History of the Chemical Industry in Lambton County

by R.W. Ford

(1987) Stretching for over 30 kilometres along the St. Clair River from the southern tip of Lake Huron to the village of Sombra lies the largest concentration of petroleum and chemical industry in Canada. Some 25 kilometres inland ancient oil wells grudgingly yield a few barrels of oil a day using equipment dating back to the last century. The purpose of this history is to show how the oldest of North American oil fields led to the establishment of Canada’s Chemical Valley. From the discovery of gum beds in Enniskillen Township in 1851, to the maturing of Chemical Valley in the 1980s, the story is a fascinating one.

In order to be sure we are properly oriented, we shall start with a brief geography and history lesson. Lambton County extends from near Wallaceburg on the south to Grand Bend on the north and from the St. Clair River on the west to near Bothwell on the east. In 1800 this whole area was largely a trackless hardwood forest. Extensive swamps swarming with malaria-carrying mosquitoes covered hundreds of square kilometres. At the start of the 19th century, what is now Lambton County had yet to attract its first white settler. Small bands of Indians roamed the forest but even they usually avoided the bogs, swamps and marshes of the interior. Not until 1807 did a French Canadian family named LaForge settle on the banks of the St. Clair River near the southern edge of what is now Sarnia. The country they found was covered with hardwood forest: oak, ash, elm and hickory. Gradually more settlers trickled into the area but most of the country still belonged to the Indians. In order to make further land available for settlement, the government of the day concluded a treaty with the Chippewas in which the Indians gave up most of this area to the white man. Approximately 12,000 hectares were set aside at Sarnia, Walpole Island Kettle Point and Sauble as reserves for the 440 Indians on the land at that time. The original copy of this treaty is still in the possession of the Indians of Kettle Point. Land was now available for settlers. The first Englishman to make his home on the present site of Sarnia was Lieutenant Vidal of the Royal Navy who located here in 1832. In growing numbers people came now to Lambton, but most of them still settled along the St. Clair River or the shores of Lake Huron. Only a hardy few chose to live in the interior near where places like Warwick, Arkona and Watford are today. The reason for this is apparent if we consider that at this time roads were virtually non-existent. A few trails had been cut through the forest but these were generally impassable except when solidly frozen in the winter. An interesting description of an Ontario road near Brantford is provided by Mrs. Anne Jameson. The year is 1837.

“The road was scarcely passable,” she writes. “There were no longer cheerful farms and clearings, but the dark pine forest, and the rank swamp, crossed by those terrific corduroy paths, and deep holes of rotted vegetable matter mired with water – black, bottomless sloughs of despond.” The roads in Lambton County were certainly no better and probably worse since the area near Brantford was settled somewhat earlier. This, then, is the setting for the start of our story: a primitive, almost trackless forest and unexplored swamp.

In 1851, a report by the Geological Survey of Canada mentioned the occurrence of gum beds in Enniskillen Township. These can still be seen today. When a man named Charles Tripp heard of these beds he recognized their potential as a source of asphalt and in 1852 he erected buildings and machinery for the production of this material. His product was sufficiently good to warrant an honourable mention at the Universal Exposition in Paris, France in 1855. This marks the first recognizable, if somewhat crude, attempt at a chemical industry in Lambton County.

In 1854 or 1855, Tripp dug a well in order to obtain water for his operation. To his chagrin he struck, not water, but thick, black, smelly oil which filled his well after he had reached a depth of only a couple of metres. Apparently Tripp failed to appreciate the significance of his find. Perhaps the lack of roads and railroads which made transportation almost impossible discouraged him. At any rate, he did not exploit his find but instead gradually sold off his holding to James Miller Williams. This man could properly be called the father of the oil industry in North America. In 1855 he reorganized Tripp’s company and set his sights on the production of illuminating oil. Within two, or at the most three years, Williams had dug several wells for the purpose of obtaining oil. This he accomplished while Drake in Pennsylvania was still looking for the site of his famous well while many people believe he was the first in North America.

Admittedly, Williams’ well was dug and not drilled as was Drake’s. However, the difficulty of transporting heavy drilling equipment, such as engines and boilers, over the roadless and almost bottomless swamps of Enniskillen Township, was too forbidding. Anyhow, why go to all that trouble when a simple hole dug with a shovel worked so well?

