Financial History Issue 127 (Fall 2018) - Page 33

Museum Europe to make a business of oil. All were small scale cottage-industry operations. There were separate, and initially more suc- cessful efforts to commercialize natural gas. The earliest commercial use of natural gas took place in 1825 in Fredonia, New York, halfway between Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania. According to the Ameri- can Oil & Gas Historical Society, gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider to be the father of the gas industry. Records at the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority show that shallow gas wells were soon drilled throughout the Chautauqua County “shale belt.” The gas was piped to businesses and street lights in Fredonia at the cost of $1.50 a year for each light, approximately $22 today. The gas streetlights became an attraction for travelers—there was no such thing as tourists in those days. There were also more significant aids to navigation. The first Lake Erie lighthouse illuminated by gas was built in 1828 at Barcelona, New York. That original Hart well continued to flow until 1858, the year Williams dug his oil well just 200 miles away. One of the most active, and mercurial, figures in the early oil business in North America was Charles Tripp. Originally from Schenectady, New York, Tripp was a visionary. As early as 1852 he applied for a charter for the International Min- ing & Manufacturing Company to pro- duce commercial hydrocarbons from the seeps and gum beds around Oil Springs, Ontario, according to the Oil Museum of Canada in Lambton County, Ontario. The charter was granted by colonial authorities in 1854; Canada did not gain autonomy from the United Kingdom until 1867. “Charles Tripp went to the Cooper Carriage Factory to buy wagons to haul the oil,” said Christina Sydorko, educa- tion and program coordinator at the Oil Museum. The owner of the wagon firm was James Miller Williams, who knew the next big thing when he saw it. The carriage business was thriving, but the railroad was coming, and Williams was already alert to new opportunities. The groundwork for that opportunity had been done not by the early natural-gas businesses, but by entrepreneurs in coal oil and derivatives for lighting. “The coal- oil refiners in the 1850s did everything to create the oil industry except find crude,” Charles Tripp was one of the most active figures in the early North American oil business. James Miller Williams is commonly viewed as the father of the petroleum industry in Canada. wrote Earle Gray in Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy: The Birth, Evolution and Challenge of a Global Industry (Heritage Commu- nity Foundation, 2008). Gray was editor of Oilweek magazine, and before that was the director of public affairs for Canadian Arctic Gas. He has written eight books about Canada’s energy industries. According to Gray, the coal-oil pio- neers “created a lamp fuel; developed and improved the technology to produce it from bituminous materials; built [small] refiner- ies; gave rise to improved oil lamps; and created the marketing facilities and market demand. All that was then needed was a supply of crude oil, which could greatly cut the cost of making lamp fuel from solid coal or bitumen. That was the missing link first supplied by James Miller Williams.” Tripp had been so close. “He had focused on asphalt,” said Sydorko. “He did produce naphtha and kerosene by distillation. Tripp loved his oil fields, but he was going to lose them: the carriage company sued Tripp for monies owed, and by way of settlement Williams got the land. But Williams was not rapacious. He was kind to the Tripp family. They stayed in the picture.” With plans to dig several oil wells around the gum beds to determine how deep they were, Williams first dug a water well to supply the works. The first was sunk to a depth of about 14 feet and cribbed, lined with logs to keep the walls from slumping. “The next morning the well had filled with sour [sulfurous] crude and salt water,” said Sydorko. “The well was eventually deepened to bedrock at about 40 feel. An article in the Sarnia & Lamb- ton Observer-Advertiser states that the well produced five to 100 barrels of oil a day.” Those were wooden whiskey barrels from the Hiram Walker distillery, not the stan- dard 42-gallon barrel used worldwide today. Originally Williams owned the fields with his partners in Hamilton, Ontario, but he bought them out, Sydorko added. “He formed the J.M. Williams Company and was successful. He was making money. Colonel Drake was well aware of what Wil- liams was doing. Williams had a refinery on site, and then in Hamilton, an industrial port city from which he sold worldwide. We have an advertisement from the Ham- ilton Daily Spectator advertising machinery and illuminating oils.” (See page 33.) In 1861, John Henry Fairbank bought a small parcel of land from Williams and established his own company. He was a surveyor working in the area who was asked to delineate some oil properties and caught the bug. The next year he dug a successful well. Fairbank was another ex-pat American; he was originally from Rouses Point, New York. Fairbank is credited with inventing the jerker-line system, an array of wooden rods connected by metal links, all sus- pended so it could slide back and forth. The arrangement allows a single steam engine to pump dozens of wells simulta- neously. More rustic Rube Goldberg than steampunk, it worked so well that it was adopted in the early oilfields of Pennsyl- vania and then around the world. www.MoAF.org  |  Fall 2018  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  31