- Canada's Victorian Oil Town: The Transformation of Petrolia from Resource Town into a Victorian Community
In December 1873, four men left Ontario's Enniskillen Township to seek their fortunes abroad. In Canada they had worked as skilled mechanics in Enniskillen's once-booming oilfields, but declining prices and uncertain job prospects at home led them overseas. Bound for the oilfields of Java, the men constituted the first wave in what became an Enniskillen export far more valuable than oil itself: laborers skilled in oil production. Over the next forty years, more than 130 oil workers ventured from Canada's oil patch to drill overseas, earning wages and status unavailable at home while supplying technical know-how for the emerging global oil industry. These "foreign drillers," as they became known in Enniskillen, had learned the oil business in their own backyard. There, according to one observer in 1880, [End Page 496] "Everything smells of oil; everything tastes of oil; everything is covered and smeared with oil; everything is oil" (p. 85). Christina Burr traces how Enniskillen—where everything was oil—grew from its origins as an agricultural colony in the 1830s to become Canada's premier oil producer between the late 1850s and 1890s and finally was reconstituted as a functioning Victorian museum community in the 1970s.
Along the way, Burr explores how the modern demand for oil, first as an illuminant and then as a fuel, connected a frontier town to the global economy. While she covers much ground—from land surveys to gender politics—the most unexpected aspect of Enniskillen's history remains its international connections. Oil discoveries first brought speculators in, especially Americans from Michigan and Pennsylvania, who rushed to Enniskillen's boomtown of Petrolia in the early 1860s. Although Americans remained a tiny fraction of Petrolia's total population, the names of the town's hotels—the Great Western, the United States, the America, the New York House—testify to the role they played in Petrolia's oil development. As boom turned to bust in 1873, however, the oil workers of Petrolia began venturing abroad. The first steamed to Java, while others soon traveled to Borneo, Persia, India, Russia, and the West Indies. A few struck it big, like Petrolia's William McGarvey, who had searched (unsuccessfully) for oil in Germany in the early 1880s before drilling the first successful well in the oil-rich fields of Galicia. Along the way, McGarvey brought Canadian rigs and tools, drilling techniques, and skilled labor to Europe. With additional successes, the demand for Canadian drillers abroad grew, and by the late nineteenth century Canadians in foreign fields frequently encountered fellow natives of Enniskillen.
But what do these global connections mean? Burr asserts that Enniskillen Township's foreign drillers reveal a hidden history of Canadian imperialism even as Canada itself remained a part of the British Empire. There is no doubt that Enniskillen's young, white men working overseas reflected and reproduced the racial stereotypes of their times. But if "imperialism" can mean some hundred-odd skilled laborers in the employ of transnational capital and acting independently of the government of their state of origin, then the term has lost all descriptive meaning. More plausibly, the histories of Canadian oil production and the laborers who made it possible reveal the relative decline of state power and the accompanying rise in influence of vertically integrated oil companies. (And even they remained subject to a world oil market well outside their control.)
Despite many insights, Burr does not pursue some of her most interesting leads. Who were the Americans who went to Canada to speculate in oil smack in the middle of the U.S. Civil War? Did they have any connection to Pennsylvania's own original oil boomtown, also called Petrolia? And did Canadian drilling techniques spread everywhere Canadian workers went, or was the adoption of drilling technology more complicated? [End Page 497]
The book might also have benefited from keener editing. Unnecessary...