The Sarnia Observer of August 26, 1858 tells of the oil production at Oil Springs in these words: The ingredient (i.e. mineral oil) seems to abound over a considerable tract of land where it was discovered; and in fact that earth is so saturated by it, so that a hole dug 8 or 10 feet in width and the same depth, will collect from 200 to 250 gallons a day, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.” This was almost too easy. From 1858 until the end of 1860, Williams shipped about 1,500,000 litres of crude oil. Of this, at least 635,000 litres were hauled, two barrels at a time, 50 kilometres over a quagmire loosely called a road to the Great Western Railroad station at Wardsville. The balance, some 5,529 barrels of 160 litres each, was hauled to Wyoming; only 26 kilometres distant, after the railroad reached that point. Some crude was exported to the U.S. but most went to Williams’ refinery in Hamilton where he produced a reasonably tolerable grade of illuminating oil which he sold as far west as Sarnia. When operators from Pennsylvania flocked to the field in 1860, they found that Williams had acquired 75% or more of the available land, and if they wished to buy, they had to buy from him. Obviously this bearded fellow was nobody’s fool. In 1860, Williams’ venture was incorporated as the Canadian Oil Company which operated in Hamilton until his death in 1890. In 1862, at the International Exhibition in London, England, , the Canadian Oil Company was awarded two gold medals for being “first to produce crude oil” and “first to refine oils in Canada.” This effort marks the first commercial exploitation of petroleum resources in Canada, and indeed in North America.

The most exciting period in the history of oil in Lambton County was the decade of the 1860s. In that year the first flowing well was tapped. Men rushed to the area. Land prices soared. Wells were sunk by the score. The standard drilling rig of the day was the so-called spring pole which was used to sink some 400 wells by the end of 1861. The boom, however, lasted only briefly as the flow from most of the wells became intermittent or ceased all together.

But just at this time when things looked bad for the oil fields, fate played one of its tricks. A man named Shaw was drilling with two partners on the flats near Petrolia. An argument led to two of the partners paying off Shaw with a small piece of unwanted land near Oil Springs. The disgusted ex-partner rounded up two helpers and set to work drilling on his swampy patch of land. Since it was now winter-time, the work was difficult. At twenty metres, where Williams had struck oil, there was nothing. Wise men told Shaw to give it up, but a stubborn streak forced him on. His money failed, but his helpers used their credit to obtain more supplies. Finally his friends’ credit ran out too and Shaw decided to call it quits; well not today – but tomorrow for sure. For one more day they drilled on with their primitive equipment until they reached a depth of 49 metres. Then, suddenly, with a roar that was heard for several kilometres, a rush of gas exploded from the well, throwing the drilling tools high into the air. Then after the gas came the oil, more oil than had ever come from one well before. For a week, a flow of 3,000 barrels a day spewed forth unchecked. A natural sump filled and overflowed into the Black Creek and eventually the black, sticky oil found its way out to Lake St. Clair. After a week the flow was finally checked by stuffing a leather bag full of flax seed into the top of the well. No market existed for such large quantities of oil, but Shaw obtained ample funds by occasionally filling a few barrels from the large natural sump.

Other people heard of this bonanza and rushed to the scene. Close to the Shaw well, a steam-powered rig struck an even richer pocket. Seven thousand, five hundred barrels a day flowed unchecked for several months. Oil to a depth of 30 centimetres or more collected over a considerable area. Men went mad with speculation. More gushers – The Swan, McLean, Gray, Nelson, Murdock, Culver and Barnes and a host of others were drilled and spewed forth their oil, defying all efforts to master them. Then oil became so plentiful it wasn’t worth even trying to shut it in. Fortunately, the day of the Oil Springs floating wells was brief. Within a year, output had dropped a thousand fold to a level with which the refining industry could cope. Gradually the industry settled down to a more business-like basis.

Up to this time, the oil had been transported by horse and wagon to Wyoming or Sarnia. The roads, in general, were still atrocious. In fact, they were so bad that one operator actually floated 1,000 barrels of oil down Black Creek to Wallaceburg rather than use the 25 kilometre road to Wyoming. Some improvement was made when a plank road was constructed from Oil Springs to Wyoming in 1862 and a second from Oil Springs to Sarnia in 1864. These roads were literally paved with squared timber cut from trees felled beside the right-of-way. The road to Sarnia still bears the name of the Plank Road. The heavy traffic on these roads, however, soon rendered them unfit for use.

