‘Voices of Lambton’s Past’: Part 2 of the ‘First Commercial Oil Well’ story

United States


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Lambton Shield

Hugh Nixon Shaw originally started out in the oil fields of Oil Springs with two partners, Harv Smiley and Jack Coryell, drilling on one acre of land leased from William Sanborn, an absentee American entrepreneur.

Their agreement was to give one-third part of any earnings they might have to Mister Sanborn if they struck oil.

For many months, the three worked together, Smiley on the kickboard, Coryell with one foot in the stirrup and Shaw turning the tool and adding links as needed.

It was not long before Shaw was working alone, having driven off one partner by his constant exhortation “Oh, ye hell bound soul, servant of the devil, repent this day or you will burn in the flames of Hades.”

When he continued to harp on the evils of frequenting the groggeries, his other partner had also left.

Even though he was working alone, Shaw continued to have faith. Each day, after offering a prayer, he would say to himself ‘today will be the day our Lord will provide for me.’

While Hugh Nixon Shaw was a nice man and a good man, he must also have been an unfortunate man. No one wanted to work with him and he had but little money.

He lasted only a few months, never striking it rich, which is what he said he wanted most. He was desperate to make back enough to offset the loss of what he thought was his birthright.

But Hugh Nixon Shaw did not strike oil, even though he had drilled deeper than any other man looking for oil in this field.

One day, alone at his diggings, so forlorn and discouraged, he just up and said to himself ‘That be it. I give up. It is time for me to go home.

He left one day early in October 1861 after selling his claim to another man named Shaw.

John Shaw, the new owner of the site, told all that would listen that he truly believed that Hugh had given up too early, that if he just kept drilling, there was oil down below. Maybe a long way down, but it was there.

Let’s join John Shaw as he sits forlorn, one cold day in January of 1862, listening to the taunts from other oil miners.

John Shaw – 1861

He had worked on his own now for three months, inch by inch, foot after foot, continuing what Hugh Nixon Shaw had started.

The weary pattern of drilling continued this day just as it did every day, the drill eating its way down through the hard pan, the going getting much slower and much more difficult.

Day after day, John Shaw had continued to drill even when he, like so many others, ran out of funds and credit until he was well past being broke. His money had slowly vanished through the fall.

By the time the snows began, he had been without cash for several weeks, but continued to convince his creditors to advance even more credit for supplies and food.

No one had struck oil below about seventy-five feet. That did not concern Shaw. He was still drilling, now down more than one hundred and fifty feet into the rock. Still, he continued to drill.

All about him, other miners laughed. They told him he was a crazy like the other Shaw, a fool to dig even deeper in what must be a dry well. No one had ever found oil that far down.

Completely on his own, so cold, this winter so harsh, no cash and no further credit available to him, he could not even afford the thread he needed to sew patches over the holes in his pants. His stomach growling from hunger, he had continued to drill on his own right through Christmas and on into the New Year.

This day, as the dark forced him to quit, he sat alone, so despondent that he cried within. No tears would come, but his whole body shuddered. He was so close to giving up.

Before he left for the day, he had measured the chain. Down below the fifty feet of hard clay and more than one hundred feet of stone Hugh Nixon Shaw had first dug and drilled, John Shaw on his own had tromped enough on the treadle to drill down through the rock to a total of one hundred and fifty-seven long, hard feet through the hard stone.

How much deeper could he continue to drill through the solid, unyielding bedrock before conceding it was a dry well?

As the other miners wandered past, many called out ‘Crazy Shaw,’ ‘Digging too deep,’ ‘Gotta be a dry well,’ “You be as crazy as the other Shaw.”

As the sun set and the dark of night descended, the gloom seemed to envelop him. He quietly stood and began to walk toward the hotel. As he slowly made his way there, so tired, so discouraged, he reflected on the mean-spirited comments he heard each day, so familiar to him now, but no less painful.

John Shaw silently decided that perhaps all of them were right.

Everyone knew and so many had told him, even the few men he counted as friends and supporters in this hostile place.

Even they had told him countless times that no one should expect to strike oil at the depth he was relentlessly continuing to drill.

He reluctantly decided that he would try just one more day. If he still had no success, he would pack up and sneak away the next night, a failure, at least in his own opinion.

He would not give any others the chance to tell him they had said so.

The next morning, after a fitful night of tossing and turning, John Shaw slowly walked back to his claim, trudging through newly fallen snow, just this one spark of hope left, just this one day to hit oil.

After arriving at his site, he brushed the snow away from his drill and his treadle and then started the familiar bounce up and down.

By now speaking aloud to himself, he muttered “Today is January 17th in this year of 1862. How many days have I done this in vain? How many times have I pushed down on this thing? One million. Two million. Maybe ten million. Has it all been for naught? Who knows?”

Discouraged and now ready to admit that he was finally beaten, the snow falling even heavier, Shaw was just going through the motions. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.

Slower each time. By the light reflecting through the falling white of the snow, he knew it was past mid-day.

This last day of drilling for John Shaw was now more than half over.

