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 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.