Then in 1866 the railroad finally reached Petrolia. The line was poorly constructed, and many delays to trains resulted, but at last oil could be shipped, without the laborious task of dragging it, two barrels at a time, over roads which more often resembled rivers or swamps.

In the same year a man named Captain King, from St. Catharines, started to drill a well in the swampy woods near Niagara. Now any intelligent man knew there was no use drilling these. Oil could only be found near creeks and rivers. Everyone knew that: everyone, apparently, except Captain King. To the accompaniment of jeers and catcalls, King drilled away at his hopeless task. Then one day to everyone’s amazement, he struck oil. True, it did not flow as fast as Shaw’s gusher, but it was far larger than any Petrolia had seen up to this time. Rapidly more wells were drilled until again oil accumulated so fast it could not be used. The refineries could not even supply barrels to haul the production away. Gradually oil was collected in large, open wooden tanks until a whole battalion of them stood full to the brim.

Under these conditions it is hardly surprising that one Saturday night, fire broke out. Men rushed to the oil field but they were too late. They tried to burn off the oil from the burning tank, but before they succeeded, the wooden staves caught fire and collapsed. Burning oil flowed in all directions. As tank after tank ignited, the flames rose into the night sky to a height of 30 metres and more. For two whole weeks the fire burned until nothing was left but ashes, and the earth itself was charred to a depth of 60 centimetres. But as soon as the ground had cooled the men were back repairing the damage. The King Well itself was restored and was still pumping fifty years later. The catastrophe had a bright side though; it rid the area of an oil surplus faster than anything else could have, with the result that prices became steadier and once more the industry could return to an even keel.

Other big finds were made, particularly to the northwest of Petrolia, but the boom days were over and Petrolia settled down to a steadier, if less spectacular growth. As oil production decreased, attempts were made to rejuvenate some of the old wells. One particular method was to “shoot” the well with as much as 50 litres of nitroglycerine. This rather dangerous chemical originally was imported from the States and hauled to Petrolia by horse and wagon. Accidents en route which often killed the teamster resulted in high costs for transportation. To overcome this situation, a Mr. Bradley built a plant near Petrolia to manufacture the chemical. Unfortunately, this early example of the chemical industry in Lambton literally blew up sometime later.

A story is told of one teamster who made his living hauling nitroglycerine from Mr. Bradley’s plant in the oil fields. Normally he was a calm, serious fellow, but when he got a few drinks under his belt his idea of a joke was to race up and down the main street of Petrolia in his buggy loaded with nitro. The sight of the villagers cowering in doorways and running for shelter seems to have amused him. The fates were kind though, and as far as we know, while he may have died of alcoholism, he at least died in one piece.

Gradually oil production has decreased in the area but many wells are still being pumped. A barrel of oil a day is considered above average production but modern techniques for secondary recovery of oil are wringing the last few drops from the rocks in this area where wells once flowed freely at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day and more.

An interesting feature of the Oil Springs field is the use of the jerker rod system for pumping wells. Still in operation, this technique, which was developed by a Lambton man named J.J. Fairbanks, enables one motor to pump a score of wells. The motion of a flywheel is transmitted by long lengths of ash rods across fields, over creeks, and under roads till it reaches the pump at the well head. Take-off wheels distribute power from one pair of rods to perhaps 6 wells and there may be several of these wheels connected to one motor. At the well, the jerking motion is converted into a rocking action of the pump arm, and so, slowly, almost drop by drop, the oil is brought to the surface where it is stored in tanks until a truck comes to haul it away. In the early days, hauling was done by horse-drawn collection wagons. One of these early wagons is preserved at the Oil Springs Museum. Now these wells which once glutted the market with oil cannot keep even one modern refinery in operation. Shell Oil, Corunna for instance can process 80,000 barrels a day of crude oil and Imperial Oil almost twice that much. This is a far cry from the capacity of refineries in the 1860s. It is recorded that in 1864, Petrolia had 5 refineries while Oil Springs boasted 20. These 25 refineries had a combined capacity of only 5,000 barrels a day. But from these small beginnings our modern Lambton industry has grown. If these oil fields had not been discovered, and these small refineries built, our Chemical Valley would probably never have come into existence. For the balance of this story then, we shall examine how the oil industry grew and prospered until it blossomed since 1945 into the largest petrochemical complex in Canada.

