Thomas Montgomery, P.Eng. (1874-1964)
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By R.J. Adams

He refined oil to fuel Canadian human settlement westwards.

Born in 1874 in Plymouth Township, just outside of Sarnia, Ontario, Thomas Montgomery’s engineering career began as a genuine interest in what can best be described as tinkering. He soon realized that he was more interested in seeing how things worked than in farming, so he moved to Sarnia to begin an engineering career that would last over 50 years until his retirement as chief engineer of Imperial Oil Ltd. in 1943.

Thomas began in a machine shop at 16 years of age, where his boss encouraged him to take a correspondence course in mechanical engineering. He then was an employee of Tom Doherty, a Sarnia manufacturer of stoves, fire hydrants, valves and specialties for municipal water systems. It was during his employment with Doherty that Montgomery came into contact with Henry Ford, a young mechanic who visited the shop from time to time and was “fussing with a car of his own.”

Montgomery entered the oil industry in 1897, when the Sarnia refinery of Imperial Oil was being remodeled, and the company itself was expanding to meet increasing demands. Montgomery first worked for the construction engineer and soon became his assistant. He gained recognition for tank designs, international contributions to the industry, human resource skills and other successes the following year by being named mechanical superintendent. He was appointed chief engineer in 1915, maintaining rule over the mechanical department, the steam plant, and the electrical power and water works systems. After his retirement, Montgomery retained contact with the profession by acting as an advisor on projects and by maintaining memberships in professional organizations, such as the Engineering Institute of Canada, the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario and others, including the Mocha Temple Shrine and other Masonic bodies, until his death in 1964.


Tom Montgomery’s father emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1845, married in Toronto and moved to a farm in the bush of Plympton Township near Sarnia, Ontario, where Tom was born on July 5, 1874. As a teen who was interested in tinkering, he soon realized that he was more interested in seeing the wheels “go round” than in farming, so he moved to Sarnia to begin an engineering career that would extend over 50 years until his retirement as chief engineer of Imperial Oil Ltd. in 1943.

He started work in Francis Blaikie’s machine shop at a salary of $3 per week, with a $1 raise each year. Tom was 16 years old.

Education and Training

With only primary school education, young Tom showed a keen interest in engines, an interest noted by his employer. Blaikie persuaded Tom to take a correspondence course in mechanical engineering, which became the basis for the youthful mechanic’s later success in oil refinery construction.

The next phase of his training was with Tom Doherty, a Sarnia manufacturer of stoves, fire hydrants, valves and specialties for municipal water systems. Doherty was intrigued with the “horseless carriage,” and, in fact, produced a three-wheeled gig powered by a spring, which drove it for a block at ever-diminishing speed. The second attempt was a two-cylinder gasoline-engined car. The four-wheeled vehicle attained a speed of about 15 miles per hour.

During Montgomery’s employment with Doherty, a young mechanic named Henry Ford used to come to the shop. At this time, in 1894 or 1895, Ford was “fussing with a car of his own.”


The era of the “horseless carriage” revolutionized the refining industry. At that time, gasoline was a by-product, kerosene being the main product used as fuel for stationary engines and boats, and as a cleaning agent by, among others, painters.

When Tom Montgomery entered the oil business in 1897, the Sarnia refinery of Imperial Oil was being remodelled. It had been built in 1871 by the Dominion Oil Company (1891)–no connection with the later company of that name. Still later, it was rebuilt and operated under Bushnell Oil Company (1896), which became Imperial Oil in 1897. Even in 1904, the principal products were kerosene, lubricating oils, waxes, gas and fuel oils, and candles.

The expansion of the refining capacity and the opening of Western Canada bulk product facilities characterized the ensuing years of Montgomery’s career with Imperial. Canada was growing rapidly with new settlers in the West, and Imperial expanded to meet the demands of the growth. The country needed new refineries. Imperial and Tom Montgomery prepared to build them.

Montgomery the Engineer

Working for the construction engineer in charge of remodelling the Sarnia refinery, Tom, with the benefit of his correspondence course, found he could talk the “engineer’s language” and soon became his assistant. The following year, he became mechanical superintendent and was officially appointed chief engineer in 1915, although he had long held that position without the title. He continued in charge of the mechanical department, steam plant, and electrical power and waterworks systems until about five years before his retirement.

In 1910, his department began the use of what was probably among the first prefabricated buildings in Canada. This was done in order to establish warehouses and bulk stations throughout the West. He designed the tanks, 11 ½ ft. x 20 ft., the size being determined by the fact that two could be loaded on a flat car and comply with railway side and overhead clearances. To speed up the building program, many of the tanks were prefabricated in Sarnia, assembled in Winnipeg, and then installed throughout the Prairies.

Prefabrication of these tanks was the forerunner of similar construction for refinery units in Ioco, Regina, Montreal East, Imperial, Calgary and Norman Wells. It kept the mechanical and labour departments in Sarnia working day and night during World War I.

Montgomery chose the first new refinery site at Ioco, 11 miles from Vancouver. Clearing of the heavily timbered property was a huge task. Dynamiting the stumps made the land “look like a battlefield.” The chief engineer arrived on the site in April 1914, and the plant was completed the following December! The first crude was not run until January 1915, because German naval units captured the first tanker destined for the refinery.

Next came Regina, which was to be the fastest construction of Montgomery’s career. During the winter of 1915/1916, he chose the site and erected temporary buildings to house staff and construction crews. Two railway lines were laid and all was in readiness for actual construction, which was to begin on April 1. Construction was difficult, for the soil had poor bearing value, and foundations were troublesome. Extreme Prairie temperatures made it necessary to bury pipes 7 1/2 feet underground and gumbo mud on the surface added to the problems. The refinery was more or less finished by July 15, 1916 and began supplying much-needed petroleum products early in September.

Montgomery’s activities extended from the Pacific to the Atlantic when he arrived in Halifax in 1917 and oversaw site selection and construction of the refinery in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Next came a refinery in Calgary in 1923 to process crude from nearby Turner Valley. Following the company’s discovery of oil in Norman Wells in 1919, a small refinery was built to supply petroleum products to the pioneers who were opening up the vast spaces of the north. The ever-frozen subsoil, however, presented unusual construction problems. The usual concrete foundations were replaced by a grid of structural steel members laid on gravel, and the furnace floors were elevated about two feet above the grid to prevent thawing of the subsoil.

Tom Montgomery was no stranger to the international oil scene. In 1917, he was sent to the Netherlands and East Indies to choose a site near the best oil fields in Java, Sumatra and Borneo. A huge plant was built in Palambang, Sumatra, which was destroyed during World War II to prevent equipment from falling into Japanese hands. Modernization of refineries in Talara, Peru, and Barranca, Colombia, was also carried out under his direction.

Montgomery remained with the company until the end of 1942, but remained active in the engineering field. As a climax of his career, he chaired the utilities committee of Polymer Corporation Ltd., which was being built in 1943 to provide synthetic rubber. The construction of the Polymer plant was selected by the Canadian Engineering Centennial Board in 1987 as one of the top 10 engineering feats in the country during the last 100 years.

Montgomery the Humanitarian

Tom Montgomery was a builder of men, too. He hired or trained three subsequent presidents of Imperial Oil and many other executives of the company. On his passing in 1964, tributes in The Sarnia Observer included the following words:

... he was very much a humanitarian. He was not one to forget his early friends and always had a personal interest for his employees. He was a member of Mocha Temple Shrine and other Masonic bodies for over 50 years. He was a member of the Engineering Institute of Canada, a life member of the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario, and a director of Union Gas Co….Tom Montgomery was a builder of industry and man in the grand tradition.

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