Wiliam H. McGarvey (1843-1914)
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By Sarah Creswell and Tom Flint, P.Eng.

Born in Quebec in 1843, William H. McGarvey would become an oil operator, refiner and industry leader. His first contact with the oil industry came at a young age, when he worked at his parents’ store in Wyoming, where the family had taken up residence in 1857, selling oil supplies. Inspired by the early oil greats, such as Fairbank, Williams, Vaughn and Shaw, McGarvey was soon tramping through the oil fields, learning about the drilling, refining and marketing of oil. With a little acquired capital to invest, McGarvey would become part of the new generation of oil greats who anticipated the economic potential of Petrolia regions, just down the road. Enjoying the wealth and status that accompanied the success of his several oil wells, McGarvey took pride in himself by dressing very well, in his community by serving on local governments and in his business prowess by venturing into other business dealings.

Probably the single venture that had the most serious effect on McGarvey’s personal and business life was his involvement in the Continental Oil Company and oil drilling in Germany. His dealings in Galicia provided him with a great deal of money and led him to associations that basically raised him to the level of a European aristocrat. His status and reputation as a brilliant salesman and businessman did nothing for the well-being of his person or his business, when, by location, both were caught in the middle of World War I and were virtually destroyed. McGarvey’s refineries were blown up, his oil fields were set ablaze, and he found himself penniless in an Austrian internment camp, where he would die alone in 1914.

He was one of the pioneer drillers who used their own techniques developed in Petrolia to go to other countries to explore for petroleum. His parents, Edward and Sarah, originally from Northern Ireland, emigrated to Huntington, Quebec, in the early 1840s, where William was born in 1843. When he was 16, he came to Wyoming with his parents in the 1860s to open a general store–oil well supplies, groceries, wine and various medicines. He worked with his father in the store.

By 1862, while he was tramping through an oil field, he learned about the drilling, refining and marketing of oil and became well acquainted with the early oil greats, such as Fairbank, Williams, Vaughn and Shaw. He drilled successfully in Oil Springs. He is considered part of a new generation who saw the potential of Petrolia (nine miles north and railhead at Wyoming). In 1866, when Petrolia became incorporated as a village, he became its first reeve. He liked stylish clothes and fine-looking buggies. He wore suits (custom-tailored) by a local tailor to go driving in his new buggy. When working the oil fields, he wore old work clothes and knee-high leather work boots.

One day, while carefully dressed in a navy suit, high starched collar, white vest and highly polished shoes, he drove past a well site and noticed John Scott, an engineer, and his helper struggling to knock the spigot from the oil tank. Eager to help out a friend, he drove over to the worksite, where Scott and his helper decided to play a practical joke on him. They let the spigot out carefully from the tank in order to lightly spray him with black crude. But the spigot got loose, sending oil all over him and the buggy. His Irish temper flared, but he calmed down when he realized the humour in it.

The following year, he resigned as reeve and started the business enterprise The Mammoth Store, which demanded much of his time. The store sold everything from oil well supplies and chamber pots to spittoons. He became reeve of the village for the second time. Later that same year, he married Helena J. Wesolowska of Mount Clemens, Michigan. A year later, their daughter Nellie was born, soon followed by a son, Frederick. Then, in 1876, their daughter Mary (nicknamed May) was born.

By this time, McGarvey owned several wells in Oil Springs and Petrolia. He was co-owner of the “Deluge Well” (in 1873, it leveled out at 600 barrels per day). In 1880, he was reported to have refining operations worth $5,000. In the book Rivers of Oil, Charles Whipp made the following comments about McGarvey:

“[He] came from a family of salesmen, and was very persuasive and convinced of the oil economy. He could sell himself, and sell oil; he was a dynamic figure…persuasive and dynamic.”

McGarvey was instrumental in making the Canadian Pole Drilling Rig famous. It consisted of rigs equipped with runners, so that like a sled, it could be moved from well to well.

Using a rotary drilling technique, solid wooden rods were introduced to the Ontario oil fields in Petrolia to replace cable-drilling (the old spring-pole method). Lengths of hardwood were screwed to each other during the course of drilling, being lowered into or withdrawn from the hole by means of a tall tripod erected over the well. Other components of McGarvey’s system were the wooden rods, down-hole tools, locomotive-type boilers and portable steam engine driving a wheel with a crank to drive the walking beam and hoisting drum. The innovative feature lay in the particular combination and design details, such as wing guide and reamers.

McGarvey’s involvement with oil was taking him away from Petrolia, and he became a member of the federal survey party that went to Northwest Canada to explore for oil in 1875. He owned oil lands in Enniskillen with father Edward. In 1879, he was elected warden of Lambton County, but by 1880 he was restless. His government survey job introduced him to adventures beyond Enniskillen and the challenges that these adventures offered.