Williams built the first refinery at Oil Springs in 1857while the first refinery in Petrolia was built by a Mr. Thayer in 1861. In those days, a refinery consisted essentially of a large black iron pot with a source of heat underneath and a condenser for recovering the fluids that boiled off. The gasoline fraction was usually discarded since it was too dangerous to use. The next fraction was kerosene which was the main product while axle grease and other such products were made from the heavy residue. Owing to the sulphur compounds present in the crude oil this early kerosene was pretty foul smelling stuff. In fact, it is reported that one manufacturer put out two grades, the better of which smelled merely bad. Gradually, however, methods were developed to overcome this trouble and by 1890, a sulphur-free product could be marketed. As the product improved, sales increased, and large refineries came into operation. In 1868 the first stills constructed from boiler plate, rather than cast iron, were being built. One particularly large one was the talk of Petrolia. For a year the “Big Still” as it came to be known, operated successfully, but then one day it blew up. At considerable expense repairs were made and after a period of some months the “Big Still” was started up again. On the first day it was back in operation it again exploded and this time its owners, the Carbon Oil Co., disappeared with it.

By the 1890s, a modern refinery consisted of several crude oil stills, a re-run still and bleaching tanks. A barrel works and building for filling the barrels with kerosene for shipment completed the plant.

As the oil industry in the U.S. gained in efficiency through the formation of the giant Standard Oil Co., Canadian refineries met with increasingly stern competition. Early attempts at cooperation among Canadian companies were unsuccessful, but with the end of the road in sight, sixteen men formed Imperial Oil Company Limited. They hoped that in unity they would find strength to beat the American competition. The driving force behind the new company was Jake Englehart who owned refineries at both Petrolia and London, Ontario. These became the main plants of the new company. The one in Petrolia, built on the site of the “Big Still” was, in 1870, the finest refinery in Canada, and one of the best in North America. When in 1883 the London refinery burned to the ground, rather than rebuild in London and paying the excessive freight for hauling crude oil, it was decided to expand the Petrolia refinery.

The company prospered. By 1893 Imperial Oil had 23 branch offices from Halifax to Victoria, but just two years later the company was again in need of funds for modernization and expansion. Canadian and British sources were not interested. Thus Imperial was forced to turn to the very company it was set up to fight, Standard Oil, for the money it needed to stay in business. Standard Oil supplied the funds in exchange for a majority interest in the Canadian company. Shortly afterwards all Standard’s holdings in Canada were merged with Imperial. One of the properties acquired in that deal was the Bushnell refinery in Sarnia. This, the first of Sarnia’s refineries, had been built in 1871. A succession of sales and bankruptcies had plagued it, but now its future was assured. Immediately, Imperial’s operations and head office were moved there from Petrolia. A pipeline was laid to transport crude from the oil fields while barges brought additional supplies from Ohio. In 1900, Imperial Oil was operating their Sarnia plant at a rate of 900 barrels a day. Within a few years, it was the largest refinery in Canada, and today can handle over 140,000 barrels of crude in every 24 hours. The tremendous growth, of course, was due to the advent of the automobile and, later, the airplane. Finally, refineries had a market for this dangerous stuff called gasoline. But we are getting ahead of our story.

When Imperial Oil moved to Sarnia, the town of Petrolia, which once boasted at least seven refineries, had none in operation. Moreover, virtually complete control of the Canadian oil industry had passed into the hands of the American giant, Standard Oil. But a group of Canadian businessmen and politicians determined to build a new refinery in Petrolia. In 1891, the Canadian Oil Refining Company was incorporated and started operating a refinery capable of handling 1,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Competition was tough. A merger with other independent oil companies in 1904 helped, but a shortage of capital plagued the new company. A recession in 1907 finally spelled disaster. Bankruptcy was declared. But at this low point in the company’s history, the National Refining Co. of Cleveland, Ohio stepped in. For $400,000, Canadian Oil was bought by National Refining. A charter for the new company, Canadian Oil Companies Ltd., was granted in 1908. Under the dynamic leadership of the new owners and with the infusion of the new capital, the company flourished. White Rose Gasoline, En-ar-co Motor Oil and Black Beauty Axle Grease became known across the country.

This happy state of affairs existed until 1930. The Great Depression hit Canadian Oil hard, but it affected the American parent, National Refining Co. even more. By 1938 National was anxious to sell their relatively healthy Canadian foster child. Fortunately a buyer was at hand, and with the wheel coming full circle, control of Canadian Oil returned to Canada. Then in 1963, the company was again sold to foreign owners, this time becoming part of the Royal Dutch Shell Group, but again we are getting ahead of our story.

