Field tripping: North America's first oil well

Monday, May 24, 1993

Visit the Oil Museum of Canada, Oil Springs, Ontario, the site of the first oil well in North America. Oil Springs is 35 km south of Sarnia. The Oil Museum of Canada is open May 1st to October 31st, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Open year round for tours. (519) 834-2840.

The museum houses exhibits commemorating the pioneers of the oil industry and its first hundred years. Exhibits show the history of oil, from its formation in the Devonian limestones of the Delaware and Ontagon formations, to its discovery, early production and present day refining. Outside the museum a reconstruction of William’s Well and other working wells and exhibits may be seen.

In 1851, a report by the Geological Survey of Canada noted the occurrence of gum beds in Enniskillen Township. These can still be seen today. Charles Tripp recognised the potential of this material as a source of asphalt and erected buildings and equipment for asphalt production in 1852. His product was given an honorable mention at the Universal Exposition in Paris, France in 1855.

In 1854 or 1955, Charles Tripp dug a well in order to obtain water for his factory. To his chagrin he struck thick, black smelly oil within two metres of the surface. Tripp failed to appreciate the significance of the find. Tripp sold off his holdings gradually to James Miller Williams. Williams could be called the father of the oil industry in North America. In 1855 he reorganised the company and started production of illuminating oil. Within two or three years he had dug several sells for the purpose of obtaining oil. This was done while Drake was still looking for the site of his famous well which many people believe was the first in North America. From 1858 to the end of 1860 Williams shipped 1.5 million litres of crude oil. This was hauled out, two barrels at a time, to the railway. The most exciting period in the history of oil in Lambton County was the decade of the 1860’s. In that year the first flowing well was tapped. Men rushed to the area and land prices soared. Springpole drillrigs sank 400 wells up to the end of 1861. The boom lasted a short time as flow from the wells became intermittent or stopped. Just as things started to look bad for the oil field, a man named Shaw was drilling near Petrolia with two partners. An argument with the partners was settled by giving Shaw a piece of unwanted land near Oil Springs. He rounded up two helpers and set to work drilling. Work was difficult because it was now winter. At 20 metres, where Williams had struck oil, there was nothing. His money failed, so he used his helpers credit to obtain more supplies. Finally this credit ran out too. Shaw decided to call it quits, well, not today, but tomorrow for sure. For one more day they drilled on until they reached a depth of 49 metres. Suddenly, with a roar that was head for several kilometres, a rush of gas exploded from the well, throwing the drilling tools high into the air. After the gas came the oil. For a week the well flowed 3,000 barrels a day. A natural sump filled and flowed into Lake St. Clair. After a week the flow was stopped by stuffing a leather bag full of flax seed into the top of the well. No market existed for such quantities of oil, but Shaw obtained ample funds by occasionally filling a few barrels from a natural sump.


Geological Survey of Canada Miscellaneous Report 39, Rocks and Minerals for the Collector, Bancroft-Parry Sound Area and Southern Ontario, Ann P. Sabina, 1986.

A History of the Chemical Industry in Lambton County, R.W. Ford, third edition 1988. Copies may be obtained by writing to the Communications Department, Dow Chemical Canada Inc., Sarnia Division, Box 3030, Sarnia, N7T 7M1. The historical information in the article above is from this publication.

  1. 2018 (1)
  2. 2016 (4)
  3. 2013 (4)
  4. 2012 (6)
  5. 2011 (11)
  6. 2010 (5)
  7. 2009 (4)
  8. 2007 (8)
  9. 2006 (10)
  10. 2005 (7)
  11. 2004 (10)
  12. 2003 (12)
  13. 2002 (15)
  14. 2001 (17)
  15. 2000 (21)
  16. 1999 (31)
  17. 1998 (22)
  18. 1997 (11)
  19. 1996 (28)
  20. 1995 (28)
  21. 1993 (7)
  22. 1992 (6)
  23. 1991 (4)
  24. 1990 (9)
  25. 1989 (9)