John Simon Bergheim, a British-American engineer, was looking for a drilling crew to go to Germany. He found no interest in the U.S.A., so he came to Canada. Drilling was dropping off in Petrolia, so drillers were eager to go. Bergheim and McGarvey liked each other at their first meeting and formed a partnership. To drill in Germany, men had to join the Continental Oil Co. that was soon directed by McGarvey. Unsuccessful in Germany, they moved to Galicia (then part of the Austrian Empire). They studied the Euro-Asian oil situation and knew that oil was mined in Galicia in the 18th century. In 1882, they introduced the “Canadian drilling method” in Galicia. This method proved extremely useful for the geological conditions there, where its deepest levels could be reached. For convenience, the rig was made portable.

The tools were supplied by the Oil Well Supply Company in Petrolia (established in 1866 and still going today), the only source available. This company equipped the well-trained drillers when they arrived in Galicia, where they found primitive oil fields (more primitive than Oil Springs in 1860). They began exploratory drilling, and within six months, they touched off a gusher that spewed out 30,000 barrels of crude per day. Despite working with well-trained drillers, it took four days to control it. They built makeshift storage tanks and a still, and quickly ordered supplies. In the next nine years, they drilled 370 wells with a combined depth of 100,000 metres. The advantage of using the Canadian drilling method was that they were able to reach a considerable depth quickly and accurately. They could drill down to 24 metres in 24 hours. Their enterprise was considered the most important drilling and refining company in Galicia between 1883 and 1914. Other independent producers flocked there, but were bought out by McGarvey. As earlier in Oil Springs and Petrolia, with other processing outfits moving in, competition became fierce. However, McGarvey was well informed and capable of combatting the cutthroat business.

Because of his sense of family, he did not like his bachelor lifestyle in Galicia, and in 1884, knowing business was a success, he sent for his wife and children. They set up housekeeping in the Galician village of Borislaw.

The business soon gained control of the Austro-Hungarian oil world, fending off newcomers, including Standard Oil of New Jersey. They made trips back to Petrolia to recruit drillers to work in Austria. They offered workers top wages, with the prospect of returning as wealthy men. They were successful in building a petroleum empire in Austro-Hungary, making McGarvey an important entrepreneur.

In 1885, they renamed their enterprise Galician-Karpathian Petroleum Company (Galizisch-Karpathische Petroleum Aktien-Gesellschaft), building a huge refinery at Maryampole (near Gorlice, in the southeast corner of Galicia). They bought a number of small oil-producing and refining operations, one of which was Apollo Oil Company of Budapest. Sales made them famous not only in Austria, but also in Hungary. Considered the biggest, most efficient enterprise in Austro-Hungary, Maryampole was built in six months and employed 1000 men, who lived in housing near the jobsite. McGarvey’s older son joined the masses in Gorlice. He also recruited his two younger brothers, Albert and James, to work in Galicia, putting them in charge of oil fields in the Maryampole area. These were times of political unrest, and one day, while James was eating lunch, an employee shot and wounded him. By 1890, Galicia, with the help of McGarvey’s team for the last seven years, was producing 240,000 tons of crude oil. By 1912, this amount had expanded to 1.8 million tons.

In 1985, McGarvey’s second daughter May met Count Eberhard Friedrich Alexander Joseph Edward Graf von Zeppelin, a member of the emperor’s guard. Soon after, the couple’s engagement was announced, and on November 12, 1896, the couple was wed. It was a grand affair with the crème de la crème of European aristocracy in attendance.

Keenly aware of the changing use of petroleum from illumination to transportation, McGarvey was excited about the inventions of the horseless carriage, the airship, the monoplane and the submarine. These made use of the lighter fraction for gasoline and the slightly heavier fraction used for diesel engines (submarines). In 1885, Karl Benz built a three-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine. In the 1890s, several countries, including France, Germany and the U.S.A., experimented with early forms of motorized vehicles. By the 1900s, there were dozens of manufacturers throughout the world.

McGarvey became the chief administrator of Galician-Karpathian Petroleum Co. in Vienna, while Bergheim (field engineer) took care of all the technical aspects of the vast petroleum empire. Just after the turn of the century, Bergheim was killed in a taxicab accident in London, England, leaving McGarvey to carry on alone.

McGarvey was a brilliant salesman and businessman, who learned to cope with the deadly fluctuations of oil prices and cutthroat antics of producers and refiners. He formed cartels of producers and refiners in Galicia, keeping Standard Oil out, and helped stabilize prices.

In December of 1897, McGarvey’s wife died in their mammoth castle in Gorlice at the early age of 52. It is ironic that she was buried in the land of her father, while her father was buried in the land of her birth. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, his daughters’ husbands were pressed into military service in Austria. Many Canadians flocked to Canada and England to enlist in the armed forces, and McGarvey was always a proud Canadian. The Russian armed forces rushed into Galicia and blew up McGarvey’s refineries, setting his oil fields ablaze. By November, he found himself in an Austrian internment camp, penniless. The Russian advance left his huge refinery in Maryampole in ruins. He died in the internment camp; the official cause of his death was a stroke.

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