Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, June 4, 2018

Petrolia Power

chemical valley from the point lands
Last week, on a business junket turned mini-holiday, we spent (not enough) time in several unfairly under-celebrated places in our great province - Sarnia and Petrolia. The former has suffered over time because of its 'chemical valley' reputation - which in all fairness has created wealth and beauty along with some nasty messes. We tend not to listen to gossip (consider my love affair with oft-derided Hamilton here and here) and stayed long enough to see where industrial power, vision and energy have created a charming liveable city. Lovely old residential neighbourhoods, parks galore, a river-front walk under the Bluewater Bridge, the old and beautiful Canatara park and an outstanding reclaimed waterfront area with an an hospitable Irish pub restaurant and great dockside breakfast spot on Sarnia Bay all invite a return visit.

And then there's historic Petrolia, "where the world's oil industry started."We made a long-overdue visit to this lovely town, and nearby Oil Springs. A short distance southeast of Sarnia, a meditative drive through rich flat farmland, brought us to Petrolia. It's a delightful Victorian town, its treed central square so inviting in the intense heat of this May day, Victorian dwellings (the tell-tale Romanesque Revival home, favourite of rich industrialists,) and well-turned out civic and commercial buildings.

the 1903 Great Western Railway station
Archival photos show how the now gracefully treed town looked in the 1860s, a forest of giant wooden tripods constructed out of every last tree in sight. Here's a link to Petrolia Heritage for some images to take you back to the oil boom days.

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
The red pressed brick and stone Petrolia library invited a longer visit, to be sure. Steps off the market square, the cool space offered Ladies' and Gentlemen's waiting rooms at each end of the structure, in rounded sections with wide overhangs supported by elegant brackets, capped by conical turret roofs.  The interior, which made my companion think of Dunedin's wondrous station was a treasure in panelled pine. The main entry is topped by a fan transom, below a square tower with Palladian window. This section once contained the general waiting room, ticket office, operator's desk, with a baggage room at one end.

 On our 'Walking Tour' way, we stopped to marvel at the 1889 Queen Anne style town hall and read the NHS plaque history it shared. We'd barely begun admiring the crisply restored belfry when an energetic pink-suited woman engaged us in lively conversation about Victoria Hall (one of those multi-purpose Victorian civic structures which managed to include municipal functions as disparate as a jail and a 1000 seat Opera House in one elegant structure.)  Here's its profile on the Historic Places register.

 (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
 "Wait, I have something for you," and she dashed off into the building, returning with maps and visitors' guide, and led us into the building for a personalized tour. We didn't see the opera house, as work was underway for that day's performance of Shirley Valentine, one of the offerings in a busy summer season.

Victoria Hall has everything you would expect from a Queen Anne civic structure - irregular form, impressive tower, a variety of window shapes, and detail, lots and lots of detail. Love the open gallery just below the clock - meticulously recreated. The buff brick is endemic in the area.

The Olde Post Office opened in 1894, as the PO and offices of the Inland Revenue and Customs, with residences for the postmaster and caretaker on the upper floors. Today the Olde Post Office is home to a Gift Shoppe. I bet it's staffed by friendly invitational folks.

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.
 We encountered another photo of the company HQ, in the oil museum in nearby Oil Springs. The photo contains so much information: Anderson and Murray are announced as proprietors, Machine Shop and Foundry, and Blacksmith are advertised as the business of the place. Beside the board walk stand steam engines - one pulled by a team of bemused horses - behatted and bewhiskered workmen, and behind, the ubiquitous three-pole derricks. And is that a drill hole in the foreground?


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.

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