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A petroleum pedigree of world significance?

Gary May
Author of Hard Oiler!: The Story of Canadians' Quest for Oil at Home and Abroad (1998)
Published in the Globe and Mail on May 7, 2008

The sour scent of oil and the creak and wail of an old pumping system.

History literally assaults the senses in Southwestern Ontario's Lambton County, where the petroleum industry tracks its pedigree back a century and a half.

It was there in the summer of 1858 that wagon maker James Miller Williams began to haul crude out of the bush, refine it into lighting oil and lubricating grease, and sell it. (A symposium of Canadian and U.S. oil officials opens today in Petrolia, Ont., to mark the occasion). It is also there, today, where a few men and women struggle to keep the story alive, campaigning to have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designate the oil district a World Heritage Site.

The case is strong, spearheaded by University of West Virginia industrial archeologist Emery Kemp, who stumbled upon the region in the late 1990s. His history-loving heart leaped when he discovered that people were using the same equipment and methods devised more than a century ago to capture the remaining crude. This eureka moment recently inspired Prof. Kemp to begin his campaign for worldwide recognition of what had happened there.

UNESCO's list contains few industrial sites. In western England, Ironbridge Gorge earned designation as the symbol of the industrial revolution. Blaenavon in Wales is recognized for the early production of iron and coal. It is Prof. Kemp's fervent hope that officials can be persuaded the oil fields around the tiny Ontario village of Oil Springs, and nearby Petrolia, are equally important as the birthplace of the modern petroleum industry.

The facts speak emphatically. While the "passive production" of oil - the collection of material already bubbling to the surface - had been known for centuries, Williams's hand-dug Lambton well marked a turning point. He took the oil back to Hamilton and distilled it, then sold the lighting fluid as kerosene or "rock oil." No one had done that before, at least not in North America.

Around the same time in Poland, historians say, Ignacy Lukasiewicz produced lighting fuel to illuminate street lamps in the town of Gorlice and a hospital in Lvov, in what is now Ukraine. But Prof. Kemp remains adamant: "This was the beginning of the industry. ... The evidence is very strong that it all started in the Petrolia area."

Prof. Kemp is particularly impressed by the survival of the system used to connect several wells to a single power source that then pumps the crude to the surface. These are the "jerker lines" that sound their cry across the placid country air of central Lambton. The system was devised in the early 1860s by John Henry Fairbank and is still employed by his great-grandson, Charles Fairbank III.

Mr. Fairbank sells 24,000 barrels a year to Imperial Oil in nearby Sarnia, then plows the money back into maintaining his historic field and its 350 producing wells. He is one of about a dozen small producers in the region, but with one difference - his Fairbank Oil Company is the same one started by his great-grandfather in 1861.

In April, he and the others were paid a visit by members of the Canadian branch of the international organization that advises on UNESCO sites. The visitors were shown the site of Canada's first oil gusher, the first hand-dug well and the era's only remaining oil-receiving station.

Once the Canadian committee is convinced it has a solid case, it will add the site to a national list for consideration by the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union. They will advise the World Heritage Committee, which decides on designation.

If all goes according to plan, a small, overlooked corner of Ontario will get its proper recognition - perhaps in 2014 - for its seminal part in the development of the industry that keeps the wheels of business running

Article posted with permission of Gary May.


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