Little Chicago/Little New York

Known as the "Twin Cities", Little Chicago and Little New York were communities that sprouted up almost overnight during the Turner Valley Oil Boom. Thanks to the oil and gas production and exploration taking place to this day, the townsite of Longview (Little New York) is still thriving, Meanwhile, Little Chicago was divided into farmland, with only a roadside ciarn to commemorate its existence.
White Border: Little Chicago 
Black: Little New York
Orange: Little Chicago Plant (Legacy Oil)
Red: Roadside Ciarn
Directions to Little Chicago from Calgary, AB.
          As you drive through the beautiful prairies on highway 22 heading towards Longview, AB, you might not even know you are passing through a once bustling town called Little Chicago, which had a population on 1,700 people trying to get rich in the early oil boom. You might also not be aware that Longview used to be called Little New York, and the empty prairie you passed through was its “twin city”. A handful of books and websites incorrectly define Little New York as a ghost town. Today it’s evident that the only true ghost town is Little Chicago, while Little New York, which has always been officially known as Longview, has since been developed into a small rural community. Today all that remains of Little Chicago is a monument with an oil derrick, a gas plant, some pump-jacks, and the peace and quiet of the Alberta prairies. Both towns were founded on the Turner Valley oil boom of 1937 where these communities sprung up as camps for workers, which was never meant to be permanent since all of the land was leased from local ranchers. Even though the Turner Valley boom ended in 1947, the exploration for natural gas and oil in the area has not ceased ("Turner Valley Period: 1914-1946", 2015). Legacy Oil, now recently bought out by Crescent Point Energy, has done re-entry projects on the original wells, fracked them, and now have them producing more oil than ever. With a natural gas plant by the monument that commemorates the history of Little Chicago, it is evident that the Turner Valley area’s role in Alberta’s early oil and gas industry is still as relevant as ever.
          This story began in 1934 with a petroleum engineer by the name of R.A. (Bobby) Brown. He believed that the Turner Valley Oilfield was capable of producing more than natural gas and naphtha - he was on the chase for the Black Gold. Brown formed the Turner Valley Royalties Company and began drilling on April 17, 1934 (Fryer, 1976, pg. 14). With a cable tool rig operated by Roy J. Widney Sr., they drilled to about 914m before switching to a rotary drilling rig. On June 16th, 1936, at the depth of 2,081m, Turner Valley Royalties #1 was put into production, where oil was extracted from the Turner Valley Formation, a dolomite formation with some interbedded dense limestone facies, which is part of the Rundle Group from the Mississippian period (Reimer, n.d.). The trap of the oil pool was owed to the porosity of the dolomite, where oil with high gas content fills the pores. Because of the high gas content of the oil, most of the rigs had to bleed off the gas to get to the oil or else a blowout would occur, which could have disastrous effects on the well. After this discovery, in 1937 buildings sprouted out of the ground, and men affected by the Depression from all over came flocking looking for work. Pretty soon you had poor men playing no-limit poker and drinking shots of whisky with the first bit of money they were making (Fryer, 1976, pg. 14).
          Little New York today remains as the village of Longview, which according to Stats Canada in 2011 has a population of 307 living in 131 of its 140 dwellings. For the small locality of Longview, and an abandoned town such as Little Chicago, it is a question of how these “twin cities” got their names. It was not unusual for these resource-based towns to have ironic and unusual names, which mostly do not get approved by the naming authorities. When both towns had their post offices established they were named Longview and Royalties, but the boisterous names that they are known for came from local lore. In Little Chicago there was a storekeeper named Rex Warman, who according to his wife Florence was also known as Little Scarface for his scar on his upper lip. They associated him to Al Capone because of the seemingly high costs in the store that was allegedly to cover transportation costs (Kelland, 2015). Little New York received its name from the hustling and bustling in the town due to the erratic oilfield production taking place, Local legend even suggests that they chose the name because they did not want to be upstaged by Little Chicago (Kelland, 2015). The locals in an endearing, yet almost tongue and cheek way, used both of the names to describe the development of the towns.
