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Early Booms in the Alberta Foothills

With a commanding view of the magnificent Canadian Rocky Mountains, a close up look at the southern foothills of Alberta reveals a history rich in oil production, mining, ranching, and aboriginal traditions.
This article appeared in Vol. 5, No. 6 - 2008

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With the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the background and beneath the ranch lands of southwestern Alberta, Canada’s oil and gas industry got its true start. Photo: Tom Smith


Photo: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump The Turner Valley field continues to produce 400 m³ of oil per day (2,600 bopd). The last new well in the field was drilled in 2007. Photo: Tom Smith The Dingman #1 and #2 were drilled near a gas seep discovered by Alberta rancher, William Herron. The Dingman No. 1 struck ‘wet’ gas in May, 1914 after drilling to 828 m. Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta Less than an hour's drive south from Canada's oil capital, Calgary, is the birthplace of its oil and gas industry, Turner Valley. Located along Highway 22 (the famous "Cowboy Trail") and paralleling the majestic eastern slope of the Rockies, this picturesque setting gives little indication of the booming oil activity of its past.  

Long before the wooden oil derricks, cattle drives, and coal mines, native North Americans roamed this area where bison provided food and materials for sustenance. The first Europeans to contact the natives were French fir traders from the Hudson Bay Company. With them came conflict, disease, and by 1879, the bison herds the natives depended upon were gone from the Alberta plains.

Cattle ranchers and farmers began to move in along with the trans-Canada railroad in 1881; the route would use Kicking-Horse Pass directly west of Calgary to reach the west coast. In the late 1800's, coal deposits were discovered near the future town of Black Diamond and by 1899, mines were shipping out 650 tons of high grade coal by wagon. Calgary became a supply station bringing immigration of miners, farmers, and ranchers to the area and by 1907, the towns of Turner Valley, Black Diamond, and Longview began to take shape.

The landmark discovery

Just west of the Turner Valley area, Highway 40 offers fantastic views of the majestic mountains and complex structure similar to that of the Turner Valley field. Outdoor recreational opportunities for every season of the year abound in this area only an hour’s drive from Calgary. Photo: Tom Smith A local rancher who had worked in the Pennsylvania oil fields, William Herron, noticed gas bubbling along the banks of Sheep Creek in the Turner Valley. Herron had some samples analyzed and found they contained hydrocarbons. He acquired more land in the area and later teamed up with Archibald Dingman from the Calgary Petroleum Products Company. They struck wet gas on May 14, 1914 while drilling the Dingman No. 1 well. This would be the first of three oil booms for the area. This one lasted only until August, 1914, when World War 1 started.  

The second oil boom was initiated in 1924 when the Royalite #4 well blew in producing 21 million cubic feet of wet gas and over 660 bbls of white naptha per day. The Royalite #4 could not be controlled for weeks. There were no pipelines for the gas making the oil the valuable commodity, while the gas was allowed to blow free with flares. Even after the pipelines were built to Calgary, most of the gas was burned off in a giant coulee called "Hell's Half Acre". During the Great Depression, people looking for work from all over Canada and the U.S. would camp on the banks at night to warm themselves by the flare. It could be seen from as far away as Calgary.  

Oil from these early wells was so clear with very low sulphur content that it could be used in automobiles straight from the wells. Turner Valley became the largest oilfield in Canada and the major supplier of oil and gas in the British Empire for 30 years.  

Robert Brown, an electrical engineer from Quebec, believed crude oil lay deep below the gas wells at Turner Valley. Brown formed the Turner Valley Royalties Company and, in 1936, the Turner Valley Royalties No. 1 struck oil and started a new era at the field and a third oil boom for the area. By 1939, the field had 70 oil wells producing over 10 million barrels of oil to assist in the World War II war effort.

Turner Valley today

The shanty boom towns and wooden derricks in the valley are gone. In their place are the clean, self-sufficient towns of Turner Valley, its sister city Black Diamond, and Longview to the south. Oil continues to be produced from the field with Talisman Energy the major player in the area.  

Against the beautiful back drop of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, tourism and ranching are now very important to these towns along the "Cowboy Trail". With their close proximity to the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve to the west along Highway 40, the area holds a fascination for almost every outdoor enthusiast. Excursions will take you through the awesome towering mountains (also known as Kananaskis Country) where hiking, fishing, backcountry skiing, and biking are almost limitless.

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