September 23, 2016 – Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network – Petrolia’s newest history book, The Petrolia Spur, is to be released Oct. 1 during Petrolia 150 celebrations.
Town resident Tom Walter spent the last four years curating content, such as photos, maps and information, regarding Petrolia’s old railway lines, which were removed almost 20 years ago.
“Maybe it’s in my blood,” Walter said of his passion for the railway. “When I was a kid my brother and I had American Flyer trains in the basement, so that was sort of the trigger. My grandfather that I’m named for was actually a freight checker in the Grand Trunk and also Canadian National.”
Walter’s fascination with the Petrolia’s spur line began when he saw construction removing the track in 1997.
“We moved to Petrolia in 1996, which was eight months before the spur was torn up,” Walter said. “I happened to be up town one morning and heard the shovel going, and the tracks were being lifted.”
He ran home to get his camera, and took both photographs and videos of the removal while walking the length of the tracks. The entire spur was gone within three days during the spring of 1997. It was removed after a lack of use in the town – Walter said it only moved about eight cars in 1992, and one train carrying pipe went through in 1994.
Over the years, he’s has visited archival sources, poring over old newspapers and looking for any details about the spur line.
“It was kind of like a treasure hunt – you go into the archives, and it could be hit or miss.”
But before use of the spur line dwindled in its last years, it was an important part of Petrolia’s history, going hand in hand with the community’s oil boom in the later half of the 19th century. In an earlier essay, Walter detailed how the oil men, under the leadership of John Henry Fairbank, worked to raise $50,000 to build the spur line after the Great Western Railway declined to do so. By the time the spur opened for operation on Dec. 17, 1866, Great Western had assumed ownership after realizing how valuable it truly was.
Traffic on the Petrolia spur line was heavy – the line was used for both transporting oil and for leisure trains taking trips to Port Stanley, Bright’s Grove and Detroit, just to name a few.
Walter said that when it comes to oil and trains, the two are interconnected. Although less attention in local history books has been given to the Petrolia spur line, he wanted to highlight its importance to Petrolia’s past.
“The oil and the railway were really co-dependent,” he said. “One kind of fed off of the other.”
Walter said that while it was not an easy task to get the oil out of the bush of Central Lambton County, a train line made the effort easier. Rather than using horse and cart to drag oil barrels through uneven and muddy terrain, a spur line allowed for easier passage.
“The railway is another beneficiary of Petrolia’s wealth,” he said. “They had a huge number of excursions running out of the town. That kind of leisure spending back then could only be supported by a really wealthy town.”
Walters said he was surprised that no one had written a book about the Petrolia spur line, but with a lot of focus being on the oil industry, that may have overshadowed the railway.
“I think there’s a huge interest in Petrolia history and heritage. I’ve lost count of how many books there are,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all dominated by the oil – it’s very compelling history.”
The Petrolia Spur is the first book he’s written, and Walter hopes it will tell the rest of Petrolia’s story after the oil boom. The 224-page book debuts this Oct. 1 at the Petrolia farmers’ market, and he hopes residents will be interested in learning more about this side of their town’s past.
“There’s more of a consciousness of the heritage, sort of an ethos of Petrolia” he said.
“I think Petrolia has always sort of had an independent pioneer spirit.”