Historic Petrolia seen from new heights


By Pam Wright

Petrolia’s storied history soared to new heights Saturday.

Curious visitors attending a Petrolia Heritage Day open house were rewarded with an early aerial photograph providing the first birds-eye view of Petrolia.

The 1919 picture features the downtown and landmarks like St. Philips Church and Victoria Hall, as well as the long-gone Michigan Central railway station.

He can’t verify it for certain, but local historian Tom Walter believes World War I Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop shot the photo. But it could have been Bishop’s business partner William Barker, another Canadian ace.

The pair formed a company following their return from Europe and for two years shot aerial photographs across Ontario. For a time the pair performed a daily stunt show at the Canadian National Exhibition.ed-our-story

“The number of planes flying overhead were very few at that time,” said local historian Steve Loxton. Residents looking to the skies were undoubtedly awed of the novelty of aviation. Lambton County’s first plane landed in Sarnia in 1912, Loxton said.

A second aerial photo taken in 1946 by the London Free Press ‘Newshawk’ plane was also part of the event. Historical maps and plans were also on display.

A 1885 map of the town, was surveyed using the original English system which originated in the 1620s. The key states that four chains equal an inch.

According to archivist Luke Stempien of Lambton County Archives, insurance companies developed the majority of the early maps.

Factories, railroad tracks and fire hydrant locations, as well as all buildings and landmarks, were earmarked, he said. Companies used the information to gauge insurance risks.

Stempien said the old plans are still used today and are especially helpful to planners conducting environmental assessments.

The insurance maps were usually updated every 10 years, Stempien said, providing an accurate look at changes over time.

“They are helpful 120 years later,” he said, adding the maps are interesting to genealogists.

“You can see how buildings changed,” he noted. Details like the addition of a summer kitchen, or the bricking of a building can be identified.

History buffs can see where their forebears lived and it provides an “emotional connection,” Stempien explained.