The Story of Canada’s Oldest Oil Company
Learn how the industry began over 150 years ago in southern Ontario
As a consumer, Charlie Fairbank moves with the times. He drives a Prius hybrid electric car. His wife and children ride e-bikes that marry electric and pedal power.
But on the job as a producer, running Canada’s oldest oil company, his ancestors would recognize his production system. His Alberta peers probably wouldn’t.
John Henry Fairbank, great-grandfather of Charlie, went into the oil business in 1861 in southern Ontario. That was just three years after James Miller Williams dug a well in 1858 and started the first commercial oil production in North America. Canadians started the action a year before the more famous Drake well in Pennsylvania launched the industry in the United States.
Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of the discovery of oil this year. Events included community and scholarly gatherings in the Sarnia area near the well. Canada Post contributed a 52-cent commemorative stamp studded with industry icon images of derricks, a gritty field worker and a stern magnate. A louder celebration of fossil fuels ancestry is expected next year in the U.S.
The 1860s Fairbank was a star innovator in his day. A surveyor by trade, he became an inventor after finding lots of oil, spread out in many wells.
The petroleum around and beneath the former boom towns started by its discovery, Oil City and Petrolia, lies in a shallow formation, most of it less than 130 meters deep.
Some of that old oil still comes up naturally to the ground surface, mixed with dirt along the way, and oozes up through the grass. Visitors to the Oil Springs interpretive center at the discovery site observe that its lawn looks like someone spilled tar on the grass. But on closer examination, it’s crude oil.
The original commercial operation tapped the deposits with hundreds of wells, each one sucking out a small volume, perhaps measured more accurately by the beaker than the barrel. To make the network operate, Fairbank invented a mechanical web known as the “jerker rod.”
He told an Ontario royal commission, appointed to examine the fledgling industry’s prospects and problems, how the production system worked in 1890 this way: “I had a well too hard to work by manpower. I hadn’t an engine, but there was engine power within reach and I applied the present jerker system. I think that was in 1863.”
Until Fairbank’s invention, men stood at each well and pumped. It was an industrial cross between a treadmill and stairs. Workers applied suction to the oil well by making a resilient lever, known as a “spring pole” go up and down. They stomped down on the contraption, and its rebound sucked up oil.
The original Fairbank motorized and mechanized the action. “With one engine now they work from half a dozen to 80 or 90 wells from one boiler, but often two engines,” he testified in 1890.
Fairbank’s grandson uses the same method today because it still works better than any other system. Wooden or metal rods snake across the fields, radiating out from a central engine and jerking back and forth as they push and pull. To those who have seen it, jerker is the word that fits best.
The machinery creaks and groans, each joint singing its own little tune. The poles are suspended, hanging on rope or wire, from a bar attached to the top of two posts. The network is simple, primitive and effective.
It’s hard to mow the vegetation that forever threatens to overwhelm this contraption, so Fairbank Oil employs dozens of sheep to graze, fertilize and irrigate the fields.
It is these natural lawnmowers and microbes that also dealt with an infamous 1862 oil spill. It happened because another Canadian oil pioneer, Hugh Nixon Shaw, scored a spectacular success with a springboard-like oil drilling outfit that worked like a pile driver suspended from a tall tripod of poles. The device chipped through rock and hit Canada’s first gusher near Fairbank Oil’s operations in southwestern Ontario.
The ensuing blowout covered a shallow valley, coated all the trees and then slithered down a stream called Black Creek and out into the Great Lakes. The oil spill eventually fouled rich people’s yachts as far away as Kingston.
Microbial action and the repeated, natural recycling of vegetation helped by the dining and fertilizing action of the sheep have reclaimed that oil spill area. It just took a long time, the younger Fairbank observes.
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