Cities of Oil is a complement to the historical literature that examines the early Canadian petroleum and manufacturing industry, building on the works of those historians who have studied the economic and political development of the industry. Cobban documents the development of the industry in southwestern Ontario from its initial clustering in London East in the 1850s to the successive relocations to Petrolia and Sarnia. He draws on contemporary theories of industrial clustering to explain the importance of local economies to industrial growth. Cobban explores the role of municipalities in the location and development of the petroleum industry in each community drawing on the previous research by Gilbert Stelter, Robert Lewis and others who argue that “municipalities contributed to industrialization process in central Canada, particularly in its early stages” (10).
The Canadian oil industry had its birth in the early 1850s with Charles Tripp’s early exploration of the “gum beds” in Lambton County. The small urban areas of Canada West were a logical choice for refineries, and London East emerged as a refining centre in the 1860s. Cobban suggests that the growth of petroleum manufacturing here was not stimulated by any direct municipal action, but rather by the presence of a municipal boundary, which prevented the city from imposing regulations on the industry. This resulted in “industrial suburbanization” whereby land-use policies and zoning laws were used to restrict the location of oil refineries to the outskirts of the city.
The refining industry shifted from London East to Petrolia following the opening of the town’s second railway in 1878. The Sarnia, Chatham & Erie Railway posed direct competition to the monopoly over freight rates previously enjoyed by the Great Western Railway. Cobban suggests that of the three municipalities, local government actions positively influenced the industry in the case of Petrolia. Direct municipal action in the form of a railway allowed the monopoly over the industry’s transportation to be overcome, leading to the concentration of petroleum manufacturing there in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
When the Standard Oil Company acquired the assets of Imperial Oil in July 1898, company offices were transferred to Sarnia, and Sarnia emerged as the centre of petroleum manufacturing in Canada. Ontario’s system of municipal aid grew out of state involvement in railway promotion, but by 1922 the reforms of the Mowat government had reduced the scale of direct municipal investment in industry. By the 1930s, after two decades of growth, petroleum manufacturing in Sarnia had slipped into a state of relative decline. Wartime rubber shortages resulted in the construction of a synthetic rubber plant in Sarnia, Polymer, a crown corporation. Although the demands on local infrastructure were considerable, Polymer was essentially a federal government operation. Cobban suggests that the story of the making of Canada’s Chemical Valley in Sarnia after the war was mostly a federal one as well.
While Cobban sets out to explain the influence of municipal government on the location and development of the petroleum industry in southwestern Ontario, he concludes that it was in the protective trade policies of the federal government where most of the investment in the petroleum industry occurred. In this regard, Cobban suggests, the petroleum industry fits the scholarly narrative about the rise of modern industrial capitalism and the decline of the relevance of municipal corporations. He is careful to point out, however, that municipalities played a role at a critical juncture, accommodating the need for land, tax concessions, and implementing land-use policies.
Cobban uses a rich variety of primary sources to build his argument including the business papers and government documents from the three levels of government. A wide array of business papers ranging from the Great Western Railway, to the diaries of J.H. Fairbank of Petrolia, and Polymer Corporation add depth to the study.
Cities of Oil is a short book, only 121 pages plus notes and bibliography, but it is rich in its explanation of the intersection of government intervention at all three levels in the development of the regional petroleum industry. More attention to the local social history, particularly the involvement of local businessmen in community life might have helped Cobban tease out the connections between local business and government. For example, J.H. Fairbank of Petrolia was not only an important local Petrolia oil producer he was also the Liberal representative in the House of Commons for Lambton East from 1882 to 1886. In the case of Petrolia, Fairbanks, along with Jacob Englehart, not only built the oil industry, they contributed much to the building of the community infrastructure and social institutions of Petrolia. More attention to the social history of local community formation might have enhanced Cobban’s argument.
Cities of Oil will be of interest to the readers of this journal not only for Cobban’s insights into the making of Canada’s petroleum industry, but for the ways in which modern municipalities played, and continue to play, a direct role in stimulating economic growth.