Hugh Nixon Shaw became famous for bringing in the first “gusher” or “wild well” in the world. Shaw started out painting and decorating the hulls of ships, later became a shopkeeper, joined the gold rush, and finally ended his quest as an oil driller in Lambton County. Follow Shaw’s story and learn about how he found his oil on the exact day that he had decided to call it quits, and how he would die in his own well.
Hugh Nixon Shaw was born near Dublin, Ireland, in 1812. His mother died giving birth to Hugh, so he was adopted by his wealthy uncle William. At the young age of 21, Hugh booked passage to Canada. Hugh was befriended by the Methodist lay preacher, Bartholomew Bull, when he settled in an Irish community near Toronto, Ontario. It was in 1833 that Hugh converted to Methodism and, two years later, married Bartholomew’s daughter, Anne.
Anne and Hugh Shaw moved to Goderich, Ontario, after their wedding. Hugh found work painting and decorating the hulls of ships and, by 1842, the Shaws were owners of two houses in Goderich. After 10 years in Goderich, Hugh grew tired of working on ships and took Ann and their three children back to the Bull home. Hugh’s next occupation was to become a shopkeeper in the little town of Cooksville, Ontario. He became an agent for the Equitable Fire and International Life Assurance Co., and while the Shaws lived in Cooksville, they had two more children.
In 1850, Shaw contracted gold rush fever. He joined the stampede to the South Fork of the American River, at Coloma, California. By 1851, he was back in Cooksville, tending his store. Around 1860, Hugh traveled back to Ireland to visit his uncle, and found that he had been disinherited. Shaw returned to Cooksville for a brief period. He left shortly afterwards to search for “black gold” in Enniskillen.
His eldest son was left in charge of the store and family, when Shaw joined with two partners to drill a well in Lambton County. After almost a year’s worth of work, they ended up with only a dry hole. Shaw and his partners quarreled, dissolved their partnership, and Shaw set out alone to search for oil. He leased one acre of land from William E. Sanborn, with the provision that he must give Sanborn one-third of his oil revenue, if his drillings proved successful.
In the spring of 1861, Shaw set up his spring-pole rig, and with a working capital of only $50, he began to drill. Records show that he continued to drill through the winter months of 1861 and 1862. By this time, Hugh had used up all of his credit, as well as the credit of his two workers, Hugh Smiley and John Coryell. On January 15, 1862, Hugh decided that he would drill for one more day and then he would have to admit defeat.
Amazing as it sounds, it was a day later, on January 16, that Shaw struck oil, and the noise of this well exploding caused the earth to shake. Not only did Shaw strike oil, he brought in North America’s first gusher! No one knew how to turn off this gusher, and it was estimated that more than 100,000 barrels of oil were wasted before the flow could be stopped. The oil from this well gushed as high as the treetops for four days, flooded the hollow where it was located, and flowed down Black Creek into Lake St. Clair.
Research by Col. R.B. Harkness shows that Shaw was one of the four men who, together with James Miller Williams, surveyed the village of Oil Springs. Sadly, Hugh Nixon Shaw did not live long enough to reap the benefits of his fortune. On February 11, 1863, while attempting a repair in his well, Hugh was overcome by poisonous gases and fell back into his well. He was just four metres from the surface, but his men were unable to pull him out in time. Hugh’s body was later recovered. He was 51 years old.