Then, from out of the bowels of the ground beneath his feet, he heard a quiet, rumbling sound.

Shaw stopped stomping and listened. There were two rumbling sounds; the first he could sense within was his stomach asking for food.

The other sound, gradually increasing in intensity, was resonating from the ground beneath his feet. He continued to listen as the rumbling below him got louder and louder.

After listening to the rumbling from below for several minutes, the ground all around him seemed to move and shake as a loud, sharp, booming, cracking noise seemed to echo all around him, a sound that he was sure could be heard all over this sea of derricks.

More than two thousand men working in the oil field also heard the crack as it echoed around the Enniskillen oil field.

To a man, they all stopped working and looked Shaw’s way.       

Following soon after the loud noise, a long hiss. Then, a strong blast of air shot up out of the hole Shaw had been drilling.

Just in time, suddenly more energized than he had been in weeks, he jumped out of the way as a dense, bubbling spume of heavy, thick, black muck followed the hiss roaring up through the shaft he had been so listlessly working on but moments before. The earth began to shake.           

He didn’t realize it then, but Shaw had struck a fissure far below the site he had been drilling for so many months. It was that last jump down on the treadle that had cracked through the remaining thin piece of bedrock that had been holding in check the intense pressure of a giant reservoir of crude oil.

The world's first gusher had just blown in with a spectacular roar on this sixteenth day of January in this year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two.

Even after jumping aside, the force of the blast lifted Shaw off the ground, throwing him more than ten feet before he landed awkwardly on his back, still not realizing that he had been violently tossed aside by the sudden blast of pressure as crude, held under pressure for millions of years, was allowed to escape.

Heavy thick oil shot up even higher than the few trees still standing in this area, coating Shaw with an oily black film. As he pulled himself up, a big grin barely visible on his shiny, black face, he looked at where he had been standing just moments before.

Drenched though he was by both the still falling snow and the heavy black oil escaping from his well, Shaw looked around.

There was no trace anywhere of the parts of his spring pole drilling rig. It had been obliterated, blasted to bits by the force of the escaping pressure. The surface all round his site was now black for more than thirty feet in all directions, covered by the escaping crude.

The first people to reach Shaw were Harv Smiley and John Coryell, Hugh Nixon Shaw’s former partners who had reluctantly gone off to work on their own.

They had both been convinced that the two Shaws had been pursuing a futile dream as first Hugh and later John had continued drilling efforts on this one hole, attempting to strike oil so far down, even though everyone had very forcefully pointed out to them that the deepest find to date had been only sixty-five feet down, a well dug by James Miller Williams.

When John Shaw looked at the two of them, all he could see was two men covered in thick, heavy, black liquid, just as he was.

“Look, John,” shouted Harv Smiley. “You done it. You were right all along. That be more oil shooting up than all that has been dug here over the last four years.”

Coryell grabbed Shaw, spun him around and started to bounce up and down as if he was dancing a jig and yelled out over the noise of the surging oil. 

“John, what a sight to behold. It looks like a geyser of water. Just look at it, shooting up in the air like that.”

It was a real sight. By now, the surge from beneath the ground had intensified. Crude oil was shooting more than two hundred feet straight up into the air.

Soon, there were hundreds of people, hard-oilers, greasers, people from the village and their families, all standing back just far enough to be outside the immense fountain of black liquid and the wide black surface now spreading nearly thirty feet out all round the place where Shaw had been drilling.

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:   

This gusher, soon to be called the Shaw Well, would flow freely for nearly two weeks until it could be brought under control, spewing out thousands of barrels each day, eventually spreading across the land until it entered the Black Creek and from there followed the current as it meandered out into Lake St. Clair.

No one had ever seen, or even imagined anything like this could happen.

Within minutes, there were many suggestions on how to stop the flow and preserve the crude shooting out.

The first thing they tried was wrapping a flax?filled leather bag around the bottom of a two and a half inch pipe and then trying to stuff it down into the metal shaft more than fifty feet below. The pressure was too great and just shot the pipe up into the air, narrowly missing Shaw and his now willing helpers, Smiley and Coryell.

For several days, everyone who could just held barrels under the falling oil to fill them. Oil was everywhere, on everybody.

It was twelve days before they were able to at least slow the flow by stuffing a two and a half inch pipe inside a three inch pipe and then forcing it down the shaft. This slowed the flow so that it now only gushed about twenty feet into the air.

When they next wrapped another bag around a three quarter inch pipe, they were able to jam it into the other pipe and slow the flow even more.

On the thirteenth day of the free flow, they were able to attach another pipe on top of the one already there and seal it off to stop the flow.

Even though thousands of barrels of oil had been gathered, thousands more had flooded more than fifty acres with parts in the lowest areas at a depth of three feet. For several days, the oil flowed a foot thick on the already muddy waters of Black Creek. To be able to continue working their own sites, drillers had to use long poles, jumping from log to log.

