Charles Nelson Tripp (1823-1860)
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By Angela Beaudrow, Jonathan Piitz and Tammy Auranen, Black Gold Project Team

Charles Tripp wanted to get rich. Following information that he received from his brother Henry, Charles traveled to the gum beds of Enniskillen Township to find his gold. This gold was a black and gummy substance known as asphalt, which he hoped to manufacture and sell around the world. Charles’ discovery of asphalt made him famous, but he died a poor man.

Charles Tripp was originally from Schenectady, New York. By 1850, he had relocated to Bath, Ontario, where he worked as a foreman in John Counter’s stove foundry. Being an innovative young man, Charles designed a new stove front while working there, patented it, and sold it to John Counter.

When Charles’ brother, Henry, informed him of the oily deposits found in the gum beds of Enniskillen Township, Charles decided to start a new adventure and moved to southwestern Ontario. The first of Charles’ many business ventures began when he and his brother formed the world’s first oil company. Incorporated on December 18, 1854, under the name of the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, the charter for this company stated that it owned the “rights to explore for asphalt beds, oil and salt springs, and to manufacture products from these sources for various uses.” Charles took samples from his gum beds to a Dr. Thomas Antisell, a New York chemist, and to Thomas McIlwraith, the manager of Hamilton Gas Company. In 1853, Antisell stated that Charles’ samples were “highly suitable for paints, mastics or adhesive products, waterproofing materials, and if distilled, lighting oil.” McIlwraith was excited to find that when they “gasified the asphalt, instead of coal, the product was suitable for lighting oil.” Although Charles received excellent suggestions from both specialists to use his asphalt for lighting oil, Charles seems to have ignored them.

Over the next few years, Charles made a series of land purchases in the Oil Springs and Petrolia area. Things were looking good for Charles, and he thought he was well on his way to becoming a wealthy man. Unfortunately, the Tripps’ business was already showing signs of failure. It was beginning to sink into debt, even as his product was gaining widespread recognition and praise. The main stumbling block to the Tripps’ success was the horrific transportation situation in Lambton County. Proper roads did not exist. Horses and carriages were constantly sinking and struggling through acres of mud. A new means of transportation was needed. A sample of Charles’ asphalt was sent to the Universal Exhibition in Paris, France, in 1855, and there it received an honourable mention. Paris even sent Tripp an order for asphalt to pave its streets–an order he did deliver.

Late in 1855, Charles Tripp was forced to sell 200 acres of land in Lambton County to his brother, Henry, for the sum of 400 pounds. At this point, Charles owed a lot of money, and he was still frustrated by his inability to transport his product. During his search for a better means of transportation, he arrived on the doorstep of the Williams and Cooper Carriage Factory, in Hamilton, Ontario. James Miller Williams owned this factory, and when Charles became indebted to him for the purchase of a carriage, Charles was forced to offer some of his oil land in payment.

Charles also sold 400 acres of his company’s land to a group of investors from Hamilton. James Miller Williams was one of these investors. Williams recognized the value of lighting oil and hired Charles to work with him to search for oil. They did strike oil, in the gum beds of Enniskillen Township. Soon after, Charles left on another one of his losing adventures. This time he traveled to the southern United States to search for mineral wealth. However, his financial situation did not improve, and between 1855 and 1858, Charles had at least 15 judgments against him for monies owing.

A newspaper obituary dated November 2, 1866, stated that Charles Tripp, the original oil man of Canada, had died in New Orleans on September 30, 1866, of congestion of the brain. Charles died still in pursuit of success. During his lifetime, he had organized many companies to develop minerals, oil, copper, lead, zinc and iron in Louisiana and Texas. But he seemed destined to failure. He had great ideas, and was an intelligent man, but for all that, he could not obtain the wealth he so desired. Charles “knew more, practically, about the mineral wealth of every southern state than any other man,” and yet he languished in debt and died penniless (Morritt 78).

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