Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions (continued)
Little did the drillers know that their troubles had just begun. They struck oil with the first well in 1895 - great rejoicing - and then discovered that they could not control the flow. As some men plugged the hole with bean bags, rocks and flour bags, others wired frantically for help. Spottswood returned. He straightened out and lengthened the well, blasted it and began to pump out oil...so much oil, in fact, that the men ran out of barrels to contain it. The well had to be stoppered again, at which point Spottswood fell ill, returned to St. John's and died.
By now somewhat immune to catastrophe, the drillers went on and bored a second well, but were brought up short by a collapse of the pumping apparatus. Barely had they repaired the damage than George Spottswood's administrators sued the Newfoundland Oil Company for 15 shares, $1200 in wages and a $1000 good pumping bonus, all of which had been promised to Spottswood before his death.(18) The court awarded the estate the shares and wages: not the pumping bonus.
The court case coming on top of the previous mishaps threw the Newfoundland Oil Company into confusion and caused it to suspend operations. Only after enlarging its financial base did it resume active exploration.
Work began again at Parsons Pond under the reorganized title of the Newfoundland Petroleum Company Limited (later The Newfoundland Petroleum Limited). Drillers bored three new wells around the pond and built storage sheds to hold the anticipated flood of oil. Oil production did slightly surpass oil consumption: the drills consumed 300 barrels for every 700 barrels raised. Drilling manager Powell proved the oil's high quality by using it in its crude form to lubricate the engines. His praise and the wells' generous behaviour moved the company to hire American oil experts in 1905 to assess the possibility of erecting an on-site refinery. The experts advised against it. As if to prove their words, the wells faltered during the following winter. Some ray dry and others flooded down the pumps froze.
By 1907, The Newfoundland Petroleum Limited's bank account was as dry as its wells. Company expenditures between 1898 and 1905 exceeded $90,000; its one sale - 900 barrels to the St. John's Gas Light Company - added a meagre $1460 to company coffers. The Newfoundland Petroleum Limited gave up and in 1907 voted to go into dissolution.
Three years of legal convolutions intervened before the Parsons Pond property fell on 29 April to the Newfoundland Oilfields Company Limited of England. Inexplicably, the Newfoundland government, which had allowed the Newfoundland oil companies to flounder unaided for years, supported the English company with the Act to Confirm an Agreement between the Government and the Newfoundland Oilfields Company Limited. The act contained clauses parallelling those in the Coal Development Act; and like the Coal Development Act it failed to be of use. Newfoundland Oilfields Company abandoned the site in 1914, leaving residents to retrieve what oil they could from the cracked and frozen storage tanks.
In the opinion of Parsons Pond residents, the oilfields' most useful period was that between 1919 and 1926 when the General Oil Fields Limited, another English firm, operated three weels and a refinery at the site.(19) They appreciated being able to buy refined kerosene and gasoline at will for their boats and household requirements without having to wait for its shipment from elsewhere.
Since the General Oil Fields company left Parsons Pond in 1926, all oil production has ceased. Oil can still be dipped from old drill casings left at the site, and oil slicks occasionally mottle the pond; it is, however, unlikely that these indications will prompt much development in the future.
On the north side of the Port au Port Peninsula lies Shoal Point, with underlying oil-bearing shales and limestones which closely resemble those at Parsons Pond. James Howley first examined the Shoal Point oilfields in 1874 while visiting the Lead Cove lead mine: his report caused little stir at the time, for the same French opposition that closed the lead mine also discouraged interest in the oil. The interest revived later with the opening of the Parsons Pond operation, and brought Frederick Andrews out to Shoal Point.
Frederick Andrews was well known in Newfoundland mining circles at the first manager of the Pilleys Island pyrite mine and as a 'sharpie' who remained taciturn about his affairs. He formed the Western Oil Company in 1898 and sank four holes at Shoal Point, telling Howley nothing about the operation. Howley could only learn from other people that one well yielded 10 barrels of oil daily and that the project halted in 1899 when Andrews became sick. Andrews resumed drilling in July 1900, but stopped again after attempts to loosen a reluctant oil layer with dynamite arrested the flow completely. He thereafter concentrated on mining ventures in eastern Newfoundland and around 1907 entered the real estate business in his native New Brunswick, where he died in 1920.(20)
An unsubstantiated but amusing report cites that an "English company" drilled one shallow well at Shoal Point in 1908. The well missed the oil-bearing strata, and the English drillers preferred swimming, reading and drinking tea to drilling, all of which contributed to the venture's failure.(21)
The Shoal Point oilfields remain inactive despite having been extensively explored in the 1960s. As time makes apparent the probability of a provincial offshore oil and gas industry, so does it diminish the likelihood of Newfoundland's onshore oil resources ever achieving production.
Coal and oil may have been Newfoundland's most overestimated natural commodities; its building stones were, and still are, one of its most underestimated resources. Granites in beautiful shades of pink and grey riddle much of the Island. Marbles are found on the west coast in colours ranging from black or blue-grey to rose and ivory white. The west coast has shales and sandstones in reds, greens, greys, whites and yellows; and Random Island and vicinity possess slate deposits equal to the best in the world.
All of these rocks were once quarried in Newfoundland. A morning's walk around downtown St. John's will reveal dimension stones removed from near Buchans, Benton, Holyrood, Petites, Signal Hill, Southside Hills, Kellys Island and Random Island. Yet today the quarries lie idle as Newfoundland's construction and monument industries purchase shipments of Ontario sandstone, Italian and Vermont marbles, and Welsh slate.
Much could be said here about the absurdity of importing building stones onto an Island that itself could be exporting the same materials to foreign markets, or about the potential of a Newfoundland building stone industry; but such issues are best left for others to pursue.
Records indicate that red and green sandstone around St. John's was the earliest Newfoundland building stone to be quarried by white men. During the tempestuous 1700s, towns-people used sandstone from Signal Hill and Southside Hills to construct city fortifications, taking care not to quarry on the harbour side of Signal Hill, as such excavations might be used as shelter by attacking French troops. In an 1827 report, Colonel Gustavas Nicolls praised the red and green St. John's sandstone for its high quality.(22)
It may have been Nicholls' report that led architects to use the Signal Hill stone in constructing the Government House for the resident governor. Building of the residence began in 1827. Of the thousands of tons of red sandstone that were quarried from Signal Hill for the house, some disappeared instead into the walls of the governor's summer home. He explained that he had merely borrowed the rock, intending to replace it later with stone from Halifax.(23)