When he shuts off the truck’s diesel engine, the sound of a rhythmic creaking accompanied by the scent of raw crude rides the wind into the cab. Contrary to popular opinion, the smell of oil isn’t offensive, just a departure from everyday aromas.
From the walkway above Black Creek, Fairbank points out cardinal flowers and about a dozen rare species of plants growing in the creek mud. He also indicates an overgrown earthen mound. “That’s a precontact First Nations mound,” he said. “There are six of them. We haven’t excavated it yet, so we’re going to work with the local band to protect it and research it.”
Archaeologists, I thought to myself, would have a field day here. Turns out they already have. Dr. Emory Kemp, a renowned industrial archaeologist from West Virginia University, has already visited these oil fields to look at the technology, causing Fairbank to quip, “It was as if they had been studying dinosaur fossils and stumbled on a living, breathing dinosaur.”
Technology is a key part of the driving tour. Jerker lines that power the wellhead pumps provide a creaking soundtrack. It is nineteenth-century technology that still works incredibly well.
We stop at a life-sized outdoor diorama of sculpted steel representing five men and a horse. The sculpture illustrates a drilling crew operating a cable tool drill rig, which was the original technology for sinking a well and is still in use today.
Dozens of these steel folk art figures populate the landscape.
While we’re stopped, Fairbank tunes his radio to a station listed on the driving guide, and we pick up a broadcast giving information about the display.
There are nine stops with audio presentations tied to them; the first stop is the Oil Museum of Canada, where you can get your bearings and tune your radio.
The indoor and outdoor displays on the oil museum’s four-hectare site contain a wealth of information about the birth of the North American oil industry.
Inside the museum, which became a National Historic Site in 2004, there is a theatre with audiovisual screenings; a main gallery details life in the pioneering days of the first oil explorers; the Oil Springs gallery focuses on the discoveries, exploration, and development of the fields immediately surrounding Oil Springs; and the foreign drillers gallery tells the stories of local men who travelled the world drilling for black gold using Canadian technology.
The daughter of one Oil Springs driller married the legendary Count von Zeppelin. Another drilling family found itself trapped by the Russian Revolution in 1918 and made its escape overland in farm wagons and on horseback from Grozny, on the Black Sea, to Murmansk, in the Russian Arctic, where it continued its journey home aboard a British troop ship.
A visit to the Oil Museum of Canada can take you the better part of a day, but it’s well worth it.