Petrolia’s Boiler Maker Extrordinaire
Lambton County’s oil boom and the advent of the area’s refining industry
in the 1860s attracted more than just oil drillers, refiners and speculators to the area. A great number of skilled tradesman were in demand to build and service the equipment, tools and facilities required to produce crude oil and its many refined by-products.
As a consequence, many successful businesses grew in the shadow of the area’s crude oil production and many skilled and adaptable people were attracted to the area. Many were certainly colourful characters with incredible stories to tell.
them was Edward Winnett who established Winnett’s Boiler Shop which was located on the south side of, what is now, Discovery Line between Tank and Centre Street. Boiler makers were in great demand at the time to build the boilers, tanks, stills and vessels
needed in the process of pumping and refining crude oil.
Edward Winnett was born in Killaloe (County Clare), Ireland Jan. 8, 1849.When 8-years-of-age, his family, like many others at the time fled the abject poverty of mid-nineteenth Century Ireland
and came to Canada in search of a better life.
His father, a skilled boiler maker, established a boiler shop in London, Ontario where young Edward grew to manhood learning the trade at his father’s side. In 1873 he married Annie Jane Winnett,
a second or third cousin, and by 1896 the couple had 11 children. In 1883, opportunities beckoned in Oil Springs and two years later they built the Dominion Boiler Works at the corner of Kelly Road and Victoria Street (which in more recent year’s became
George Watson’s Machine Shop).
Edward ran the business successfully for a number of years, but about 1890 he decided to expand his operations to Petrolia and left his 16-year-old son, Fred, to manage the Oil Springs shop. In spite of his young
age Fred ran the business with great success for many years to follow.
Over the ensuing decade Edward Winnett became well established in his Petrolia boiler making business and had earned a reputation as a highly skilled tradesman. In 1897 Edward and
several other Petrolia men were commissioned by the Asiatic Petroleum Company, the forerunner to Royal Dutch Shell, to oversee the construction and operation of a huge refinery it was building in Sumatra (present day Indonesia). Edward was to supervise the
boiler making and pipeline construction.
Edward Winnett spent 18 months in Sumatra and reputedly made a considerable amount of money for his efforts. However, being a devoted family man, he found the foreign fields were not for him. Missing his
wife and children greatly, he completed the project, returned to Petrolia and never entertained a return to the foreign fields. Nevertheless it was the adventure of a lifetime and Edward kept a detailed diary of his experiences, which has been retained at
the Oil Museum of Canada.
But Edward wasn’t the only adventurer in his family. His brother, Henry Winnett, who was 9 when the family came to Canada, began his career at age 15 as a messenger boy at the Tecumseh Hotel in London, Ontario and died
a millionaire in 1901. At the peak of his career he was considered Upper Canada’s hotelier, as the owner of a chain of grand hotels including the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto (which later became the Royal York) one Canada’s most luxurious
and prestigious hotels.
The story of his son, Walter John Winnett, reads like a Western novel. He was born at the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto, but as a boy ran away from home seeking adventure in the American “Indian Country.”
He was a renowned shot with a gun, a skill that easily landed him a job providing fresh meat to outfits in Montana. However, he was reputedly captured by Sioux Indians and was later adopted into the tribe. They gave him the name Eagle Eye because of his remarkable
In 1879, he established a ranch near an active trading post and a Hangman’s Tree utilized by vigilantes of that era. There he established a freight line to haul supplies to Billings, Montana by horse and wagon. The business
obviously prospered because he later built a huge ranch house on the site that soon became a gathering place for the community. Consequently, he decided to build a store and saloon on the site and then petitioned for a post office. As a result, the town
of Winnett, Montana was born.
Edward Winnett died in Port Huron Michigan on Jan. 6, 1917. He and his wife, Annie, are both buried at Hillsdale Cemetery.