The Oil Well That Changed Alberta
By: David Finch
Winston Churchill was so impressed with Turner Valley in 1929 that he purchased shares in three oil companies. They did not survive the downturn of the 1930s, but the future prime minister of England knew a good thing when he saw one.
Petroleum changed Alberta. The poor prairie cousin is now the economic powerhouse of the country – all because of oil!
During World War II the Turner Valley oilfield was producing more than 95% of all the oil in Canada. The nation was still importing a lot too, but at its peak the field southwest of Calgary produced more than 10 million barrels of oil per day.
Bill Herron started it all more than a century ago. In the early 1900s he noticed natural gas bubbling up near Sheep Creek. He captured some of it is a glass bottle and sent it away for testing. The scientists confirmed his suspicion – it was a gaseous hydrocarbon, oil!
Herron then gathered investors together from nearby Calgary: Senator Lougheed, A.E. Cross, R.B. Bennett and many others. These upstanding members of the Calgary establishment gambled on the first well in Turner Valley and helped finance the well drilled by Calgary Petroleum Products Co.
Drilling began in January 1913. Hardly a week went by without some kind of headline in the Calgary newspapers about the progress at the CPP well in Turner Valley. And then on May 14, 1914, the well blew in. Oil from that discovery well started the first of many stock market flurries in Alberta petroleum history.
That first boom was short-lived – cut off by World War I. But by late 1921 natural gas was flowing through a pipeline to consumers in Calgary, and liquid gasoline was moving by tanker truck to filling stations around southern Alberta.
More booms followed, in 1924 and again in 1936. Each discovery revealed another part of the Turner Valley oilfield. They extended the field north from the Turner Valley townsite to Millarville and south to Longview.
During its heyday – 1936 to 1945 – Turner Valley was an exciting place to live and work. No need for streetlights – the light from the flares that burned off excess natural gas illuminated the whole oilfield.
For a time twice-daily airplane flights shuttled wealthy oilmen and investors back and forth between the airport in Calgary and a small landing strip in front of Main Street in Turner Valley.
Cars were sometime larger than houses. Oilmen’s shacks were small enough to pull up onto the back of a flatbed truck for easy transport to the next drilling rig. Drillers spent lavishly on automobiles that looked like roadsters out of a gangster movie.
Crime was not unknown. RCMP officer Bus Rivett claimed that only the coal miners in Drumheller were tougher fighters than the boys in the oilfield. Most fisticuffs ended when cops arrived, and poker games in the gambling establishments quickly disappeared when the cops paid a visit.
The Black Diamond Bar had quite the reputation at the time: even the women fought in that drinking establishment. Local physicians Harry and David Lander – they were cousins, had medical offices above the bar. One roughneck, injured on the job, imbibed his anesthetic in the bar in liquid form and then went upstairs to have his wounds stitched up by the doctor.
A drive along Cowboy Trail through the Turner Valley oilfield still reveals hints of the oil booms of the past.
The Longview Bar and Twin Cities Hotel dates back to the boom in the south end of the oilfield in the late 1930s. Longview – sometimes called Little New York, and its twin Little Chicago to the north on top of the hill – boasted many amenities.
Just north of Longview a cairn on the west side of the road commemorates Little Chicago – whose legal name was Royalties, after the discovery well at that site.
The old store at the south end of Black Diamond – the Blakeman’s or Black Diamond store – predates the discovery of oil. At that time the “black diamond” was coal, mined underground in the area.
The Gas Plant in Turner Valley is the most visible petroleum facility in this historic oilfield. It was on this site that the discovery well hit oil in 1914. And workers processed natural gas at this nationally and provincially designated historic site from 1914 until the plant closed in 1985.
Turner Valley was western Canada’s first commercial oilfield. Innovative oilmen and courageous investors took risks. As a result, Calgary became the centre of the oil patch in Canada and Canadians continue to find new ways to develop natural resources. Risks and rewards, failures and breakthroughs – they’re all part of the game.
One hundred years ago a rancher, investors and drillers gambled on a well. Luck, an oil hungry economy and a century of progress followed that discovery.
Alberta’s Other Oil Museums
-The Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre is at the site of the 1947 discovery of oil SW of Edmonton at Devon.
See leducnumber1.com for more details
-The Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray tells the story of bitumen. Innovators brought the oil sands
into commercial production in 1967. See history.alberta.ca/oilsands for more details