The Early Days
Back in 1858 James Miller Williams
brought North America's first commercially successful oil well into production
in a hardwood swamp at Oil Springs, Ont. (This site was recently
puchased for a memorial by Canadian Oil Companies Limited.) An oil
boom developed almost overnight, and at its height, some 1,000 wells had
been drilled in the area. In those days the village's proudest attraction
was a wooden sidewalk a mile and a half long, said to be the finest in
Canada! But the boom was short-lived and by 1866 Oil Springs became
a ghost town.
Then, in the same year, when the King wells "came in" Petrolia replaced Oil Springs as the major producing centre. By the 1880's oil was king in Petrolia and the wooden framework of countless well towers covered the countryside and the smell of raw petroleum was everywhere. Canadian oil was in demand around the world, and, intoxicated with success, many thought the rosy picture would never fade. These optimistic souls were doomed to sad disillusionment.
A rapidly expanding American petroleum industry was soon pushing hard in the world's markets, and at the same time Petrolia's wells began drying up one by one. By 1894 only five refineries were still operating in the one-time boom town.
In the late 1880's a mighty American oil company (Standard Oil) moved across the border into Canada and by 1898 practically controlled the entire petroleum industry in this country. By 1899 all the Petrolia refineries were closed and the once thriving centre began to assume the appearance of its neighbor, Oil Springs.
However, though Petrolia was apparently dead, it refused to lie down. This was due directly to the influence of a group of men endowed with courage and foresight who were determined that the Canadian petroleum industry should not be dominated from south of the 49th parallel. Above all else, they were interested in establishing an independent Canadian Oil company. Among this group were names, now famous in Canadian industry, politics, and finance - Calvert, Dyment, Perkins, Bull, Lovering and Ross.
Their first considerations were: (1) to raise sufficient money to establish an independent refinery in Petrolia, and (2) to secure adequate supplies of crude oil to keep the refinery in operation.
Revival By Co-Operation
With the co-operation of independent Philedelphia
and Toledo refiners who were, themselves, struggling to keep alive in a
highly competetive oil industry, an adequate supplement to available Canadian
crude oil supplies was assured. In 1901 the Canadian Oil Refining
Company of Petrolia recieved its charter and its newly constructed refinery
began operation in Petrolia under the capable direction of Frank Riddell,
a man with 20 years' oil industry experience under his belt. Capacity
of the new refinery was 10,000 barrels a week.
But, despite the brave beginning, the new company was not out of the woods by any means. The great oil monopoly was determined to crush all opposition, and it soon became obvious that in order to survive the Canadian Oil Refining Company must add to its strength through merging with the larger independent oil companies then operating in Canada. In 1904 this merger came about, joining nine organizations, one a producing company, two refineries and the rest jobbers. They included the Grant Hamilton Oil Company, Toronto; Sun Oil Refining Company, Hamilton; Union Petroleum Company, Petrolia; Walker Oil Company, Winnipeg; Gall-Schneider Oil Company, Montreal; McCort Oil Company, Petrolia; and Sterling Oil Works, which owned a refinery at Marietta, Ohio.
The Founding Fathers
A charter was granted to the newly organized Canadian
Oil Company Limited with head offices in Toronto and a capitalization of
one million dollars. It was, in actuality, a joint Canadian-American
enterprise-but the founding fathers were the Canadians. It was fitting,
therefore, that a Canadian, W .S. Calvert, M. P., Strathroy, Ont.,
should become the new company's first president.
It soon became apparent that crude oil in even greater quantity would have to come from U.S. sources as the production from local wells steadily dwindled. Bringing in crude in railway tank cars was becoming more expensive with every passing year as freight rates continued to soar. And so in 1906 the company bought an oil tanker, christened the "W. S. Calvert", which could carry 7,000 barrels of crude oil from Toledo to Froomfield on the St. Clair River. Here it was pumped ashore into underground tanks from where it was carried via a two-inch pipeline to the Petrolia refinery 16 miles away.
Nevertheless, in spite of the courage and determination of its leaders, the company suffered perennially from a shortage of capital with which to expand its marketing facilities and modernize its refinery. And the debts continued to mount inexorably in a spine-chilling manner. The recession of 1907 was the last straw. Declaring itself bankrupt, the Canadian Oil Company Limited awaited its fate.
Suprisingly enough, that fate was not to be oblivion, but quite the reverse. For some time it appeared, two oil men,
J. I. Lamprecht and Frank Fretter, both born salesmen, who, with characteristic enterprise had started the National Refining Company in Cleveland, Ohio on a shoe-string and built it into an empire worth millions, had been interested in the Canadian organization's potential.
In 1908 financial wizard Lamprecht, as president of National Refining, and dynamic, aggressive go-getter Fretter, both true pioneers of the independent oil industry on this continent, entered into negotiations with the Canadian Oil Company for its purchase. The deal was quickly consummated and for $400,000 the National Refining Company obtained control of the Canadian firm. Just under 50% of the stock remained in Canadian hands.
And so we come back to the point where our story began, the signing of that all important charter on December 4, 1908.
In 1908 the head office of Canadian Oil Companies, Limited was on Toronto's old Strachan Ave., and strange anomaly, included a paint factory until this was destroyed by fire in 1923. In those days Toronto was the distributing centre for Ontario; a Montreal office directed Quebec province and Ottawa valley operations; an office in Saint John, N.B. managed affairs in the then three Maritime provinces; the western business was conducted from Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver offices. The Petrolia refinery, of course, continued to be the pulsating heart of the organizations operations.
Oil From The South
Because the local oil wells were falling steadily
in production, Canadian Oil Companies, Limited had to buy most of its crude
oil from midwestern U.S. oil fields. At Toledo, this oil was pumped aboard
the former "W.S. Calvert," renamed the "En-Ar-Co" ,
trade name of the National Refining
Company. When the tanker arrived at
Froomfield the crude was pumped into 8,000-barrel capacity improvised tanks
dug out of the heavy clay along the banks of the St.Clair River. From
these the oil was piped to the refinery where it was processed in the primitive
looking iron stills of the day. The refinery, under the able direction
of Frank Riddell's successor, Bruce Dunlop, processed about 1,600 barrels
a day - 10,000 in a six-day week - which was considered very respectable
in those days.
At that time the most valuable product was not gasoline, but kerosene, although lubricating oils, marine oils, wax, coke, and some gasoline were produced as well. Most of these products were shipped in bulk to the various distributing centres where they were placed in wooden barrels for final distribution .