Sunday, February 4, 2024

Railway Reads: The Petrolia Spur has the goods, maybe a few too many

A few years ago, I read a self-published book, The Petrolia Spur, by Petrolia history buff Tom Walter. You'd be forgiven if you wonder why anyone would write a book on a spur line that was less than five miles long. But the Petrolia Spur wasn't just any branch line. It was a line that was wholly financed by the captains of the burgeoning oil industry in this boom town in the 1860s. In many respects, this book tells a good chunk of the story of the birth of North America's petroleum industry. So it's not just a book about a small piece of track.

Walter deserves full credit for the sheer depth of his research on this rail line and its connection to the town, which was for many years an affluent, influential boom town whose influence was global in reach. I say this without much hyperbole, as many of the so-called hard oilers who figured out how to find oil and get it out of the ground soon travelled the world and shared their expertise throughout Europe and other spots where crude was waiting to be tapped.

Walter focuses much of his research on the railway, of course, which began as a Great Western Railway branch, before giving way to the Grand Trunk and eventually the Canadian National. There is much to discover in this rail spur's story and Walter did an outstanding job of scouring the historic records and news articles, not to mention interviewing people who remember this rail line, which was finally torn up in 1994.

If you sensed there was a but coming, here it is. Writing a history book is not an easy task, as there are sometimes countless pieces of information to cobble together into a narrative. This is where I find the Petrolia Spur sometimes becomes too ambitious in its reach. There are many instances in the book where the overall story of the railway and its connection to Petrolia's development gets somewhat lost in a recap of newspaper articles and inconsequential details.

I found there were a few too many asides in the book, where space was taken up exploring inconsequential rail collisions, derailments and too much prose focusing on the station agents and their lives. I understand that this book is mainly for the people who live in and around this town and those who are fascinated by local railway history like me. However, I think this book might have benefited from a more thorough edit that could have streamlined the main story and discarded some of the less important divergences. In my opinion, many of these stories that do not fall into the main narrative could have been collected into a chapter of fun railway stories.

If you are willing to overlook some of this overabundance of ambitious detail, there are many interesting elements of this town's railway story that might surprise you. The rich collection of historic photographs gives you a surprisingly thorough depiction of what this railway operation, including the engines and rolling stock, actually looked like. Also, the author includes a number of appendices, like the architectural plans for the historic Petrolia railway station. These additions are excellent resources for those looking to model railways in this area or those who simply want to better understand some of the technical elements of the railway operation. Again, full credit for the breadth of research.

The author's passion for rail history shines through in his writing. As I mentioned, it comes across as unfocused at times, but I think this is a function of the sheer amount of material he was able to uncover. But he does succeed in presenting a complete story that very much gives you the big picture, rather than just a narrow local narrative. 

You just need to sift around a bit to piece it together at times. If you are interested in this book, your best bet would be to contact someone in Petrolia or call the town hall. I would imagine the book is available at local independent bookstores in the area. If you want to borrow my copy, you'll have to come to Ottawa.


Eric said...

An intriguing review, Michael. I've never heard of that book, but being of a micro-niche topic, that's probably not surprising. I have the author beat, though. I created two books on two spurs each 2 miles long!

I clearly hear your thoughts on a lack of focus, though. Such local railway histories, online or in print by the likes of Churcher, Smithson, and Smith can easily veer into interesting (to the author at least) tidbits, tales and trivia. Veering in to social history, political commentary, or just sheer 'guess what happened on this day in 1912!?' can take their toll on the reader. There's a fine line between historical and hysterical, sometimes!

But I think you're correct in concluding that this book is invaluable for anyone with a deep interest and local knowledge of the spur.

Thanks for sharing this book with us. Both the book and your post give us fuel for thought!

Michael said...

Thanks Eric. Having written books myself and received less than glowing reviews, I hesitate to share such thoughts. I came away from this book with a much better understanding of the railway service in this community, but I just got tired, quite frankly, of the far too numerous recaps of derailments and minor accidents that occurred in and around Petrolia rails over the decades. At a certain point, the book began to paint a picture of incompetence, which is surely not the case, because the many minor incidents presented as part of the overall narrative are merely scattered incidents over decades. The strengths of this book, however, far outweigh, the weaknesses. The research presented here is impressive to say the very least.

Paul Hurly said...

Hi Michael:
I thought I would try to reach you via the Comments as your Blog-Profile-Smashwords feeds just seemed to be an endless loop.
I'd like to publish your Blog with photos about Sarnia titled "CN's quirky Point Edward spur" in the Spring 2024 issue of our digital publication: Model Railroading Inspirations. One of our members in Sarnia was inspired to kitbash an 86' autoparts boxcar based on watching shipments on the CN ferry across the St. Clair R.
I am the editor of this publication which is distributed free to about 102 members of the Western Ontario Division, National Model Railroad Association-Canada.
I would need your permission, as well as an email address if you wanted a copy (likely this will be out in May).

Paul Hurly