Oil is not the only basis for Lambton’s chemical industry. Another substance has played at least a strong supporting role. This substance is salt – common table salt. Most of southwestern Ontario lies over a huge salt bed. In this area it is about 450 to 600 metres below the surface. This resource was exploited in Sarnia from 1903 until the early 1960s by Dominion Salt, later Sifto Salt, on the site of what is now Centennial Park on Sarnia Bay. Other salt companies have also flourished in the area including one at Warwick which may still be seen southwest of the village. This operation, although dormant now, was started in the 1880s and won prizes at international competitions.

This then was the chemical industry in Lambton at the beginning of the Second World War: Imperial Oil with the largest oil refinery in the British Empire located at Sarnia; Dominion Salt Co., now Sifto Salt also in Sarnia and Canadian Oil Companies Ltd., at that time a Canadian-owned company, with a relatively small refinery located at Petrolia. The romantic period of the oil boom was long over; a slow and unspectacular growth had taken its place. Little did people realize that the next dozen years would bring a growth to Lambton County unparalleled in its history. The next decade saw the establishment of Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley.”

In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and the Second World War was underway. In December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and proceeded to overrun the rubber-producing areas of the Pacific and Southeast Asia. On December 27, 1941 the Right Honourable C.D. Howe, then Minister of Munitions and Supply called a meeting of the Rubber Substitutes Advisory Committee consisting of the presidents of the four major Canadian rubber companies, and the Deputy Comptroller of Supplies as the chairman. At the meeting, the decision was reached to build a plant for the production of synthetic rubber in Canada. In February, 1942, Polymer Corporation was incorporated in order to implement this decision. This was just two days before Singapore fell to the Japanese.

Sarnia was chosen as the site of the plant for several reasons. For instance, the clear, cool water of the St. Clair River provided both a cheap means of transportation for raw materials and products, and also cooling water for the various processes. But the key factor was the presence in the area of the Imperial Oil Refinery on which Polymer Corporation could draw for both men and raw materials.

Canadian government officials, though able men in their own right, didn’t really know very much about the manufacture of synthetic rubber, so a committee was set up to advise the executive during the building and initial operation of the plant. The committee included representatives of the government, and of the oil, chemical and rubber companies associated with the Canadian and U.S. synthetic rubber programs. Later, agreements were made with three operating companies which were to be paid a management fee for their technical knowledge and plant management. The first was St. Clair Processing, a wholly-owned subsidiary set up by Imperial Oil in September, 1942. Its responsibility was for three process units, as well as the steam and power plant, machine shop, and service groups such as accounting and laboratories. Dow Chemical of Canada, Limited, the second operating company, was incorporated in June, 1942 with the assignment of engineering and supervising construction of a styrene monomer unit and later of operating that plant.

The last operating company was Canadian Synthetic Rubber Ltd., formed by Dominion, Firestone, Goodrich and Goodyear, the same rubber manufacturers whose presidents sat on the original Rubber Substitute Advisory Committee. This company supervised construction and operation of the unit which provided the type of rubber later called Polysar-S. After the war, these three companies successfully turned their operations over to Polymer itself, so that by the end of 1951, all of the agreements had been terminated.

Once begun, the actual construction of this large and complex plant proceeded rapidly; as the 75 hectares of sparsely wooded land which had been part of the Sarnia Indian reservation on a plateau bordering the St. Clair River yielded to the steel and aluminum, concrete and bricks of a modern industrial plant. A whole new suburb appeared to provide housing for the construction workers who were employed in excavating, carpentering and pipe-fitting. Their impact on the staid community of Sarnia can be imagined if we realize that the 5,600 men employed at the construction peak in July, 1943 were equivalent to more than 25% of the total population at that time. In September, 1943, fifteen months after clearing of the site began, the first commercial batch of synthetic rubber in the British Empire was produced.

The end of the war two years later was a critical period in Sarnia’s growth. Some people thought Polymer would close down when peace arrived and natural rubber was once again available. Certainly Polymer’s production capability far outstripped Canada’s requirements for rubber. Fortunately, more farsighted people were in charge and Polymer moved vigorously into the export market. Devastation of rubber plantations in the Far East had caused a worldwide shortage of natural rubber. Soon fully 70% of Polymer’s production was being exported.

