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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Canadian Petroleum Heritage
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The Birth of the Oil Industry

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Petrolia Oil Springs

"Today he has the prospect of being the wealthiest man in Canada," wrote the correspon­dent for the Toronto Globe. The oil rushed up Shaw's three-inch hole, filled the four-by-five-foot well dug through 50 feet of clay, and overflowed at the surface, a great, black, bubbling and gurgling spring of oil.

Depending upon the history you prefer, the oil producing industry was born in Enniskillen Township, in the province of Canada West (now Ontario), sometime between 1852 and 1858, commercial oil production having been developed by Charles Nelson Tripp, James Miller Williams, or a certain Mr. Shaw who has been reported as James Shaw, John Shaw, and Hugh Nixon Shaw. Shaw is reported to be either an itinerant American photographer, a "sturdy laborer, muscular and uneducated," or a merchant from Cooksville, Canada West; and who, having been somehow cheated of his fortune, "died broken hearted and quite unknown" at Titusville in 1860, or in "abject poverty" in Petrolia in 1876 or was drowned in his own oil. To prove that truth is stranger than fiction, Hugh Nixon Shaw did indeed drown in his own oil, after having been lowered down into his well to connect a pipe.

This much about the start of the oil producing industry in North America is certain. It didn't start with the completion of Edwin L. Drake's famous well at Titusville, Pennsylvania on August 28, 1859, as virtually every American history has proclaimed. By the time oil was first pumped
at a rate of eight barrels a day from a depth of 69 ½  feet at Drake's well, an oil producing, refining and marketing business had been underway in what is now southwestern Ontario for at least two years, using bitumen and then crude oil. The first successful oil well may have been drilled in Ontario as early as 1857, but the first one that has been positively confirmed was in 1858, producing oil at 60 barrels a day, about eight times the output from Drake's pumper. For a brief time, Canada was the world's leading oil pro­ducing nation, with its products used domestically, in the United States, and in Europe.

But American oil production did quickly overtake and far surpass Canada's output.

From its start in Ontario, the petroleum industry grew with phenomenal speed, fuelled the internal combustion engines that sped the 20th century into a new age of mobility, fuelled and lubricated a technological-industrial revolution, created a new chemical industry, and spawned commercial empires with wealth and power such as the world had never seen. What coal was to the 19th century, petroleum was to the 20th centu­ry-only perhaps even more so. No other single event so affected development in the first half of the 20th century as the advent of the
petroleum producing industry.



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