John D. Noble: Pioneer Oil Man
Oil man overcame many adversities

On Mar. 2, 1922, the citizens of Petrolia mourned the loss of one of their most prominent citizens.  At age 86, after a period of declining health, John D'Oyly Noble died at his stately old home at the corner of Petrolia Line and Tank Streets. (Located just west of the Fairbank mansion on the present sit of Oil Tank Apartments.


John D. Noble, one of Petrolia's pioneer oil men
Arrived in Petrolia in 1866

Noble had arrived in Petrolia in 1866, making him one of the town's early residents. He was a long-time member of Petrolia's municipal council, had served as mayor from 1906 to 1908, and at the time of his death, was one of the few remaining pioneers of Canada's oil industry.

Noble's main business interest had been crude oil production, but during his long career he had also served as managing director of Petrolia Oil Co. Ltd.; vice-president of Petrolia Crude Oil and Tanking Co. Ltd.; and vice-president of the Crown Warehousing Co.

A staunch Conservative, Noble was known as an active and influential campaigner in both provincial and federal politics. For many years he had also served as Lay representative of the Petrolia Congregation of the Synod.

John D. Noble was born Nov. 17, 1835 in Athboy, County Meath, Ireland.  While not wealthy, his family, in a parochial sense at least, could certainly be considered well-to-do. Both his father and maternal grandfather were prominent Church of England clergymen: his grandfather being Bishop Newcomb, Primate for All Ireland.

At age 17 Noble was apprenticed to a linen manufacturer in Northern Ireland for three years.  Upon completion of his apprenticeship he was sent to America to take a position with John Gihon and Co., his former employor's wholesale agents in New York City.

He remained in their employ until Oct. 1854 when a financial panic ensued causing the firm to fail, leaving Noble unemployed.

However, upon hearing that money could be made in the mining of lead, the adventursome and opportunistic Noble struck off for Missouri to seek his fortune in the extraction of metals.

With two partners, he rented some land from the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the property turned out to be exceedingly promising. However, Noble and his partners lacked the necessary capital to sep up a mining operation. Consequently, he returned to Ireland and received $30,000 from his father as his portion of the family's estate. 

On his return to New York City, Noble quickly purchased the required mining equipment and accompanied it by sea to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then via the Missouri River to Jefferson City.  There he loaded the equipment onto ox-drawn wagons and hauled it over land 220 miles to his claim in Newton County, Missouri.

He and his partners soon erected a smelting furnace, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, general store and several houses. Before long a tiny colony of about 300 miner's shacks emerged and work began on the abundant claim.

In a short time Noble was able to buy out his partners and send for his brother, Edwin, in Ireland to join him in the thriving business. Together, the brothers worked the mine successfully and were well on their way to fortune. However, the advent of the American Civil War would soon interupt their prosperity.  

Early in the conflict, a contingent of 10,000 Texas Rangers invaded Missouri, and in the process,  destroyed the Noble brother's mining operation, setting their growing colony of miner's shacks ablaze.

The Texans accused the Noble brothers of being Yankee sympathizers, arrested John D., and for a time, confined him to a prisoner-of-war camp.  He eventually came through the harrowing ordeal, but when released waisted no time in leaving the United States for Canada, where he joined an uncle who had settled in Kingston, Ontario.

On the way North he exchanged his remaining American money for 50 cents on the dollar, netting him the equivalent of $24.50, all that remained of the $30,000 he had brought out from Ireland. Following the war Noble sued the American government but was never compensated for his wartime losses.

Nevertheless, shortly after arriving in Kingston, Noble was in business again, this tiime as a Great Lakes vessel owner engaged in the shipping of lumber.
According to Victor Lauiston's book, "Lambton's One Hundred Years," it was from this venture that Noble stumbled on to the oil business.

Lauriston writes that in 1862, shortly after Hugh Nixon Shaw's gusher at Oil Springs, which spewed thousands of barrels of crude oil into Black Creek, Noble, by all reports a clean and meticulous man, was astonished and angered to see his schooner return to Kingston from a lumber buying mission on the Sydenham River (probably at Dresden) black and greasy from stem to stern.

"It's oil," explained the skipper to his indignant employer.
"It's oil, oil, oil, there's a thick scum of it on the St. Clair River which is draining down from the creeks in Lambton .  . . you can congratulate yourself Mr. Noble that somebody didn't set fire to the river and burn us all up." 

In Lauriston's words, "Noble soon quit the lumber business and moved to the new Eldorado."  His first well in Petrolia was drilled in 1866 andn yielded 266 barrels a day.  And while he soon amassed a formidable fortune, he was once again destined to endure a dramatic setback when, in 1867, his entire oil field, along with others, went up in a fire along with 50,000  barrels of stored oil.   This event has became known as the "Great Petrolia Fire" and is another story in itself, but the resilient Noble endured and eventuall may have even benefited from the tragedy.

Nevertheless, during his long association with the oil industry, Noble was said to have drilled and equipped more than 500 wells. By 1900 he had acquired such expertise in the industry, he was invited to present a paper on the Canadian Oil Industry at the first Petroleum Congress held in Paris, France.

On his death Noble was eulogized in the Advertiser-Topic as a man who lived a more full and eventfull life than most men could ever aspire to live.
"Few men have lived a more interesting and spectacular life than John D. Noble, nor have few men had so many successes and reverses," the Topic stated.

At the time of his death Noble and his wife, the former Helen Kirkpatrick of Kingston, Ont., had four sons: James who resided in Vancouver, B.C.; Stafford D. of Elmira, New York; Robert K. of Baltimore, Maryland; and Ernest of Sarnia, who was a veteran of the Great War.
John D. Noble is interred in Hilsdale Cemetery near Petrolia.

The back lawn of the John D. Noble home looking south at the corner of Petrolia and Tank Streets. Note this photo was taken sometime prior to 1898 before the construction of the Masonic Hall on the south west corner of Petrolia and Oil Street. The Little Red Bank can be seen on the south east corner.

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Peter Power-Hynes | Reply 23.12.2016 06.43

I have a letter to John D Noble from Ireland in late 1856 and addressed to him at John Gihon and Co which was supposed to have gone out of business in 1854

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Latest comments

17.08 | 00:02

My name is Patricia Mcilwain , Kate Newton was a second cousin,. My mothers first cousin, Florence( Chambers) Young. Interesting story.

22.01 | 13:44

William Hay, my uncle, served on Petrolia as cook. My picture dressed in a navel uniform with an H.M.C.S. hat band, I was told was the " JACK" (Mascot)

19.08 | 12:32

I was Raised to the sublime Degree of a Master Mason on September 6, 1975 in a Masonic ??? Lodge #503 Ontario Canada.
My lodge Ira A. Beck #503 Battle Creek MI

05.06 | 03:34


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