Looking back to New Year’s, 1914 in Central Alberta

Another New Year is about to begin. Just as we look forward to 2014, it is also interesting to reflect back to the New Year’s Eve 100 years ago in 1914.

The year of 1913 had been a momentous year. Red Deer was officially incorporated as a City. Several impressive new public buildings had been constructed – the Alberta Ladies College on the brow of the East Hill, the St. Luke’s Parish Hall on Gaetz Avenue North and the Armouries on the south east corner of the City Square, next to the City Hall.

However, as the year progressed, the economy began to slump. The great settlement boom was coming to an end. Because many people had gotten carried away with their belief that the good times would never end, a huge speculative bubble in real estate had developed.

As that great bubble began to burst during 1914, the blow to the local economy intensified.

Unemployment shot up. Property and business tax revenues declined. An attempt by the City to sell debentures to cover its high level of public works spending did not go well, even though a high interest rate was offered. The City found itself in the dangerous situation of relying on its bank overdraft to cover some of its operational expenses.

Still, many people thought the downturn would be short-lived. The great boom had lasted long enough that people thought that phenomenal wave of prosperity was the normal state of the economy. They still did not realize how unrealistic the real estate speculation had become.

Hence, there were a number of people who were millionaires on paper, but were finding it increasingly difficult to pay the taxes on all the land they had bought on speculation. They also found it increasingly difficult to maintain the posh lifestyle to which they had become accustomed, with large mansion-sized houses, live-in maids, and the latest in fancy automobiles.

There was to be one more flash of speculative frenzy before the year was half over. On May 14, 1914, the A.W. Dingman well at Turner Valley blew in with a flow of four million cubic ft. of wet gas a day. Word of the Turner Valley oil and gas discovery created renewed hopes of sudden economic salvation.

Although Red Deer was more than 200 km north of the strike, a wave of ‘oil fever’ swept the community. People made the logical supposition that if there was all that oil and gas at Turner Valley, there was probably plenty in Central Alberta as well.

A community that had appeared cash-starved only a fortnight before was now spending money at an astonishing rate. The long-suffering real estate agents became stockbrokers and promoters literally overnight.

On June 18th, 1914, the frenzy of activity peaked with word of the successful Monarch well, 120 km southwest of Red Deer.

More people stampeded to the Land Office. One barber left a customer sitting in his chair. The C.P.R. ran into difficulties when its construction crews took sudden ‘leaves of absence’ to join the lineup for leases.

By mid-July, the boom began to lose steam. People began warning that many companies were more interested in selling shares than actually drilling for oil. In August, the Pioneer Oil Company actually began drilling 10 km south of Red Deer. Another well was started by the Red Deer Investment Company shortly thereafter. Both these wells failed to produce any oil or gas.

On Aug. 4, 1914, the First World War was declared. The pioneer oil and gas boom completely vanished as people turned all of their attention to the war effort. Thus, the year which had started out rather bleakly, then had one more flash of economic speculation, now turned into the start of the worst of human tragedies – global war.