The first great Alberta oil boom

May 14, 1914 marked one of the most important events in Alberta’s history.

That was the day that Dingman Well No. 1, near Turner Valley, Alberta, blew in, setting off Alberta’s first great oil and gas boom.

The fact that there was a lot of oil and gas in Alberta had actually been known for a long time before the big Turner Valley strike.

In 1883, the CPR accidentally hit a large pool of natural gas while drilling for water near Alderson, Alberta.

Five years later, another major natural gas find was made at Medicine Hat, again when a water well was being drilled.

When Rudyard Kipling, the famous British writer, learned of the latter discovery, he quipped that the Medicine Hat had “All hell for a basement.”

In the mid-1880s, Kootenai Brown and Bill Aldridge, two early pioneers, found pools of surface oil at Cameron Creek, near the Waterton Lakes.

They used gunnysacks to soak up some of the oil, which they then put into barrels and marketed for a dollar per gallon (4.5 litres).

The first suggestion of oil activity in Central Alberta occurred in 1885.

A group of Minneapolis financiers backed the formation of the Winnipeg and Northwest Petroleum Company (often referred to as Noxo). There were reports that Noxo was sending drilling equipment to a purported oil seepage site along the Red Deer River.

However, the Riel Rebellion in the spring of 1885, the remoteness of the area and conflicting reports on the nature of the oil seepage gave the American investors cold feet.

Consequently, no serious effort at exploration occurred.

In 1909, the Red Deer Board of Trade debated trying to drill for natural gas.

They hired Eugene Coste of Calgary to provide expert advice on the proposal. He told the Board that it would probably cost $100,000 to drill a well deep enough, and that while they might find gas, they also might not.

The idea was quickly dropped.

Nevertheless, when the Dingman Well No. 1 blew in at Turner Valley in May 1914, a wave of excitement swept across Central Alberta even though the big find was more than 200 kms to the south.

People rushed to the Red Deer Land Titles Office to file for leases in the hopes that they would not miss out on the great bonanza that would follow once a major find was made in the Red Deer area.

While annual leases of oil and gas rights were sold by the Federal Government for only 25¢ per acre, plus a $15 filing fee, more than $45,000 worth of leases were quickly snapped up.

On May 26, 1914 alone, $14,000 in fees was paid at the Land Office, at a time when $1 to $2 per day was considered a pretty good wage.

At the same time, there was also a frenzy to buy shares in the various oil and gas companies that were quickly being formed.

Most of these companies were from Calgary and southern Alberta.

However, by the end of May, there were also local companies, such as Red Deer Oil and Gas, Central Alberta Oils and the Innisfail Pioneer Oil Company.

The great speculative boom hit a peak on June 18, 1914 with the news that the Monarch Well, 120 kms southwest of Red Deer, had hit oil.

Huge line-ups formed at the Land Office to get the priority number now required for the right to file for a lease.

By the end of the day, 625 people had registered for a number.

Another 430 registered the next day. At the time, the City of Red Deer had a population of around 3,000, with perhaps an equivalent number living in the surrounding rural districts.

By mid-July, the boom was rapidly losing steam.

Most of the companies were more interested in selling shares than actually drilling for oil and gas.

Several were outright frauds. In August, both the Pioneer Oil Company and the Red Deer Investment Company drilled wells on the south side of Red Deer. Both holes ended up dry.

Meanwhile, the First World War broke out, bring the last of the oil and gas boom to an abrupt halt.

Exploration resumed in the Turner Valley area after the end of the War and in some other parts of the province over the next 20 years.

However, the next great oil and gas boom did not commence until the major discoveries were made near Leduc in 1947.