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Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: Prologue

The Oil Heritage Road

The main north-south highway through Enniskillen Township today is Country Road 21, now known as the Oil Heritage Road. This modest rural highway, bounded by farms and acrages and woodlots, cuts right through the birthplace of the Petroleum Era in North America. Less than 30 kilometers to the west and northwest one finds the mature offspring of that humble birth – a cast complex of refineries and petrochemical plants along the St. Clair River between Corunna and Sarnia. Ontario's second refinery center, at Nanticoke, is on the Lake Erie shoreline of the Petroleum Peninsula, 180 kilometers east and a little south of the Sarnia refiners and petrochemical plants.

No matter how we travel the highways – by car or bus, or if we fly overhead – petroleum has become so much a part of what we do that it seems invisible. Gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are all made from crude oil, of course, and so is the synthetic rubber in the tires of motor vehicles, bicycles and the soles of shoes. Petroleum literally greases the wheels of modern life. The pavement underfoot is either asphalt made from crude oil or cement made using natural gas. Petroleum also provides the molecular building blocks for everything from fabrics to pharmaceuticals, from plastic pipes to shopping bags. Future generations may regard petroleum as "too valuable to burn," but they will most likely still treasure its non-energy uses.

A boggy frontier

In the mid-19th century, most energy came from wood, coal and the muscles of humans and animals. At that time, Enniskillen Township was considered a frontier area of Canada West, largely overlooked in the first wave of settlement. It is considered of 86,800 acres (350 square kilometers) of tangled oak, walnut, elm, and black ash forest, "as flat as the sea."

The carrier that faced settlers was water standing on a surface of nearly impervious clay, up to 24 meters thick, deposited as silt on the bottom of the glacial lake near the end of the last Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago. When it rained, the water could not soak into the ground. The land was so flat that the water had nowhere to run, except at the edges of Bear Creek that cut across the northern part of the township and Black Creek to the south. Water puddled on the surface and turned the heavy loam, known as Brookston clay, into gumbo that mired men, horses, and wagons. The worst part was at the eastern end of the township where the "Great Enniskillen Swamp" was wet and impassable in spring and fall, becoming a hard, dry crust in summer. Because of seasonal standing water, the forest of Enniskillen was relatively thin. The ground was covered by a shin-busting tangle of fallen trees and branches. The first settlers "found it hard to get into Enniskillen, and difficult to get out."

Eliakim Malcom led a dozen men who hacked their way through "brushwood and fallen timber [that] were very thick" to survey Enniskillen township in early September, 1832. They camped the first night on Black Creek, then so dry they could find no clean drinking water. Six weeks later, Malcom recorded in his journal: "The ground was so very wet we were obliged to build a bridge of poles to lie upon." The following week, the creek that had only a few inches of stagnant water when they arrived, had "risen to the height of seven feet."

Fourteen years after Malcom completed his survey, there were still only 34 settlers in Enniskillen, who owned 34 cows and 16 hogs, and these pioneers had cultivated fewer than 400 acres, according to an 1874 assessment.

Dim and flickering light

The first settlers lived in a type of dark age, as did most early Canadian settlers. Rough fireplaces provided light, heat, and cooking. Some evenings there might be light from a few tallow candles, but usually settlers needed all the pork and other fat they could collect from their animals for food and making soap. Store-bought candles and lamp oil were too costly and too difficult to haul into the area.

In the towns and villages of that era, light came from both tallow and beeswax candles. The soft tallow tended to melt near the hearth or in summer heat, and they were readily devoured by mice and rats. Beeswax candles were better, but more costly. An eclectic array of lamp designs burned lard oil, olive oil, fish oil, or even camphene – an explosive mixture of alcohol and redistilled turpentine. (The turpentine was distilled from pine resin.) The dangerous camphene killed many: 45 in one fire alone that destroyed a theatre in Quebec City, on the site of today’s Chateau Frontenac. Many of the lamp oils were smoky and smelly. The best lamps burned whale oil, especially the prized oil from sperm whales. Whale oil had become prohibitively expensive – sperm oil in the United States fetched $1.77 a gallon in 1856, equivalent to about $42 in 2006 U.S. dollars – as sailors hunted whales to the edge of extinction. Gas made from coal was just being introduced for street and building lights: in Montreal in 1836, Toronto in 1841, and Hamilton in 1854.

The fireplace light and the few tallow candles in the Enniskillen cabins at the mid-point of the 19th century were soon to be replaced by a new fuel that would light the lamps of the world. Within a decade, a giant global industry would make its North American start here; the hard task of moving through impassable swamp and the gumbo of Brookston clay would be overcome, and near the banks of Black Creek would rise a new town, more brightly lit than anything else that had ever been seen.


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Order Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy now

Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: The Birth, Evolution and Challenges of a Global Industry

Author Earle Gray
112 pages
Colour and black and white
History; Industry
Full index
Published by the Heritage Community Foundation

Ontario's Petroleum Legacy is a a dynamic account of Canada's petroleum industry from the coming in of the first wells at Oil Springs in 1858 to an assessment of contemporary issues. Researched and authored by Earle Gray, Canada's senior petroleum historican, it is a popular and authoritative account with insights into the people, communities, scientific and technological innovation.

For a preview, download a low resolution PDF copy (please click here, or right-click and choose Save Link As/Save Target As from the right-click menu).

The link above leads to a PayPal order form. If you would prefer not to use PayPal, please use the PDF Book Order Form to order the book from Earle Gray. Explore his other publications by visiting Earle Gray: Graymatter.

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