When you think of Lambton County’s nineteenth century oil boom, do you think of exotic beaches, palm trees and sunshine? Probably not! Would you be surprised to hear that at least one newspaper in sunny Mexico City was reporting on our local oil industry in the 1860s? The international appeal and impact of our local oil history is truly astounding!
Reporter Felix Foucou wrote for The Two Republics, an English-language newspaper that was distributed in Mexico City. It was published between 1867 and 1900. Between October 1869 and January 1870 Foucou published a series of chapters exploring the international oil industry. He traveled to North American oil fields including Petrolia, and provides an overview of our local oil boom and a firsthand account of his visit here.
Foucou’s account of the travel by plank road from the railhead in Wyoming to Petrolia is both visceral and amusing: “Our journey was one series of shakes and jolts. The logs of wood, shaken night and day by the heavy teams laden with barrels of oil, were all out of place, leaving great holes… the calash [light carriage], knocked out of the plank road by a great heavy wagon, was plunged up to the nave of the wheel in the mind. My ‘Compagnons de Voyage’ jumped to the ground in the twinkling of an eye, I did the same, but my boots, come from Paris, were truly microscopic and insufficient for an oil man.” (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)
He also provides a description of mealtimes for the Petrolia oil men: “… I heard about a hundred steam-engines whistle; it was midday the hour for the second breakfast. The white smoke disappeared amongst the derricks and the trees which surround us; the machines stopped, and I saw, pouring forth, from all sides of the forest, the oil men of Petrolia making their way to the various hotels of the place… it is necessary, above all to keep the human machinery in working order, subject as it is there, to a severe moral and physical strain.” (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)
One of his Foucou’s most interesting experiences involved venturing into the oil field with an “oil smeller” or “diviner,” an individual trained to identify land rich in oil: ” Having come to a little bit of land whose proprietor accompanied us, [the oil smeller] took notice of where he was, and then commenced walking slowly towards the Southwest, holding in each hand one of the branches of the magical implement: it was a little hazel-rod in the shape of a V… our sorcerer therefore walked on holding the two branches with great force; the top of the V was upwards and continued in this position for several minutes, when I saw it suddenly bend towards the breast of the operator, who immediately stopping us affirmed that in this same place, they would find at a depth of 400 feet a vein of petroleum…” (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)
This story was featured prominently on the newspaper’s front page from October, 1869 to January, 1870, indicating a strong Mexican interest in the international petroleum industry. Even all those years ago, Lambton County’s oil story garnered international recognition. Foucou provides a great summary of the industry’s impact when he notes, “Such was the commencement of a business, whose importance the Americans so laconically describe by the two significant words: mammoth business.” (Two Republics, October 23, 1869 p. 2)