Financial History Issue 127 (Fall 2018) | Page 32

With Glowing Lamps We See Thee Rise The Global Oil Industry Started in Canada in 1858 By Gregory DL Morris Venerated or vilified, the worldwide oil business is arguably the largest indus- try on the planet, and has had the most profound effect on human society and the environment. It all started 160 years ago. In Canada. The first documented commercial oil well in North America, and for all intents and purposes in the world, was dug in August 1858 by James Miller Williams in Oil Springs, Ontario, southeast of Sar- nia. The more widely known, and heav- ily promoted oil well by Edwin Drake near Titusville, Pennsylvania, was drilled almost exactly a year later, in August 1859. Boosters of the Drake well once dis- missed the Williams well as a hand-dug affair little different from the techniques First Nations had been using for centuries to gather oil and tar to use as medicines, adhesives and coatings. That was true of the log crib that Williams used to sup- port the sides of the excavation. But the cable tools used to dig, and the rest of the operation to collect, process and distrib- ute the oil were the epitome of Victorian industrialism. More to the point, the regional industry that grew from that first well was a fully- integrated commercial enterprise. Most of the small companies were vertically integrated from crude production and gathering to processing and distribution. Some specialized in one aspect or another. Many sold shares, while others were pri- vately held. Markets were sought not just in Canada and the United States, but in Europe as well. 30    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Fall 2018  | In short, the Williams well broke ground for a full-fledged industry that was commercial, and profitable, from the start. Fairbank Oil Properties started with a well on land acquired from Williams. The company still exits and is the oldest continuously operating oil business in the world. To this day, there are refineries and chemical plants in Sarnia, the nearest big town to Oil Springs. The same was true of Drake in Pennsylvania. Williams was just first. The first to be commercially successful on an industrial scale, that is. Through the first half of the 1800’s there were many efforts in the United States, Canada and Fairbank Oil Property in Oil Springs, Ontario, Canada. The company still exists and is the world’s oldest continuously operating oil business.