Petrolia Part 1
Parcels of land available from the government from the 1812 war were doled out to the unsuspecting widows of the soldiers the land being less then desirable.
The actual soil was heavy clay. Dense woods surrounded the area and there were few roads to access it. Due to the clayish soil Petrolia was prone to flooding and became a mire during the spring and fall. Land on the St. Clair River was considered to be much more desirable than that of Enniskillen township and therefore the development only started when land elsewhere became harder to come by.
Eveland would eventually sell his land to George Durand a wealthy merchant from Sarnia who in turn would sell it to Patrick Barclay, the actual founder of Petrolia.
The first mill was built on the Bear River by a Mr. Gardner. This was done by a method that was common during those days called a “bee” where friends and neighbours participated in the actual raising of the building. It should be noted that the farmers who lived in this area were extremely poor and had to carry their grain to the mill on their back. At one point the mill was sold to a man by the name of Ennis and a post office was opened honoring his name. It sold again in 1859 and the name was changed to Woodley’s Mills.
That mill could turn out 200 bushels of grain a day with the strong water turbines that ran it. It was also capable of storing up to 1000 bushels of grain making it a worthy building.
The place was named after the local postmaster “Durance” and continued to grow reaching a population of 300 by 1864. The town at that time boasted a hotel, cobbler, general store, photographer, smithy, and two real estate dealers, the Petrolia Oil Refining Co. which shipped oil to England and Mitchell’s Canada Gazetteer. William Coutlee, proprietor of the local Petrolia Hotel was the postmaster. With the migration of people looking for oil he was soon to give up as postmaster due to lack of time. The town became known as Petrolia (Petrolea) in 1861 but was only incorporated in 1866 and at that time had a population of 2300 people.
Being an oil town meant a lot of transient population and single men who lived in hotel settings. The town had nine hotels by '61 but there were complaints that there were not enough bars. I suspect my great grandmother, Frances Martin-Ryder would not have liked that aspect of the town. It was an oil town after all and nothing more. Apparently the smell of the oil was everywhere as was the oil itself. It created a film on the clapboard buildings that were not much more than shanties.
Once the oil was discovered the cattle were being pushed from their pastures and land was being sold at a premium to those who were seeking the black gold. Everything about the town was crudely built causing concern for fire. So much so that a steam pumper was purchased from Montreal at a cost of $3000 in 1872.
Another thing that would have been upsetting to my great grandmother was the mud. Due to the clay soil and poor drainage the wooden sidewalks rotted and were constantly in need of upgrading. The main one that ran the full length of the village from the Great West Railway station to the eastern end of the village had to be replaced on a yearly basis.
At that time the law stated that the town could have only one hotel for every 250 people. The oilmen apparently complained about this continually and as soon as the population rose another hotel would open. that would therefore create another bar of which seemed to also be lacking in Petrolia. Surprising Petrolia was relatively quiet considering it was an oil town. Oilmen were tough and hard drinkers. Most of the problems that arose were not surprisingly for drunk and disorderly conduct.
The demand for wood was great in the town. Land was being cleared at an alarming rate to try to keep up with the demand. Wood was used for most of the buildings, bridges, sidewalks and even oil tanks. Steam powered oil drills and pumps demanded a lot of wood as well. The price for wood soared and one of the quotes for a sidewalk at the Great West Hotel was quoted at $2.75 per rod in May but when the tended was accepted in August the price had jumped to $4.86.
Petrolia’s most profitable period was during the later 1880’s. Even back then the price of oil dictated the economy. At one point the town of Petrolia produced four times the amount of oil that the country could consume and the price dropped from $2.50 a barrel to $.70. It would be Prime Minister MacDonald who would change that with is Canada first policy by setting regulations.
By 1877 most of the town was developing on the west side of the Bear River. So much so that a new post office was set up there. A new hardware shop built at that time also, would become the largest one west of Toronto.
The oldest building that remains in Petrolia today is the old Fairbank and Vaughn bank, which is now a private residence. These two men who built up Petrolia were apparently exact opposites. Fairbank was very conservative but Vaughn was a wheeler and dealer. Vaughn would die broke but Fairbank thrived all his life.
When the oil crash of 1879 took place oil dropped as low as $.40 a barrel. However things rallied once the surplus was gone and the price quickly rallied to $1.40. Jake Englehart was the founder of Silver Star Refinery that would eventually become Imperial Oil.
My great-grandfather James Ryder, moved to Petrolia in 1879 just as the economy was turning around. The population leveled out but then began to rise steadily. The town encouraged all new buildings to be of brick and slowly as the old wood buildings burned, by accident or by choice, brick ones replaced them. The whole town was transformed during these years.
It would be 1880 before Petrolia got its first high school. Once Imperial Oil was established (1880) many changes took place in the town. It was then that they got their first water system, market square, Greenwood Park and Bell Telephone. While the rest of Canada continued to suffer through a depression, Petrolia’s economy prospered.
Next post will feature PETROLIA AND MY FAMILY PART 2