John Henry Fairbank (1831-1914)
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By Sarah Creswell and Tom Flint, P.Eng.

John Henry Fairbank was to become one of the leading Canadian entrepreneurs of his era. He originally emigrated from New York State in 1853 and settled first in the Niagara peninsula. He worked at farming, surveying and selling insurance. Fifty years later, he was an oil magnate, banker, hardware store owner, wagon builder, Member of Parliament, boiler maker, and he was preeminent in the Petrolia area. He achieved this through hard work as a private entrepreneur rather than a business promoter.

John came from a long line of American colonists and soldiers who emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in the 1600s. His father, Asa Fairbank (1784-1842), had a farm at Rouses Point, NY. Summarizing his words, he received some education at Champlain academy, and more hoeing corn and driving oxen. His pride was a pair of white steers, which he raised from weaned calves. In school, he did well in geometry and chemistry, although he had no use for grammar. His father died when he was only 11 years old. At 21, he came to Canada to survey. He particularly admired Niagara Falls, and one of its daughters convinced him to move there.

At that time, there was a burst of railway building in Canada, and Fairbank boarded at Hermanus Crysler’s home in 1853 to survey the lines working out of Niagara Falls. While working in Galt, Ontario, in 1854/1855, he wrote many letters to Edna Crysler, describing his work, the tough living conditions and the cholera epidemic of 1854. In his spare time, he worked with a young artist, Vandersluys, at a travelling mural show. In the spring of 1855, he worked as a junior surveyor for the Great Western Railway, where he laid out the town site of Komoka for resale to speculators. In June of 1855, he wrote to Hermanus Crysler and asked for Edna’s hand in marriage. John’s hard work and good prospects found favour with Hermanus despite their social differences, and John and Edna were married in Buffalo by the Justice of the Peace on September 8, 1855. John continued to survey while living with Edna’s parents. Henry Addington Fairbank was born on June 7, 1856, and Charles Oliver was born on July 21, 1858, around the time Fairbank bought a farm on the outskirts of Niagara Falls.

Edna’s delicate health put an end to any idea of wandering. John was looking for survey work and by chance stumbled onto the great opportunity of his career. In March 1861, Mrs. Julia Macklem, a wealthy landowner, asked him to survey some land she had bought on speculation. It was about 150 miles away in the present town of Oil Springs. He caught the train to Wyoming and walked 14 miles through muddy bush trails to the boomtown of Oil Springs and Mrs. Macklem’s swampy lot. The job was to subdivide the 100-acre lot into 198 smaller lots for oil drilling. It was difficult work, even with using the local workers, and it took longer and cost more than he had planned. When the job was finished, Fairbank remained there by himself. Realizing the opportunities, he sank his resources into oil. He mortgaged the home and the farm, and borrowed money from his father-in-law to cover the modest investment needed. Edna refused to live there or even visit the town with its unpainted shacks in the bush lacking pure water, deep in swampy territory, with roads almost impassable most of the year. John liked Niagara Falls, but was bored with just getting by.

Oil and Lighting

Prior to 1850, the tallow candle was the most common form of illumination used in Canada. The well-to-do could afford to use expensive whale oil, deodorized turpentine or kerosene distilled from coal imported from the United States. But by 1858, housewives were able to buy “burning oil” distilled from petroleum. This remained the most popular source of illumination until the invention of the electric light.

Crude oil lay under the forests of Lambton County with seepages through faults in the Earth’s crust, where it formed a sticky oil gumbo. It was first recorded in 1793 and reported in a geological survey in 1850. Charles N. Tripp grasped the significance of this discovery and set up equipment to distil the lighting fluid from the gumbo, but it was not successful, and he sold out in 1857. Hamilton industrialist James Miller Williams bought Tripp’s properties and dug the first commercial oil-producing well in 1858. The railway was now extending from London to Sarnia through Wyoming. Hundreds of fortune seekers flocked to the area, and in 1862, Hugh Nixon Shaw drilled the first oil gusher.

Oil Springs

Fairbank started drilling for oil with modest success. The year when Shaw brought in the first gusher, his father-in-law mortgaged his property to loan Fairbank the money to buy more land and more equipment, and to build a shack. Previously, he had been boarding.

His mother came to look after the new house when she was 75 years old. She died eight years later. Charles came to stay a couple of years after that. The field was producing more oil than the market could absorb, so it was exported to Europe, British Guiana and Australia. The price of oil was booming, rising from $1 to $2 per barrel to a high of $10 per barrel (1866) with swings up and down in between.

