Finding The King Well

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EDITOR’S NOTE: There is one oil discovery which is credited with starting the boom which lead to Petrolia’s growth – the King Well. Petrolia150 Committee Member Steve Loxton became interested in finding the famous well in 2010 after searching the Lambton County Archives. Recently, he and several other history buffs went in search of the well that started it all. Here’s his account of the day.

Steve Loxton

Special to The Independent

I was under no illusions about the odds of conclusively identifying the actual King Well.

The “King Well Territory”, as it was referred to by oil men and contemporary newspapers, for decades after the well which started the Petrolia boom was struck, had a number of wells on site. After the well struck oil, at the rate of 800 barrels a day on November 23, 1866, literally dozens of wells were subsequently dug as close to it as possible.

So, even if we managed to locate a well casing, determining whether it was the actual King Well was going to require diving back into the deeds in hopes of finding more corroborative evidence.

The magnitude of the task soon became apparent. The land where the King well was located has been reworked countless times over the decades. It is greatly disturbed and hummocky and has only recently been, once again, plowed over.

It is also strewn with metallic debris – which interferes with the metal detector – such as countless bits of the small diameter piping that transferred oil from the well heads to the larger underground storage tanks. This metal detritus makes finding anything more significant very difficult.

The beaming hot sun and insects didn’t help much, either.

We spent about two hours in the field and while we didn’t manage to expose any well casings, we did get indications of a few potential candidates buried a few feet underground.

Because we were instructed not to do any deep digging (and the ground was far too difficult to dig deeply into, in any case), we recorded the GPS coordinates of these metal detector “hits” for future reference. Hopefully, the property records might eventually narrow down these potential targets. Digging them up wouldn’t have helped identify the specific well, anyway.

But, despite not finding any actual wells, it quickly became obvious that we were in the right area. Our sweat and bug bites were rewarded with several finds of oil well artifacts.

The most exciting of these was an oil well “fishing” tool, which was used to retrieve drilling tools that became lost, or stuck, in the well, far underground. These fishing tools came in a huge array of shapes and forms, all designed to do a specific job.

Another find was a drill rod end connection joint. This was attached to each end of the 40 foot long wooden drill rods, made of Lambton’s famous Black Ash, which was strong, straight and durable. These rods were connected together in long “strings” to drill deep into the earth.

In addition, we found small beds of cinder-laden ground, which would indicate the location of a steam engine. This would have powered the oil derrick during drilling, or pumping the well. Or, perhaps, it would have powered the central jerker rod pumping system that would have pumped multiple wells in the field.

Near one of these beds of cinder, pieces of drive belting and a large bearing block, used to support the shaft of a drive wheel was found, further confirming that this was the location of an engine house.

Finally, a walking beam yoke, which attached to the oil well pump rod to pump the well, was found.

I had recognized the fishing tool and some of the other finds from my work researching Canadian drilling rigs.

But, we decided to take all of them to the closest expert at hand, which was Albert Baines, at his wonderful museum of a machine shop.

Not only was Albert able to identify them, he actually had a similar style fishing tool among his many antique oil field relics. I think it’s safe to say that Albert was pleased we dropped by.

While the exact location of the King Well remains a mystery for the time being we now have the GPS coordinates of several potential well sites and a few fascinating artifacts to display.

It was a productive and satisfying day of exploration and future research may yet locate the oil well that put Petrolia on the map.

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