.

These Flowing Wells of 1862 created a glut of oil that drove the price down to a mere 10 cents a barrel. Yet the oilmen kept producing ever more oil.

In his 1870 book, Sketches of Creation, the influential geologist Alexander Winchell noted the Black and Matheson well flowed 7,500 barrels each day when the price was a dismal 10 cents a barrel. Three years later that oil would have sold for 10 dollars a barrel!

The Black and Matheson oil was uncontrolled and the oil floated “on the water of Black Creek to the depth of six inches, and formed a film upon the surface of Lake Erie…..I have ascertained that five millions of  barrels of barrels floated off the water of Black Creek – a national fortune totally wasted…”

Today, we would be alarmed by the environmental impact this would have caused.

The Remains of the Parks' House

When Albert Wilson (A.W.) Parks came to Oil Springs from Wisconsin in 1887, life was full of promise. The oil field was in its second boom and rail had arrived the year before.

He was 32, educated, well-to-do, and he came to help manage his father-in-law’s oil business. Henry Clay Crocker established it here decades before.

Crocker arrived in Oil Springs in the early 1860s, about the same time as J.H. Fairbank. They were about the same age and both were born American. Unlike Fairbank who was early to move to Petrolia, Crocker had faith in Oil Springs and stayed after the boom died in 1865. For years, he divided his time between Oil Springs and his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He then worked in Oil Springs but established his family home in Sarnia.

Crocker was a strong advocate of drilling deeper. It is said “he was probably the first man to realize why the Oil Springs production had petered out.” His patience was rewarded when deeper drilling brought Oil Springs a second boom of the 1880s. These wells were drilled 30 metres deeper than the deepest Flowing Wells, to the lower lime, and oil was found.

At one point, the wells on this property were so productive he was offered $90,000 for his holdings. He held out for $100,000. Crocker didn’t sell but later he likely wished he did. The wells, some producing pure oil, petered out.

A.W. Parks arrived in 1887 and six years later, Crocker died at the age of 64. Parks took over this business and later headed The Oil Springs Gas and Oil Company.

He came to Oil Springs with his wife, Ida Louise Crocker (Henry Clay Crocker’s daughter), and their three-year old son, Franklin Crocker Parks. His brother, Frank Parks, also came to work.

The Parks built a large house, the most luxurious Oil Springs house of its day. It boasted indoor plumbing, running water, two handsome fireplaces, a curved staircase, a trellised front verandah, seven bedrooms and an office. The kitchen counter was marble. Books lined a long wall from floor to ceiling. It would have its own water tower and ice house. A flower garden bloomed in profusion. A two-car garage was built. Considering the times and the place, this was indeed deluxe.

The house was known by several names – The Crocker-Parks house, Parks Dale, and the Parks’ House. It was so lovely; a postcard was made of the house sometime prior to 1910.

The couple had five more children between 1888 and 1898. Three of their six children died before the age of nine.

Parks & McCutcheon Family

Over the years, A.W. became a leading citizen of Oil Springs, becoming chairman of the school board, helping to plan the Oil Springs School, and managing the Presbyterian Church. He was also a high-ranking Mason and in 1900 he had risen to become the District Deputy Grand Master of the Sarnia Masonic District.

The times proved challenging for the Parks when oil production dropped substantially by 1900 and despite some wild successes in gas wells in 1914, they were not sustained. When he died in Oil Springs in 1937 at 82, A.W. Parks had outlived his entire family except his 42-year old daughter, Alberta (Parks) McCutcheon.

Alberta & Edna Irene Parks

She and her family lived in Detroit and they returned to Oil Springs in summers until the late 1950s. The eldest son, Franklin Crocker Parks, frequently brought his family up from Washington, D.C. for holidays too.

A.W. Parks hired Jack Hull to manage the oil property in the early 1930s. The upstairs of the house was converted into an apartment with a separate entrance and the Hull family lived upstairs from the 1930s to the end of 1944. Along with Jack was his wife, Dolina (nee MacLeod), and their children: Peggy (Melton), Norma (Simpson), Agnes (Cameron) and Ted. Peggy, the eldest child, lived in the house from the age of one until she was 10 (1935 to 1944) and has detailed memories of the family’s days there.

Money was scarce. Jack Hull decided that with a wife and four children to feed, he had to find a better paying job. And so he went to work in the foundry at Edys Mills. Milton Wagner took over and the Parks business went rapidly downhill.

Phil Morningstar says the oilmen would warm up in the fully furnished but abandoned house. Unoccupied homes rarely fare well. Eventually, the unoccupied house fell victim to vandals and partiers. It was taken down around 1965, before Alberta McCutcheon’s grandson sold the property to Don Matheson, a cousin of the Hull children.