Fairbank was asked to lead the Canadian Oil Association with 300 members to stabilize the price of oil. At the end of 1866, oil prices dropped to $0.75 per barrel and then even lower, to $0.50 in 1868. Up to the year 1864, each well had been pumped with a separate steam engine or manpower, depending on the size of the well. Fairbank came up with a brilliant idea to connect up to 90 wells to be operated by a single engine by a system of jerker rods. This system consisted of a horizontal wooden beam (10 to 15 feet long) suspended from a fencepost by steel rods. Occasionally, they went under the roads inside a narrow pipe. When it needed to go into different directions, a horizontal wheel with up to four connections for each line of wells was also driven back and forth by the engine. This revolutionized the operation of the oil fields, making production more economical.

Fairbank started his first refinery in 1862, but it was shut down after only two or three years, when London became the centre for oil refining in Ontario. Although Oil Springs was dropping in output, Petrolia (seven miles north) was starting up, and it became much larger. However, the wells were deeper at 500 feet and more expensive to bring them in. He then moved most of his operations to Petrolia and bought a framed house, so Edna would move there with him for a more comfortable lifestyle, which he could now afford. Edna arrived in 1865. Sometime later, John became a Canadian citizen.

The railway branch lines now included one to Oil Springs and one to Petrolia. There was also the Plank Road from Oil Springs to Petrolia and Sarnia. This greatly improved transportation, so the oil could now reach its market. Samples of the local oil had been sent to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in England in 1851, the Paris Universal Exposition in 1867 and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, which excited interest.

Soon, Fairbank diversified his interests to include retail outlets for groceries, liquor and hardware. Two years later, it became Van Tuyl & Fairbank hardware and oil well supplies, still in business today. In 1867, Petrolia was incorporated, and the new council gave Fairbank the contract to build a much-needed jail. Between 1868 and 1870, he was the town reeve and represented Petrolia on county council. During this time, he opened a bank with Leonard Baldwin Vaughn and they called it Vaughn and Fairbank Bankers, later branching into Oil Springs. This enterprise lasted for 55 year, after which the chartered banks started luring away customers.

In October 1869, his first daughter, Mary May, was born, and in 1871, Ella was born, who died in 1872. Edna’s health was poor, so she travelled to health spas in England and Ireland. During this time, Henry and Charles were at Hellmuth (UWO). Henry graduated in 1875, but died two or three years later. Charles graduated in 1877 and began a military career. Edna, who had joined the Anglican Church, helped to rebuild it and became treasurer in 1877.

Between 1877 and 1880, the oil industry was struggling, and major steps were taken to amalgamate and control it. Fairbank remained individualistic and refused the invitation to join Imperial Oil Company when it was founded in 1879. The company built the largest and most modern refinery of the time in Petrolia, with the capacity to refine half of the country’s oil. At that time, Fairbank owned over 100 wells. In 1882, Fairbank and six associates started Greenwood Driving Park as a racecourse. It is now the Petrolia fairgrounds. Charles, following the death of Henry, dropped his military career to help his father run the business, since Fairbank had been elected as a federal Member of Parliament for East Lambton. His main concerns were supporting local industry, condemning the CPR monopoly and its open-handed government dealings, and supporting the temperance movement. In 1866, he left politics to become the president of Petrolia Oil Exchange, a position he held for two years. In 1889, he built a brick home (called Sunnyside), which is still standing as the largest private home in Lambton County. On the main floor, there is a reception room, living room, dining room, den, library, kitchen and servery, and a servants’ sitting room. On the second floor are eight bedrooms and a bathroom. The third floor has a ballroom and storage room. This home proved to be too large for the heirs who followed.

In 1894, because of Edna’s failing health, she and May moved to Pasadena, California. Fairbank and Charles joined them periodically. May married and settled in California around the time of Edna’s death. Fairbank stayed in Petrolia, occasionally visiting May.

By 1900, the local industry was declining, and Standard Oil led other American companies to annex the Canadian market. By 1912, because of his declining health, Fairbank turned the business over to Charles. Two years later, on February 12, 1914 he died at the age of 83. Throughout his life and career, Fairbank maintained a local outlook and concern, not a national or international outlook. Small places like Petrolia were losing manufacturing plants to large cities like Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto. Fairbank was an individualist and was considered the Father of the Town.

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