By Brian Roulston

Near the foot of present-day Wentworth Street, there was a waterway known as Coal Oil Inlet. Despite its picturesque location in the early 1800s, the name was fitting for an oil refinery, which was operated by the Canadian Oil Company of Hamilton, owned by James Miller Williams. He began small but eventually acquired what was then considered to be large tracts of land, up to 12 acres in the area that would eventually become the home of International Harvester and the location of the Shell Hamilton Terminal today.

Williams owned land in Oil Springs, Enniskillen Township, Lambton County. The oil extracted from the ground was transported by horse and wagon to Hamilton. At its peak, the refinery produced 200 barrels of oil per day, which was a significant amount for that time. The Canadian Oil Company of Hamilton was the first to export petroleum from Canada, with a $200 sale to a man in New York City for the purpose of lighting the city.

James Miller Williams was born on September 14, 1818, in Camden, New Jersey. At the age of 22, in 1840, he left New Jersey with his seven-year-old sister and forty-three-year-old servant Jane N. Vandroll. It is not known if his parents accompanied them. In 1842, he married Melinda Clarissa Jackson and they had four children, one of whom, Charles Joseph Williams, would later become involved in James’ business ventures. James settled in London, Ontario and established himself as a businessman and carriage builder. He co-founded a horse carriage manufacturing company with Marcus Holmes but later bought out his partner and ran the company on his own. In 1846, he relocated to Hamilton. Williams co-founded the Hamilton Coach Works with Henry G. Cooper. They employed 40 workers to produce carriages and eventually expanded into manufacturing railway cars for the Great Western Railway. By 1851, their workforce had grown to 70 men and they were producing 10 cars per week, many of which were used for public transportation in addition to the Great Western Railway.

In the 1850s, Williams became interested in petroleum. This was partly due to land he acquired in Enniskillen as a result of a client’s bankruptcy and debt owed to him for carriages. He was also influenced by two brothers from Woodstock, Henry and Charles Nelson Tripp, who saw potential in producing asphalt from the “gum beds” of Enniskillen. By 1859, Williams owned 800 acres of land.

In 1862, companies from around the world gathered in London, England for the largest exhibition of illuminating oil to date. James and his company, Canadian Oil Company of Hamilton, received the highest honour and a medal for producing the best lubricating and lighting oil. The company’s specialties were “William’s Safe Oil” and “Cylinder.” At a later event in London, England, Williams was awarded a medal for being “The father of the Oil industry” and for his contributions to the oil industry in North America.

James M Williams served as an alderman for the City of Hamilton before being elected as a Liberal MP in the Ontario legislature in 1867 and 1871, and again from 1875 to 1879. He represented the Wellington East constituency in Hamilton and was succeeded by Sir John Gibson. After his time at Queen’s Park, Williams served as a county registrar for Wentworth County for two years.

James Williams became a manufacturer of wholesale tinware and sold his business to his son in 1876.

In 1880, Charles Joseph Williams assumed control of both of his father’s oil businesses, “J.M Williams and Company” and “Canadian Oil Company of Hamilton”. Two years after Charles took over Canadian Oil, it merged with the Canadian Carbon Oil Company, which was made up of several leading oil refiners in Ontario at the time.

In 1890, Williams passed away peacefully at his Mapleside mansion in Hamilton, leaving behind a considerable fortune.