Similarly when peace came Dow Chemical saw an opportunity to export Styron polystyrene plastic from Canada to the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries. These indications of confidence in Sarnia’s future, however, may well have come to naught if it had not been for an event 3,300 kilometres away. In 1947 in Leduc, Alberta, oil was discovered. Within three years, reserves were proven and developed, and the Interprovincial Pipe Line was laid from Redwater and Edmonton in Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. This 1,880 kilometres of pipe was laid in just 150 days. Four new tankers carried the oil from Superior to Sarnia where Imperial launched a massive program of expansion and modernization to link western oil and eastern consumers. Now all the ingredients for a petrochemical complex were readily available. Over the next 15 years, this war-born infant we call Chemical Valley was to grow into a mature and vibrant adult. During this period the established industries expanded, diversified and integrated their operations. At the same time many new industries were attracted to the area because of availability of feedstocks or markets for their products.

An example of diversification can be seen in the growth of the Dow complex. Following the initial production of Styron in 1947, Dow built a unit to produce ethylene glycol, the base for automotive antifreeze. The raw materials for glycol at that time were chlorine and ethylene. The chlorine was available from Dow in Midland and ethylene could be purchased from Polymer. The next obvious step was to produce the chlorine in Sarnia. Salt could be obtained by solution mining rights on the plant site and Ontario Hydro had power available so in 1949 the first chlorine plant started operation in Sarnia. Soon an ethylene plant was built which utilized refinery by-products as a raw material. With chlorine and ethylene now available, it was a natural step to start producing vinyl chloride monomer and chlorinated solvents. When Polymer took over the original styrene unit in 1951, Dow built its own unit using benzene purchased from various sources including local refineries, and ethylene which it now produced. And so a modern chemical complex was built.

Similarly, Imperial Oil not only expanded its refinery, but moved also into the petrochemical field. The first plant produced detergent alkylate for household detergents. In the late fifties a modern unit was added to produce ethylene, propylene and butadiene of very high purity. These building blocks were in turn sold to Dow and DuPont for production of polyethylene and other chemicals and to Polymer Corporation for production of rubber. In one interesting interchange, Esso Chemicals sends ethylene to Dow, which Dow reacts with chlorine to make vinyl chloride which Dow in turn sells to Esso to make polyvinyl chloride. Undoubtedly some of this PVC then returns to Dow in the form of electrical insulation and plastic pipe. This is another fascinating aspect of the Chemical Valley: the mutual interdependence of so many of our industries. Another indication of this is the umbilical cord of pipes connecting the industries of the area in a mutual right-of-way along the CSX railroad tracks, and in a web of other pipelines in the valley.

And then there were the newcomers to the area. In 1947 Fiberglas started construction of its plant where a modern adaptation of the ancient art of glass making takes this hard and normally brittle material and turns it into the fine, pliable fibres which are so valuable as a light-weight, fireproof insulating medium.

Until 1952, Imperial Oil had the only refinery in the Chemical Valley, but in that year Canadian Oil moved here from Petrolia. In the years following World War II, it had become obvious to the management of this company that some rebalancing was necessary – the “teakettle” refinery at Petrolia had for some time been able to supply only a fraction of the gasoline being sold by the company and it was decided that a totally new, modern refinery was required in a more accessible location. The Sarnia area, with the advantage of being close to urban markets, having ample water and facilities for lake transportation, and already the site of a growing petrochemical industry, was the logical choice. Another distinct asset lay in the Interprovincial Pipeline between the Western oil fields and the Lakehead. Canadian Oil had participated in this project to the extent of one million dollars. So, in 1950, construction of a refinery was commenced along the St. Clair River on the outskirts of Sarnia, at Froomfield, the discharge point for the old Petrolia refinery. Froomfield, by the way, was named for two pioneers of the area, Froome and Field Talfourd, who first farmed the land where this refinery now stands. The stream on the property became known as Talfourd Creek, also in their honour. This creek was once the habitat of a large number of albino turtles, a rare and dangerous species indeed. Ed and Fred Davis, who ran the ferry between Corunna and Stag Island, would organize launch trips to see the famous turtles when business was slack. But they had to warn people to be careful.

“My God,” Fred would say. “Don’t you know that a white turtle’s bite is worse than a rattler’s? Why, an Indian from Walpole Island caught one and the next day he was gone.” Still, if people looked carefully, they could see them swimming about in the creek. But one day a brave young wag caught one despite the warnings and the jig was up – Ed had attempted to stimulate business by collecting hundreds of mud turtles and painting them with white enamel. As for the Indian who had been bitten, he was gone , true enough – gone back to Walpole Island. But perhaps the ghosts of albino turtles still roam the refinery property.