It has been said that the McCutcheons had long been reluctant to sell the property for they believed that a wealth of oil and gas could be found there one day.

Fairbank Oil bought the property in the late 1980s, and later bought the adjoining oil property from Don Matheson. Wells, once engulfed by the woods, were put into production. Roadways were made, power installed and later, the nature trail bridge was erected. Like the other wells in Oil Springs, these continue to steadily produce small amounts of oil.

Most of the Parks family is buried at the Oil Springs cemetery.

The Foreign Drillers Art Exhibit

Artist Geri Binks, of Grand Bend, created these hand-carved colourful signs in 2014 to evoke the many exotic destinations of Lambton County’s famous Foreign Drillers. She mounted the signs on thee poles, each topped with a metal sculpture representing a continent.

She was partly inspired by the 76,000 signs of The Sign Post Forest at Watson Lake, “Gateway to the Yukon”.

The oilmen of Oil Springs and Petrolia took their incredible drilling expertise to 86 countries around the globe. Most people of that time didn’t venture more than 50 kilometres from their homes in their entire lives.

More than 500 Lambton drillers worked in distant countries between 1873 and the mid-1940s. They travelled by ship to far-flung shores. They rode on camels, on elephants, and in rickshaws. The drillers came home regularly to their families with amazing tales of these exotic lands.

The signs in the Foreign Driller Exhibit were so striking that they were a special art exhibit in Petrolia’s Victoria Hall in February 2014. This “sneak preview” was enthusiastically received.

Celebrating Our Oilmen

The route of the nature trail is marked by the names of Lambton County oilmen who each contributed to developing the oil industry. Geri Binks created these trail markers by cutting the names in metal with a laser and erecting them on poles. Visitors walk beneath these supported signs.

These are the accomplished oilmen in the trail-markers:

  • William McGarvey
    Known as our most successful Foreign Driller, McGarvey opened oil fields in Galicia, which is now Poland and the Ukraine. He employed hundreds and was nicknamed The Petroleum King of Austria.
  • Angus Sutherland
    A foreman at Fairbank Oil, Sutherland and two other generations of the family were foremen here too.
  • Charles E. Wallen
    An Oil Springs Foreign Driller who took his family to Grozny, Russia in 1911, Wallen managed the North Caucasian Oil Company. They were forced to flee during 1917 revolution and his wells were set on fire.
  • W.O. Gillespie
    Petrolia Foreign Driller William Gillespie worked in Egypt in 1900 and later went to Australia and Borneo. His lovely home was on the hill east of the Fairbank mansion and its entrance was later marked by the covered bridge.
  • Fred Cameron
    Cameron was a cable tool driller from Petrolia who joined with King Houston in 1953 to form the Petrolia Drilling Company in Alberta.
  • Alex McQueen
    He was the key manager for all of J.H. Fairbank’s businesses and in 1916 he became the vice-president of Imperial Oil.
  • Charles N. Tripp
    In Oil Springs, Charles and his brother, Henry, created the world’s first integrated oil company (producing, refining and marketing) in 1854, the International Mining and manufacturing Companry, and sold asphalt from the oil gum beds.
  • James M. Williams
    Known as a father of refining, he bought the Tripp land, refined liquid petroleum in 1858 and sold his wonderful “illuminating oil” for lamps.
  • Hugh Nixon Shaw
    Shaw was a well-respected oil producer and stalwart in the community who tragically died when was overcome by fumes when he was deep in his well.
  • Leonard B. Vaughn
    Vaughn struck one of Oil Springs’ first Flowing Wells needing no pump. In 1869, he established what became known as The Little Red Bank with John Henry Fairbank. He made the first survey of the village of Oil Springs.
  • John H. Fairbank
    By the 1890s, he was Canada’s largest single oil producer, a founder of Petrolia, a member of parliament and a very successful entrepreneur.
  • Captain B. King
    He’s the man who made history in 1866 by striking the biggest oil finds in Petrolia and led to Petrolia being the oil capital of Canada for more than 40 years.
  • John D’oyley Noble
    The horrific Petrolia 20-acre inferno of 1867 was the Kuwait of its day and after watching his oil field burn, Noble developed underground storage for oil.
  • Benjamin VanTuyl
    A valued partner of John Henry Fairbank, for 26 years he managed Fairbank Hardware,in Petrolia, the biggest hardware store west of Toronto.
  • Richard Bradley
    Raised in Petrolia, Bradley worked in the Pennsylvania oil fields and returned in 1872 to introduce nitroglycerin “torpedoes” to increase oil production here.
  • A. C. Edward
    Launching his own oil company at the age of 20 in Petrolia in 1873, he managed the Mutual Oil Association and was elected Petrolia mayor three times.