By VICTOR LAURISTON
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.