Another refinery joined the group in 1953 when Sun Oil was induced by the general prosperity of this country’s economy to build in Canada. As a cooperative venture of Sun and Canadian Oil, a pipeline to carry products from Sarnia to Toronto with takeoff stations at both London and Hamilton also was constructed in 1953. The extension of the Interprovincial Pipeline from the Lakehead to Sarnia at about the same time was another welcome change, for it eliminated one set of costly storage facilities. Oil could now be taken from the pipeline all year round, not just during the summer when the lake boats could operate, and there was consequently no need to accumulate the winter’s supply during the summer.

Following the new refineries, several companies closely associated with the oil industry came to Sarnia. The first was Cabot Carbon, a manufacturer of oil furnace carbon blacks for use in the rubber industry. At that time, it was the only producer of these materials in Canada. Prior to its start up in 1953, all carbon black had to be imported.

The second was Ethyl Corporation which could produce sufficient quantities of tetraethyl lead to meet Canadian demands for this well-known anti-knock agent for gasoline.

But then in the late fifties world conditions in the chemical industry started to change. Huge complexes, particularly on the U.S. Gulf Coast based on low cost raw materials were being built, and Canadian producers locked into a small domestic market, with eroding tariff protection and with relatively high cost raw materials were finding it hard to compete. Nevertheless, some new industry did locate here during this period.

In 1959, DuPont of Canada constructed a plant for the manufacture of Sclair polyethylene resin using as unique process largely developed in Canada. The following year St. Clair Chemical, now Welland Chemical, began production of anhydrous aluminum chloride widely used as a catalyst in the petrochemical industry. Also in the early 1960s, Allied Chemical built a plant south of Corunna for the production of toluene diisocyanate (TDI), one of the base raw materials for Canada’s polyurethane foam industry.

The two biggest projects of the sixties, however, were the CIL fertilizer complex and the Lambton Generating Station. CIL, attracted by the availability of natural gas and access to the U.S. Market for fertilizers, built a world-scale ammonia plant on a 650 hectare site south of Courtright starting in 1965.

The plant also produced phosphoric acid and nitric acid which were combined with the ammonia to produce a wide range of fertilizer chemicals.

The Lambton Generating Station, a 2,000 M.W. coal-fired generating station, started operation in April, 1969, achieving full power in late 1970. Although Dow, the largest consumer of power in the valley, now generates virtually all its own power, the presence of the Lambton Station is a valuable asset for the industry of the area in stabilizing the power supply in this part of the province. Other additions were Dome Petroleum in the mid-60s with their gas separation plant on the Plank Road and, in 1969, Liquid Carbonic’s 165 tonne per day carbon dioxide plant at CIL. The latter company in 1975 also added hydrogen to their product line from a unit at Sun Oil.

As Canada entered the 70s, the chemical industry in Sarnia was hurting. Competition from abroad based on low cost raw material was brutal. But just as some far-sighted people led by Jake Engelhart almost 100 years before had banded together to form Imperial Oil, so in 1973 Polymer, now called Polysar, DuPont, Union Carbide and Canada Development Corporation joined forces to form Petrosar. This operation was conceived as a world scale refinery based on Western Canada crude oil which could produce a billion pounds per year of ethylene plus substantial quantities of other products such as propylene and butadiene.

Announcement of this $750,000,000 plus the rising cost of oil in world markets brought on by the OPEC cartel led to the biggest building boom in Sarnia’s history.

First Union Carbide announced plans to build a $170,000,000 polyethylene plant just down the road from Petrosar. Prior to this, Union Carbide’s only presence in the Valley was as a supplier of nitrogen to local industries from a small gas separation plant between Imperial Oil and Polysar.

Then DuPont decided to double the capacity of its polyethylene plant at Corunna while Shell Chemical started to work on units to produce isopropyl alcohol and polypropylene plastic on land adjacent to the Shell refinery. Also Polysar announced plans to build a world scale styrene monomer unit and a new butyl rubber plant.

