Reflections on the local pioneer oil boom

It really goes almost without saying that the oil and gas industry is the economic backbone not only of Central Alberta, but also of the province of Alberta as a whole.

It is also one of the chief economic engines for Canada’s national economy.

Most people date the start of the Alberta oil and gas industry to the famous Leduc discovery in 1947.

However, the industry is much older than that. The first big strikes occurred in the Turner Valley area prior to the First World War.

For a great many years, Turner Valley held the distinction of being the largest oil and gas fields in the British Empire.

On May 14, 1914, Dingman Well No. 1 blew in, with a flow of four million cubic feet of wet gas per day. Alberta’s first oil and gas boom quickly ensued.

Although Red Deer was over 200 km away from the find, people made a logical supposition that if there was all that gas and oil in Turner Valley, there was probably plenty in Central Alberta as well.

People consequently flooded into the local land titles office in order to make sure that they did not miss out on the expected bonanza.

Annual leases of oil and gas rights could be purchased from the federal government for 25¢ per acre, plus a $15 filing fee. In 10 days, $45,000 worth of leases were snapped up. On May 26, 1914 alone, $14,000 in fees were paid at the Red Deer Land Office.

Long-suffering local real estate agents became stockbrokers and oil company promoters overnight.

New offices opened up along Ross St. and Gaetz Ave.

City council, seeing a golden opportunity, set a new license fee of $25 for local brokers and $50 for non-residents. There were predictable screams of outrage but money soon flowed into the City’s coffers.

Most of the first shares being peddled were from Calgary and southern Alberta companies. By the end of May, however, local oil companies were being formed. The first was Red Deer Oil and Gas Company followed shortly thereafter by Central Alberta Oils and Innisfail Pioneer Oil Company.

Prices for leases and company shares spiraled upwards as the wave of speculation continued. Shares in the Stokes Stephens Oil Company tripled in one day. Vic Day sold a lease west of Innisfail for $10 an acre.

There were a few pessimists and Cassandras who started warning of fraud and of companies more interested in selling their stock than actually drilling for oil.

The Red Deer Oil and Gas Company announced that it had “taken every precaution to protect the investor.”

On June 18th, the frenzy peaked with the news that the Monarch well, 120 km southwest of Red Deer, had hit oil. People stampeded to the Land Office to get the priority number now needed to file for a lease.

In one instance, a barber left a customer sitting in his chair. The C.P.R. ran into unexpected difficulties when construction crews took sudden leaves of absence to join the growing lineup.

The editor of the Red Deer Advocate, Francis Galbraith, bet Alderman Bill Botterill a box of cigars that the lineup would not exceed 500. He lost. By the end of the day, 625 people had applied for a number. The next day, another 430 registered.

A new market in numbers quickly developed.

Those fortunate enough to be at the head of the line were offered up to $500 for their number. Within a couple of days, $10,000 exchanged hands as people bought and sold the coveted pieces of paper.

By mid-July, the boom was starting to lose steam. Stock in some companies dropped to only pennies a share. By the end of the month, the Red Deer Oil and Gas Company announced that it was suspending operations for two or three months to await “financial and oil developments.”

In August, the Pioneer Oil Company actually began drilling south of Red Deer. The Red Deer Investment Company also brought in a crew of drillers. Both wells ended up dry.

Meanwhile, war broke out in Europe in August 1914.

The attention of the community turned to the war effort. The first pioneer oil boom abruptly ended. Exploration in Turner Valley recommenced in the 1920s. However, the next great boom followed the exciting discoveries at Leduc in 1947.

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