Historical Perspectives on Oil Gushers

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By Dana Johnson

At the end of April, I began a four-month internship at the Oil Museum of Canada. One of my major research projects involves examining primary source documents to gain a better understanding about the events of 1862, when Canada’s first oil gushers erupted from over thirty wells in Oil Springs, Ontario. I have discovered some interesting comparisons between accounts of those first oil gushers and the recent oil spill disaster (a British Petroleum rig exploded on April 20th, killing eleven men and causing an enormous leak into the Gulf of Mexico; thousands of barrels a day continue to spew into open waters, as containment efforts have proven inadequate to respond to the crisis.)

The juxtaposition between mid-nineteenth century perspectives on oil gushers, and modern reactions to the current oil spill crisis, is quite striking. After the first oil gusher in Canada was struck on January 16th, 1862, it became a hot topic in newspapers across the province, including the Toronto Globe, the London Free Press, the Hamilton Times, and the Sarnia Observer. Newspapers described these oil gushers loftily and optimistically, commenting on the fortunes that would be earned by the wells’ owners and the splendid potential of Canada’s new resource. The London Free Press ran a column on February 6th, 1862, “The Oil Wells in Enniskillen” (the township where Oil Springs is situated) which described the scene when the oil initially spouted from the well:

… shooting up a column of oil some 20 feet into the air…. hundreds of barrels of oil were flowing around the well, over the road and into the creek…. the waste was [eventually] stayed; but not until eighty or one hundred thousand gallons of oil were lost! I measured the depth of oil on the creek in many places, and found a varying deposit of from three to four inches, just as pure as when it flowed from the well.

Visitors flocked from throughout the province to witness the flowing wells for themselves: the London Free Press reported on January 30th, 1862, that “upwards of 2,000 persons have already been to see for themselves the wonderful oil well in Enniskillen.”

The extent to which attitudes have changed is astounding. Undoubtedly, they stem from an increased understanding of the impact that oil spills have on the environment. The Toronto Globe suggested on August 27th, 1861, “The oil comes to the surface in many places… Whether the fish like or dislike this natural addition to their aqua pura is not reported. Perhaps they use it for medicinal purposes, as dogs sometimes eat grass, and cows a few leaves of hemlock when out of condition.”

The only danger associated with oil was the potential for devastating explosions; its negative impact on the environment was not a concern to the nineteenth-century mentality. The main worry was the amount of money that was being lost by the oil that flowed into creeks, rivers and lakes from the flowing wells. The Sarnia Observer article mentioned above stated specifically that “one hundred thousand gallons of oil were lost.”

Journalists, politicians, oil workers, and environmentalists commenting on the BP oil spill are not focusing on the revenue that is being lost by the oil that gushes into the ocean. The main monetary concern in the coverage I have listened to is how much will eventually be spent to clean up the mess. Times have certainly changed!

Dana Johnson is a student in the University of Western Ontario’s Public History program. In addition to contributing here at Activehistory.ca, she has her own blog at http://danajohnsonhist.blogspot.com/.

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