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Kentiana
Bothwell and Kent’s First Oil Boom


By VICTOR LAURISTON

ZONE was the youngest of Kent’s townships. While all the others were defined in the original survey of 1794, Zone did not come into nominal existence till 1821; nor did it secure separate municipal existence from Camden till 1857.

There was a reason. This northeastern corner of Kent county was largely Indian land; and though a few white settlers arrived between 1837 and 1842, the heavily-timbered country remained almost in a state of nature.

In 1852, however, the route of the Great Western Railway was surveyed through the township. The railway was not completed till 1854; but about the time of the survey Hon. George Brown, then and afterward an outstanding figure in Canadian public life, purchased some 4,000 acres north of the Indian reserve.

Brown conceived the idea of establishing a town here, and had the area immediately north of the railroad surveyed and plotted. This tract he had cleared. The Great Western Railway, with its construction operations and wood-burning locomotives, provided a ready market for immense quantities of hardwood fuel. As fast as the land surrounding the townsite was cleared, it was plowed and converted into farm land. Brown himself at one time had hundreds of acres under cultivation. He also erected sawmills; and a furniture factory employing 30 hands was established.

Bothwell, alone among the towns of Kent, never went through the preliminary village stage; it was incorporated a town by special act. Streets were laid out and graded, and, forerunner of civilization, a man named Brown — no relation to George — erected an 18 x 24 log tavern which he christened "The Sebastopol." By 1857 there were four other taverns ministering to the hungry and thirsty —especially the thirsty.

The first settlers were rather a rough lot, but in no great time more substantial pioneers came, Captain Taylor and Alex Duncan in 1857 and William Laughton and Thomas Boon in 1858. The first store was established by Campbell & McNab; and soon there was a busy, bustling community.

Ready money, though, was scarce. The earliest settlers resorted to barter. Then scrip was utilized. For years practically the sole circulating medium in the community consisted of I. O. U’s from or orders upon Hon. George Brown. Most of the workmen were employed by Brown and received their pay in this scrip which was accepted by local merchants in payment for goods; and, in fact, was readily received in settlement of all debts in the new community.

Eventually, after the glowing future of the community had been skilfully publicized, the majority of the town lots were sold by public auction. Speculators flocked from far and wide to the great event; the bidding was keen; and handsome prices were paid for town lots that a couple of decades before could have been bought for a song.

On the heels of the real estate boom came the inevitable slump; and by the early sixties Bothwell, with Hon. George Brown no longer sponsoring its activities, was in the throes of black depression. So dejected were the townsfolk, that news that an American was "punching holes in the river bank" south of Bothwell in search of oil did not interest them.

The American was John Lick. He came from Pennsylvania where, a few years earlier, the Drake well had struck oil. Oil also had been discovered in Lambton county; and the early operators believed it could be found only close to streams. Hence Lick’s drilling on the Thames.

After a number of failures, Lick moved his primitive drilling outfit up the course of an almost dry creek emptying into the Thames from the north. The spot is still known as Lick’s Ravine. The first tests were apparently failures; and Lick was on the point of quitting when he secured the backing of a few Bothwell men who formed a joint stock company. Instead of starting a new shallow well, they drilled deeper, and at 370 feet struck an abundance of high-grade oil.

The first shipment of 1,000 barrels brought $1 a barrel; and, seated on the ground, with a huge log for a counter, these pioneer Canadian oil shareholders divided the money among them.

With the American Civil War raging, the demand for oil was keen. "The Old Company’s Well," as Lick’s first productive venture was known, continued to ship its 100 barrels a day at $10 a barrel till more than 30,000 barrels had been shipped. Then it was blown up through the carelessness of the engineer in charge.

Long before that the Bothwell oil boom was on. Tidings of the discovery brought speculators from all parts of Canada and the United States, some flinging themselves into drilling, others erecting hotels, stores and boarding houses to cater to the inrush of new population.

A man named McEwen drilled the second producer on the Chambers farm south of Bothwell. Then William McMillan brought in the Victoria well on the Gordon farm, yielding 100 barrels a day. In 1861, despite increasing production, oil reached $12 a barrel. Speculation ran rampant. In almost every city of Canada and the United States companies were organized to carry on the petroleum business in Bothwell. Wealthy corporations sent representatives; and where a few years earlier George Brown’s scrip had been the only circulating medium, now real money was in circulation beyond the wildest dreams of the Wall Street of that day.

Fortunes were won and lost. Poor men became wealthy; wealthy men were stripped. Oil kings arose —John Lick, the discoverer; B. T. Wells, and Reid of Hamilton. The surrounding territory was studded with derricks, and Lick’s Ravine and the Pepper Farm were transformed into vast pumping grounds. Immense frame hotels, and three storey business blocks sprang up; banks, billiard halls, bars, oil exchanges, stores, carried on a busy trade. On George Street a magnificent public hall, Gatling Hall, fronted on the railway; while immediately to the west John Lick was pouring some of his oil winnings into a new frame

hotel designed to be the biggest and best in Bothwell. The population, close to 7,000, exceeded that of Chatham. Bothwell, already the largest community of Kent, confidently foresaw the time when it would be the largest in Canada.

Most of the speculators were Americans; the field depended on the American demand; and when the Civil War was over, crude dropped abruptly from $12 to $2 a barrel. Then, in 1866, came the Fenian raids; and there was a stampede of Americans from Bothwell to escape from the anticipated hostilities. Lands bought on instalments and almost paid for were thrown back on the hands of the original owners to save a small fraction of the purchase price; drilling and pumping outfits were abandoned as they stood; the vast hotels were left empty; the rushing bus services were discontinued; the oil exchanges and gambling houses closed.

In 1867 a disastrous fire devastated George and Main streets, wiping out the magnificent Gatling Hall and many of the finest hotels and business blocks. Succeeding fires completed the destruction of most of the landmarks of the great oil boom. For many years Lick’s hotel, tenanted only by owls and bats, stood, a mournful monument to the man whose courage and enterprise had paved the way for the great oil boom.

Lick’s wealth had vanished, but he could not quit the oil game. Years later he drilled near Thamesville, without success. For a time he eked out a precarious livelihood travelling up and down the Thames, buying fish for a London company; trying, out of his scant dollar a day, to save enough to finance a new oil venture. One wintry day he died in his lonely lodgings at Bothwell; and Old Doctor Pope, who had practiced in Bothwell before the boom and had seen its rise and fall, passed the hat to collect enough money for a plain coffin. John Lick, most spectacular of Canada’s early "oil kings," was buried in an unmarked grave in the Potter’s Field at Bothwell cemetery.


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