Financial History Issue 127 (Fall 2018) | Page 35

Oil Springs area, saturated with tar and water, tended to clog and stall rotary drills. The first gusher was hit in 1862 at 270 feet. Who struck it is less clear. For decades historians thought it was a man named Hugh Nixon Shaw, but recent scholarship suggests that it was actually John Shaw, according to an analysis by the Lambton Country Archives. The analysis states, “Newspaper articles from the Toronto Globe and the Hamilton Times in 1861 and 1862 refer to ‘Hugh Shaw’ as a successful businessman who patented a still and opened a refinery in Oil Springs. He died in a tragic accident on February 11, 1863, ‘of suffocation, caused by inhaling poi- sonous gases from a well at Oil Springs…’ “Primary sources do not support Hugh as the oil gusher pioneer,” the archives report continues. “There are no references to Hugh and the oil gusher in any 1860’s newspapers. The first reference to Hugh and the gusher appears two decades later in Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lambton, Ontario, 1880. Also telling is the fact that Hugh’s own journal of business expenditures from 1861 to 1863 does not refer to the gusher.” The archive analysis concludes, “John Shaw was a significantly less successful businessman. The Toronto Globe described on February 2, 1862 how ‘… last January found him a ruined, hopeless man, leered at by his neighbors, his pockets empty, his clothes in tatters…’ John got lucky with his gusher, and his accomplishment is referenced numerous times in 1860’s newspapers including the Hamilton Times, Toronto Leader, Toronto Globe, New York Times and Sarnia Observer (eight separate articles). Hamilton Times proclaimed on January 20, 1862, ‘Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C.W., tapped a vein of oil in his well…the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day of pure oil…’” By 1866 the center of oil production in the region shifted to Petrolia, Ontario. By the turn of the century oil was a global business. Imperial Oil was founded in Canada in 1906 in an effort to achieve the economies of scale that drive all commod- ity industries, and to fend off the Ameri- can Standard Oil. It didn’t work. Standard bought a controlling interest in Imperial in the 1930s. But innovation did not end in the region. The refineries and chemical plants made important advances in fuel and elas- tomer chemistry as part of the war effort in the 1940s. Pioneering work in synthetic rubber sprang from the same ground as spring poles and jerker rods. Another technology invented there is for making polyethylene, the material of plastic bags and milk jugs. It is called Sclair, named for the St. Clair River that flows past Sarnia. In the wake of the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984 that killed an estimated 15,000 people, the Canadian Chemical Producers Association developed manda- tory codes of management practice for Spring pole drilling rig, Bothwell, Ontario, 1860. Advertisement for J.M. Williams & Co.’s Refinery, published in the Daily Spectator and Journal of Commerce, July 4, 1860. health, safety and environmental protec- tion called Responsible Care. Plants in the Sarnia area were at the forefront of that development. The codes were adopted by industry associations in the United States and worldwide, and compliance is now certified by third-party audit. Oil production in the area is now dwarfed by a single well in Alberta or Pennsylvania, but it continues. And just a few minutes’ drive from the gleaming pro- cess towers around Sarnia stand the weath- ered wooden remains of those first Wil- liams and Fairbank wells. They launched a global industry that changed the world and now produces close to 100 million barrels a day. Loved or loathed, it started here. The preservation and presentation are not as aggrandizing as are the sites in the United States, but then, this is Canada.  Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist, principal of Enter- prise & Industry Historic Research ( and an active member of the Museum’s edito- rial board.  |  Fall 2018  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  33