Soon after the well was capped, a report appeared in the Toronto Globe:

"One of the elements of romance at all times has been the sudden elevation of individuals from penury to wealth and social consideration. Having settled to our own satisfaction that romance is not dead, we plunge into a certain deep well near Victoria, on lot 18, in the Second Concession of the Township of Enniskillen.

In that well a certain John Shaw centred all his hopes and expectations for many long months. Painfully did he dig, painfully drill, painfully pump; expending first cash and then credit, and afterwards his own muscles on a wearisome task. Not a sign of oil did he find. His neighbours' were overflowing; he alone had received no share of the petroleum stream.

The middle of last January found him a ruined, hopeless man, jeered at by his neighbours, his pockets empty, his clothes in tatters, – as our neighbours across the line say – dead broke. Report says, that on a certain day in January, he found himself unable to pursue his work.

Not to put too fine a point on it, his boots had utterly given out, and to enable him to paddle about in the wet and cold, a new pair was absolutely necessary. In fear and             trembling, as we may             suppose, John Shaw proceeded to a neighbouring store, and having no money asked – sad necessity – for a pair of boots on credit.

Report             sayeth not whether the refusal was kindly administered in the spirit of self-defense which traders must sometimes fall back upon, or whether it was the purse-pride of the rich man looking down on his humble neighbour but, certain it was, that the boots were refused to John Shaw, and he returned to his well a sadder man than he left it, protesting that he would work no longer than that day, if success did not crown his efforts, he would cast the mud of Enniskillen from his old boots and depart to more congenial climes.

Moodily he took up his drill, and sternly struck it into the rock. Hark! What is that? A sound of liquid from the depths below; hissing and gurgling as it escapes from the confinement of centuries. Does it cease? No, see it comes, growing in volume every moment. It fills the pipe, it fills the well; still it comes.

Five minutes; ten minutes; in fifteen minutes it has reached the top of the well; it overflows: it fills a tank; it overflows that; vain are all attempts to check its career; resistless it pours in a mighty tide down the declivity into Black Creek, and is borne away by the waters to the St. Clair and the lakes.

Who shall attempt to describe the feelings of John Shaw at that moment? We shall not, for we do not know how he showed them. The bystanders have not recorded whether he wept, or whether he took off his hat and shouted, hooray! Anything might be excused at such a moment. We suspect that, like a philosophic Yankee, he went to work to "save the oil."

But the report of the flowing well spread like wildfire through the settlement, and “John Shaw's territory" became the centre of attraction. In the morning he had been "Old Shaw;" if he had spelt his name with a "P." before it, they could not have described him             more contemptuously. Now, he was “Mr. Shaw."


This well extended through fifty feet of clay from the surface, and one hundred and fifty-eight feet through the rock, in all two hundred and eight feet from the surface. The iron pipes used to convey the oil from the rock in the flowing wells vary from one and a half to two and a half inches in diameter. Shaw's well had             one and a half inch pipe."No one knew how to turn off this gusher, and it was estimated that more than 100,000 barrels of oil were wasted before they could stop the flow! The oil from this well gushed as high as the treetops for four days, flooded the hollow where it was located, and flowed down Black Creek into Lake St. Clair.

Shaw was now the envy of all in the oil field and other drillers scrambled for new sites close to his. There would be more than thirty big wells brought in by the end of the year, at least six of them with a flow greater than the Shaw Well. 

John Shaw had quite dramatically proved his point and in the process had gone from being broke and a laughing stock to one of most important men in Oil Springs and the first man in North America to refine oil from his own well and sell it commercially.

Historians generally credit Hugh Nixon Shaw as being the individual who brought in the first gusher in Lambton County.

A contrary view is expressed on page 32 of Ontario’s Petroleum Legacy, a recently published book by Earle Gray. He states that the first gusher was, in fact, brought in by an American photographer by the name of John Shaw rather than Hugh Nixon Shaw.

Gray quotes two contemporary references made by the Toronto Globe in 1862. In the first reference,

A Mr. Shaw, lately of Port Huron, Michigan, a dauggerean artist, and formerly of Kingston West, struck oil ….”

The other Toronto Globe reference to John Shaw is included as part of the story in this chapter.

In Lambton County’s Hundred Years, Victor Lauriston, in his account on pages 162-3, refers only to Shaw without any Christian name.

On page 164, he states,

“And now comes a further romantic story of Shaw, which illustrates how tradition may be pure fiction handed to posterity as pure fact. So often has the tale been told, no history of Lambton and the Canadian oil fields would be complete without it. The hero is sometimes called John Shaw, sometimes James Shaw; ……”

Later on the same page,

“Shaw’s great well yielded lavishly for four months; ….  and ultimately returned to the scene of his former greatness where for a year or so he eked out a precarious livelihood as an itinerant photographer in a little, ramshackle car. In 1872, he died in Petrolia in abject poverty.”  

Are two or more of Hugh Nixon Shaw and John Shaw and James Shaw the same persons? Who actually brought in the first gusher? Go and visit the Oil Museum of Canada and view their many exhibits, including the site of the Shaw Gusher. Then decide for yourself which Shaw struck it big.


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