News from Oil City, Alberta, 5 April 1906: “Oil of the highest quality ever discovered is now flowing from the earth in huge gushers in the southwestern part of this province.” Headlines like this, together with rumors and embellished company prospectuses, fueled western Canada’s first oil boom.
The discovery of oil seeps in southern Alberta and northern Montana started a “stampede of speculators” to the area, staking claims from the Rocky Mountains out to the eastern prairies. Expectations of great wealth would eventually lead to the drilling of western Canada’s first commercial oil discovery, 43 years after eastern Canada’s first successful oil well was drilled in 1858 at Oil Springs, Ontario.
“An early homesteader to the Waterton area, George “Kootenai” Brown, is said to have mixed molasses with kerosene and served it to a group of Stoney Indians,” says Dr. Johan Dormaar, co-author of ‘Oil City, Black Gold in Waterton Park’. “He told them that if they ever tasted or smelled anything like it, to be sure to let him know. They eventually did tell him about the Cameron Creek, Waterton area oil seeps around 1886.”
"This is typical of the stories leading up to and including western Canada’s first oil well,” says Johan. “The tales were apocryphal, but with the passage of time, they did take on the mantle of authenticity.”
By 1889, prospectors and geologists confirmed the presence of surface oil, leading to hundreds of claims being staked in the area. Allen Patrick, a land surveyor working out of Calgary, was the first person to file oil claims on Cameron Creek. These were 40 acres each, typical of the quartz mining claims of the day.
Three unsuccessful wells were drilled in 1890 and 1891 and most activity ceased until 1897 when John Lineham, a prominent Calgary businessman, filed a mineral claim on Cameron Creek near Allen Patrick’s claims. Lineham, Patrick, and a third Calgary businessman named George Leeson formed the ‘Rocky Mountain Development Company’ to develop their leases by drilling for oil. They had planned to sell the oil for cattle dip to help combat the mange that was plaguing many of Alberta’s ranches, and to the Canadian Pacific Railway for use as grease.
However, they would not be the first to commercially sell oil from the area. Around 1889 a homesteader by the name of William Aldridge had that honor by bottling the crude and selling it locally.
Hype and circumstance
The Rocky Mountain Development Company started purchasing land near the Cameron Creek seepages and soon had amassed 1,600 acres. By October, 1901, they had acquired a ‘Canadian pole’ rig and began the difficult task of hauling equipment to the drilling site over extremely rugged terrain.
“Drilling was slow and tedious. It took nearly a year for the cable-tool rig to reach a total depth of 427m.” says Johan Dormaar. “The well had oil shows throughout the drilling process and oil began flowing on September 21, 1902, from a depth of 310m. Flows of 300 barrels a day were reported (but never confirmed), enough for Lineham to declare the well ‘Original Discovery No. 1’.”
From this ‘discovery’, rumors and the press soon turned it into something it wasn’t to be.
News reports stated “… there is now no doubt that the oil is there in large quantities” and “…the new well, it is expected, will soon be down to a level where oil will be found in large quantities,” all helping to fuel area wide speculation.
The original discovery well did eventually produce about 300 barrels a day when a pump was installed in 1904. The well became blocked and three more wells drilled in the area failed to produce much oil. This did not deter Lineham from promoting the property by predicting huge profits, a pipeline, and planning Oil City as a major trading center.
A majority of the drilling sites were abandoned by 1908. Oil City was surveyed by Patrick but never built. Alberta’s first oil-boom came in with promises of fortunes and ended in disappointment.
A good ending
Apart from finding the first commercial oil discovery, the Western Oil and Coal Company accomplished a couple of other notable firsts. A 1906 well near Cameron Falls went through the Precambrian Lewis series (which is exposed on the cliff at Cameron Falls) and into upper Cretaceous soft shales. It was the first well to penetrate the Lewis Overthrust, confirming geologists’ theories about the overthrusting in the area.
More importantly, this was the first well where drilling samples were collected and saved. It is the model for systematic sampling of drilling cuttings that is followed today. The 256 samples are still kept by the Geological Survey of Canada at Calgary in what has become one of the most complete libraries of core and drill cuttings anywhere.
The ‘high expectations’ of Western Canada’s first oil boom soon shifted to the northeast. Some of the geologic evidence obtained in the Waterton Lakes area helped lead explorationists to Alberta’s next oil discovery at Turner Valley in 1914 (GEO ExPro v. 5, no. 6, pp. 52-56). Many of the rigs at Waterton were moved north and Alberta’s next oil boom was on.
Special thanks to Dr. Johan F. Dormaar and Robert A. Watt, authors of “Oil City, Black Gold in Waterton Park”. Their extensive research made this article possible.