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Canadian Petroleum Heritage
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Writings on Ontario’s Oil History

In 2008, Oil Springs, Ontario is celebrating its incredible oil history. It was 150 years ago that the modern oil industry was created in this village when James Miller Williams dug a well, refined it and began selling it. It was big news back in 1858 and the oil industry took off like a brush fire to become the global juggernaut it is today.

The following list of books make this exciting story come to life. The books can be ordered through any bookstore

The Great Canadian Oil Patch: The Petroleum Era From Birth to Peak – Second Edition
Author: Earle Gray (published 2005)
584 pages. Published by June Warren Publishing Ltd. (price: $115.95)

This book delivers both depth and breadth. It’s a thoroughly comprehensive study of Canadian oil, from Abraham Gesner and Oil Springs’ famous Tripp brothers right up to carbon sequestration. 

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Hard Oiler!: The Story of Early Canadians’ Quest for Oil at Home and Abroad
Author: Gary May (published 1998)
270 pages. Published by Dundurn Press. 1998 (price: $22.99)

With their expertise gained in  Oil Springs and Petrolia, the “Foreign Drillers” helped open oil fields in more than 50 countries around the world in a 70-year time period.

Petrolia Ontario- Canada 150 years, 1854-2004
- By Edward Phelps, Charles Whipp and Lee Pethick (published 2004)
187 pages. Published by VanTuyl and Fairbank, Inc. 2004 (price: $29.95)

The oil boom that started in 1866 lasted more than four decades, making Petrolia the oil capital of Canada. From the days of Imperial Oil’s headquarters here to the need to diversify the town’s economy, this book covers a lot.
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The Story of Fairbank Oil: Four Generations of the Family Producing Oil Longer Than Anyone in the World
Author: Patricia McGee (published 2004. Second printing 2006)
201 pages. Published by Words Unlimited Ink. (price: $23.95)

Using the Fairbank family documents, photographs, maps and many interviews this book tells the story of how The Fairbank family has been pumping oil on this Oil Springs property since 1861. Today, it’s a National Historic Site and it continues to pump 24,000 barrels a year using the technology of the pioneers.

Rivers of Oil: The Founding of North America’s Petroleum Industry
Author: Hope Morritt (published 1993)
194 pages. Published by Quarry Press.  (price: $19.99)

Starting in Oil Springs, the book traces the development of oil in Lambton County, the establishing of Imperial Oil and the rise and fall of Canada’s first oil barons.

Canada’s Victorian Oil Town: The Transformation of Petrolia from Resource Town into a Victorian Community
Author: Christina Burr (published 2006)
295 pages. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (price: $85.)

Interdisciplinary in scope, this study draws from the history of imperialism, gender studies, science, resource development, local history and cultural geography.

Books and Booklets Available at The Oil Museum of Canada or Needing A Special Order:

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19th Century Petroleum Technology in North America
Authors: Dr. Emory Kemp and Michael W. Caplinger (published 2008)
Printed by Browns Graphics, Petrolia. 179 pages.  (price: $35.)


This book not only describes and lavishly illustrates the early Canadian technology in Oil Springs and Petrolia; it also places these developments in the broader context of the world. 179 pages. Sponsored by the Charles Fairbank Oil Properties, Ltd. Petrolia, Canada and the Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaelogy, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia, U.S.A.

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The Oil Heritage Tour of Lambton County:
The Birthplace of the Canadian Oil Industry
Authors: Robert O. Cochrane and Charles O. Fairbank (published 2000)
86 pages. (price: $20.)


With geological charts and detailed descriptions of the early oil technology and some architectural history, this book showcases the interesting stops to make in Oil Springs and Petrolia.

Oil Springs…The Birthplace of the Oil Industry
Author: Michael O’Meara (published 1958. Second edition 2008)
30  pages. Browns Printing and Graphics Inc., Petrolia.23 pages. (price:   ???)

Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of James Miller Williams establishing the world’s first commercial oil well and refinery, the author captures all the colour and exhilaration of North America’s first oil boom town.

Canada’s Tale of Toil & Oil
Author: Patricia McGee. Drawings by George Rickard (published 1996)
30 pages. Published by The Petrolia Discovery Foundation Inc. (Price: $7.50)


The technology developed by the pioneers of Oil Springs and Petrolia was ingenious. Simply described, beautifully illustrated are the pumpjack, the field wheel, the rig, the jerker line and much more.

Canada West’s Last Frontier
A History of Lambton
Author: Jean Turnbull Elford (published 1982)
Published by the Lambton County Historical Society. 189 pages (price: $20.)


Starting in 1835 when the county surveyed the 10 ten townships, this book covers the early history and continues to the early 1980s.
*note – this is available through The Bookkeeper in Sarnia, to order contact the store at bookkeeper@ebtech.net

Oil Road and Toll Gates: A Short History of Plank Road
Author: Maxine McBryan. Research by Betty Lou Snetselaar (2000)
Published by the Lambton County Historical Association. 26 pages. (Price: $5.)


The Plank Road was a key transportation route for shipping oil from the swamp land of Oil Springs to Sarnia. It has a long and colourful past.

A History of The Chemical Industry in Lambton County
Author: R.W. Ford (published in 1964. Fourth edition in 2000)
Produced with support form the Society of Industrial Archeology and the Sarnia-Lambton Environmental Association. 24  pages. (price: $3.)

The chemical history begins in Oil Springs and it was in 1857 when James Miller Williams started his first refinery. Ford traces the development of Imperial Oil from Petrolia to Sarnia and all the petrochemical companies that sprang up at the beginning of World War II. The story is updated to the 1990s.

Excellent Books Found Only in the Reference Section of Lambton Libraries, Ontario. They are out of print.

Belden’s Historical Atlas of the County of Lambton, Ontario, 1880
Author: N.P. Belden, 1881
Reprint Sarnia, Ontario by Edward Phelps, 1973
80 pages

Petrolia 1866-1966
Author: Charles Whipp and Edward Phelps (published in 1966)
70 pages. Published by The Petrolia Advertiser Topic and the Petrolia Centennial Committee, Petrolia.

From a shanty town to Canada’s oil capital, the history of Petrolia is a colourful one.

Petrolia 1874-1974
Author: Edward Phelps (published in 1974)
96 pages. Published by Petrolia Print and Litho Limited, Petrolia.

Starting with the glorious Victorian Petrolia with its famous Foreign Drillers, Phelps delves into the Petrolia’s economic depression from 1910 to World War II  and then onto more modern day developments.

Lambton County’s Hundred Years 1849 -1949
Author: Victor Lauriston (published in 1949)
Haines Frontier Printing Company, Sarnia, 1949, 335 pages.

Often quoted by historians, this book captures in detail the progress of Oil Springs and Petrolia brought about by its “black gold”.

John Henry Fairbank of Petrolia
Author: Edward Phelps, (written in 1965)
Unpublished master thesis. 321 pages.

Phelps uses a massive amount of research and tells the story of how J.H. Fairbank rose from a visiting surveyor to becoming an oil magnate, banker, hardware dealer, wagon builder and member of parliament.


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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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