Oil Springs’ jerker lines invented 160 years ago

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Jerker lines still in use today

Special to The Independent

One of the inventions which powered the oil industry is turning 160.

It was 1863 when John Henry Fairbank, who was 31 at the time, devised the jerker line system linking several oil wells together to share one power source.

It was major leap forward from the spring pole method which needed men to continually stomp on it for hours, days and even months. Portable steam engines were sometimes used but in the swampy tangled wood of Oil Springs this was both difficult and expensive.

The jerker line liberated the oilmen from exhausting physical labour and made oil production much more cost-effective.

By hooking wells together, it allowed 20 wells or more to use one steam engine slashing a producer’s costs and making them sustainable, even during times of wildly fluctuating oil prices.

This multiple pumping system became known as the jerker rod system and it was universally adopted all over Oil Springs and later Petrolia to hundreds or thousands of wells.

It quickly evolved into building power stations known as rigs, then transferring the power through the jerker. Until electricity arrived in Oil Springs in 1918, coal fuelled the massive steam boilers of the rig. 

The system gets its name from the swinging motion of the arms, it “jerks” and produces a rhythmic sound that changes with wind and weather. This “singing” of the jerker is an authentic and intangible piece of heritage that has been heard for 160 years. Artist have also used the jerker lines as a background to their music.

The jerks occur at 11 beats per minute, the same speed as relaxed breathing.

The system is still in use today. Fairbank Oil in Oil Springs operates almost half of its 320 wells using the jerker line and other oil producers in Oil Springs use it, too.

Though it was used on hundreds of wells in Petrolia during its long boom from 1866-1905, the jerker system has disappeared over time except for the Petrolia Discovery where it is used on four wells.

  • by Pat McGee