|chemical valley from the point lands|
|the 1903 Great Western Railway station|
A photo in an interpretive panel at the Petrolia library shows an early view of the town. The crude wooden oil derricks share the frame with an elegant train station.This 1903 structure was the long-awaited improvement to the 1858 station on the town-financed spur line (later The Great Western Railway, then acquired by GTR) to the rail-head at 12 mile distant Wyoming, ending the days of transporting barrels by horse and ox carts along quagmire trails to the rail head. Here's the full story of The Petrolia Spur, thanks to blogger Tom Walter.
Michael, another railway blogger from Ottawa, has this to say about Petrolia's GTR station - and shows off some great old photos. Here's more info and photos from the library website.
Ah yes, the library. This lovely spot brings me back to a reflection on Petrolia Power. No, it's not oil I'm talking about, but people. So many towns and cities spend fortunes on tourism infrastructure and promotion, and miss the most important ingredient in a visitor welcome - people. Experienced in sussing out new old towns, and winkling out their architectural history, we noted a unique and beautiful train station (the library!) and dropped in to check for a architectural walking tour guide. What we got was, yes, a beautifully produced walking tour, an information card about the library and an earnest recommendation to see the Oil Springs museum not far away, but we also got warmth, enthusiasm, town pride and a sincere welcome, in the person of the lovely librarian, whose name I neglected to get. We left, wishing to stay!
|a symphony of roof forms|
(For more background on multipurpose civic structures check out Cornerstones of Order, by the unassailable MacRae and Adamson, Clarke Irwin, 1983.)
From this second local booster (I actually asked her if she were the mayor, given her pride in the town) we learned of the devastating 1989 fire which gutted the heritage structure (the town's long-time local newspaper editor, our host recalled stopping the presses to share the terrible centennial event.)
|bell fell in 1989 fire|
The chunky Romanesque Revival arches above the round-headed windows are a nod to a style popular with the wealthy industrialists of Toronto, an example of the town's establishing itself in brick in the 1890s, putting its frame-built shanty history behind it.
"Oil Well Supply", the building announced, looking particularly historic and photogenic. Denis chatted with a woman returning to her office - turns out the signage isn't renewed for the tourists. This company, founded in 1866 to manufacture drill rigs and equipment for the fledgling oil boom still services that same industry.
Given the deep ambivalence many feel about the petrochemical industry these days, perhaps it was not surprising that Den and I were the only visitors at the Oil Museum of Canada NHS in Oil Springs, near Petrolia, our next stop. But oh, the history you will miss, if you fail to visit.
The museum, far from extolling the virtues of oil, tells the story of this area, where oil has sat on the surface of the ground, from prehistory. Oil Springs, a tiny town south-east of Sarnia, is the site of North American's first commercial oil well, dug by hand by one James Miller Williams. The well is there. At the museum. A video animates the journal of a settler wife, and her aversion to the 'gum beds' on their newly purchased farmland, nuisance surface deposits of oil for which pioneers of the area searched for practical uses.
VanTuyl and Fairbank Hardware in Petrolia was opened by J.H.Fairbank, one of Petrolia's founding fathers, in 1865, his partner Benjamin VanTuyl joined in 1874 - it's still a working hardware, operated by the 4th generation of Fairbanks.
We would have loved these towns and their historic structures, and learned from the plaques and panels, in any case. But our pleasant contacts with two enthusiastic Petrolia hosts made the visit, and the place, that much more special.
I regret not asking them their names. But friends, you know who you are. And you, like many of your fellow townsfolk whom we did not meet, are a bigger resource in your community than even oil.