During the 70s the chemical industry could sell every pound of product it could make. In 1972, Monsanto, needing additional capacity for the production of ABS plastic bought an idle unit from Polysar. After a multi-million dollar renovation program, production started in 1974. Then in 1979 the demand for hydrogen prompted Air Products to negotiate the purchase of this by-product from Dow Chemical. Hydrogen is used extensively in food processing but its most spectacular application is as the fuel for the booster rockets in the U.S. space shuttle. In 1981, Air Products started producing liquid hydrogen in their new plant located just east of the Indian Reserve.

Also in 1979, Dow Chemical received its first batch of ethylene through the Cochin pipeline from Alberta. Dow had been a participant in the original studies which led to the building of Petrosar but had decided instead to pursue a strategy based on ethylene from ethane, a compound of natural gas. The ethylene would be produced in Alberta and part of the supply would be shipped via the Cochin pipeline to Sarnia. At 3,000 km it would be the longest high pressure product pipeline in the world. A new low density polyethylene unit was built in order to make use of this additional ethylene.

But even as the boom continued, cracks were appearing in the structure. In part, the prosperity of Sarnia was founded on artificially high oil prices on world markets as the result of the OPEC cartel and artificially low prices in Canada because of government policy. World economic conditions deteriorated. A short, sharp recession in 1980-81 was followed by a severe downturn in 1983. Demand for petrochemicals contracted just as new capacity came on stream around the world. Red ink spread over company balance sheets. Drastic action was required to stem the hemorrhaging. Several production units belonging to various companies were closed or sold. Staff reductions, mainly through early retirements and attrition, became the order of the day. But the hardest hit were the construction workers who had flocked to Sarnia during the boom. With new construction at a standstill over three-quarters of the construction force could not find work.

The economic situation was not the only cloud in the Sarnia sky either. Even back in the 1960s just as the environmental movement was starting, Sarnia had been the subject of stories in the media. A program entitled “Air of Death” on the CBC and a story in Chatelaine called “Sarnia, Small Beauty with Bad Breath” were two of the more memorable. Then in 1971 mercury contamination in fish was traced to discharges from Dow’s chlorine production facilities. Although the problem was quickly corrected as the company switched to different technology which did not use mercury, the environmental pressures continued to build. Then in 1985 an unfortunate spill of perchloroethylene dry cleaning fluid into the St. Clair River off the Dow site again served to focus attention on pollution in the Sarnia area.

What many people failed to realize, however, was that Chemical Valley industry had long been addressing environmental concerns. As far back as 1952, a group called the St. Clair River Research Committee sponsored by local industry had maintained an extensive program of air and water monitoring. In 1967 this effort led to the establishment of the Lambton Industrial Society which is funded by 13 of the chemical industries in the area. Meanwhile the companies collectively spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce pollution from their operations. Now with historical data going back over 30 years, dramatic improvements in both water and air quality can be objectively demonstrated. For instance, Sarnia`s air quality meets all government criteria and extensive water analysis by the provincial government have consistently shown the St. Clair River to be an excellent source of drinking water for downstream communities such as Wallaceburg and Walpole Island. Similarly, studies of life in the sediments on the bottom of the river have shown dramatic improvements since the first studies were done in 1957. As public concern and government regulation continues to build, the industries in Chemical Valley are determined to stay in the vanguard of environmental protection.

An interesting example of this commitment to environmental excellence is the Tricil waste disposal operation in Moore Township. This facility has its roots in a pioneer industrial waste firm started by Stanley P. Goodfellow in 1957. Tricil, jointly owned by C.I.L. and Trimac, a bulk transportation firm based in Calgary, bought the operation in 1972. They now operate a fully integrated waste management facility incorporating both landfill and incineration.

The 1980s have seen little growth, but several changes. One of the casualties of the recession was the Monsanto operation which was shut down and sold to AKZO Chemicals Ltd. In 1985 the plant was reopened to produce fabric softeners. Also in 1985, Polysar acquired 100 percent ownership of Petrosar. Two years later, Union Carbide sold its polyethylene plant in Moore Township to Nova, a company with headquarters in Alberta.

Now, as this is written, Nova has obtained control of Polysar, which had just recently sold its worldwide latex business to BASF, a major German chemical company.

What does the future hold? The only constant will be more change. New and improved products and processes will replace the old. New players will appear and old ones will disappear. World and domestic economic conditions will continue to affect the health of the local industry. But through it all, the chemical industry will remain both vital and vibrant.

2015-08-23T01:33:40+00:00August 21st, 2015|Comments Off on History of the Chemical Industry in Lambton County