Today our class set off for Oil Springs. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but now that I’m back I have to say that it was a very interesting and informative field trip. It was a great opportunity to learn about an industry I am unfamiliar with, as well as to check out another National Historic Site in action.
Our first port of call was the Oil Museum of Canada, which has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada. We were met at the Oil Museum by Charlie Fairbanks, the owner of a large oil-producing property in the area. He gave us a tour of the land, showing us sites of interest and telling us the incredible stories of the people who came to Oil Springs hoping to strike it rich. We learned about how people began to recognize the value of oil when they learned they could use it to light kerosene lamps. The Tripp brothers made asphalt from gum beds saturated with oil, but couldn’t get their product to market fast enough due to poor roads. The Shaw well produced North America’s first gusher, and as more and more people started to get in on the “oil rush,” wells were drilled that produced as much as 7500 barrels of oil a day. Much of this early oil was wasted. As drillers struggled to get their gushers under control, millions of barrels’ worth of oil flowed into local creeks and rivers. Innovators began to experiment with new technology, and eventually the “jerker line” system was developed, allowing hundreds of pumps to be operated through a single power house.
Although the oil rush has stopped, and there are no longer three or four wells per acre, the oil history of this area is far from over. One of the most interesting things that we were shown is a spot on the lawn in front of the museum where new gum beds are starting to form at the surface. This gooey tar is one of the first indications people had of the area’s oil production. This spot on the museum lawn is the first reappearance of the gum beds in a century, meaning that the area is still active – not to mention the fact that the Fairbanks are still selling oil using the same jerker-line method their ancestors used when they arrived in Oil Springs. Many areas around Oil Springs smell distinctly of the oil sitting just below the surface.
More stories and items of interest were found after the tour, when we came back to the Oil Museum of Canada. I really enjoyed the travel videos of the “foreign drillers” – Lambton county oil workers who were sent off all around the world to teach others how to extract oil. The videos were very lighthearted, simple, and fun for kids, I’m sure. It was an interesting way to incorporate interactivity into the museum’s exhibits. Many men returned to Canada from these journeys with both money and exotic items. The Oil Museum holds not just drilling equipment, but also ibex horns, Persian fabrics and vessels, a tarantula, African weapons, and tiger teeth. Items too large for the museum are outside; these include a working power house and jerker line, three-pole derricks, and the Oil Springs train station.
One thing I noticed was that the museum didn’t often acknowledge any tension between locals in other countries and Canadians. A darker side of the industry was alluded to on the lower floor, however, where there was a story of a foreign driller threatened by local workers who were dissatisfied with their pay; another foreign driller was poisoned, along with the rest of his men, shortly after arrival. Women were not frequently mentioned. I’d also like to know if the museum has any more information about the environmental impact of the early oil industry. When did people realize that dumping millions of barrels of oil down the creek was a bad idea? How did changes in drilling practices come about?
Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Oil Springs. The Fairbanks tour was informative and a lot of fun, if a bit smelly at times! And although the museum isn’t without some shortcomings, it does have incredible collections and an important story to tell. The history of oil in Canada is not the cleanest history, but it is a part of what makes us who we are today. It strikes me that understanding this history is more important than ever as we struggle to make the right decisions about Alberta’s oil sands.
At this point I’d love to share some of today’s photos with you. But I can’t seem to get them off my phone. Until then, enjoy this photo of the Fairbanks barn (which houses plenty of sheep and some llamas!), courtesy of a Google search.
Update, November 15 2013: new and improved with extra photos!