          At its peak, Little Chicago had a Hudson’s Bay Store, 3 trucking companies, a machine shop, 3 lumberyards, 2 garages, a furniture store, 3 grocery stores, many boarding houses, restaurants, and a dance hall. This is not including all of the cabins and boarding houses the workers and residents would dwell in. Since the townsite was comprised of land that was leased out by the ranchers, you couldn’t buy property but you could rent lots for extremely low rates. If you wanted to build a structure on a commercial lot it was $4/month ($66.80 in 2015 dollars), and for a house lot it was $2/month ($33.40 in 2015 dollars) (Fryer, 1976, pg. 16). Fuel was also super cheap at a rate of $2/month for each stove, but it came at a disadvantage. Due to a lack of gas pressure regulators, you would hear stories of converted wood burning cook stoves blowing up when the housewife was to make dinner  (Fryer, 1976, pg. 16).
          As would be expected out of any oil town, the lifestyles of the residents were rough, rowdy, and questionable. According to the Ken Hull of the Calgary Herald in 1973, “The Roughneck dances held in Little New York Roxy Theatre each payday produced more explosions than the nearby oil wells”. These regular brawls would be over women, which would usually result in spilled blood (Fryer, 1976, pg. 15). The RCMP from Turner Valley would have to patrol the town during these events to protect the public, but according to legend the police would never confiscate the liquor being drank outside of the hall (Fryer, 1976, pg. 16). In Longview there is the Twin Cities Hotel, which is an original building that was built in 1939 by Red Dutton, Tiny and Paul Thompson, who played in the NHL. Today the hotel still stands with a hotel, café, and a saloon for locals and visitors to take in the rich history of the twin cities.
          After the boom ended in 1947 and the remaining businesses closing in 1969, Little Chicago has vanished without a trace and the ranchers and farmers took the land back. The land is now farmed-out to oil companies to take advantage of the oil and natural gas remaining in underneath them. Oddly enough, Longview had a smaller population than Little Chicago at one point, with peak populations of 1,500 and 1,700 respectively. It wasn’t until Little Philadelphia, another satellite town, sprout up when Little Chicago shrank. Because of this, Little New York became the most populated locality, and after the boom it was officially incorporated as a village on January 1st, 1964, making it the only town of the 3 to not be on ranch land today. One last question remains, why did these towns disappear and see a decline in economic activity despite the wealth of oil within the Turner Valley Formation? The decline actually came from the inefficient deep drilling methods, lack of transportation that made the oil hard to market, and loss of pressure in the reservoir from natural gas flaring. This made production uneconomic unless you had modern pipelines, drilling equipment, and geological knowledge of the Turner Valley Structure. Even to this day geologists are trying to interpret the formation, with recent analysis suggesting that it is an antiformal stack at the leading edge of the thrust belt, but nothing has been conclusive as far as the structure’s interpretation (MacKay, 2014). Even with Longview’s modern urban development and bustling population, Little Chicago will never see a revival as a boomtown as it once was during the early oil-rush.
  1. Twin Cities Hotel
    Twin Cities Hotel
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Hotel Phone
    Hotel Phone
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. Inside the Hotel
    Inside the Hotel
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  4. Hotel Room
    Hotel Room
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Hotel Stairs
    Hotel Stairs
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. Hotel Heater
    Hotel Heater
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  7. Little New York Oil Derrick
    Little New York Oil Derrick
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  8. Little Chicago
    Little Chicago
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  9. Original Well Head - Little New York
    Original Well Head - Little New York
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  10. Little Chicago - Old Coop
    Little Chicago - Old Coop
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  11. Little Chicago Roadside Cairn
    Little Chicago Roadside Cairn
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  12. Little Chicago Coop
    Little Chicago Coop
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  13. Little Chicago Townsite
    Little Chicago Townsite
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  14. Little Chicago Townsite
    Little Chicago Townsite
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  15. Little Chicago Pumpjack
    Little Chicago Pumpjack
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  16. Little Chicago Cairn
    Little Chicago Cairn
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  17. Little Chicago Legacy Gasplant
    Little Chicago Legacy Gasplant
    Photo by Jason Ferris
"Turner Valley Period: 1914-1946." Alberta Energy Heritage. Government of
Alberta, 2015. Web. 30 June 2015. .
Fryer, Harold. "Little Chicago & Little New York". Ghost Towns of Alberta.
Langley, BC. Stagecoach Publishing Co., 1976. Print. Pg. 14 - 17.
Kelland, Ron. "Turner Valley Oil and Gas Place Names – Part 2." Alberta Historic
Places. RETROactive, 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 4 June 2015. .
MacKay, Paul. "The Turner Valley Structure – 100 Years of Lessons An Old Field
Teaching New Tricks." Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists. 2014. Web. 30 June 2015. .
Reimer, Dorothy. "Chapter Six: Mississippian Reservoirs." Canadian Society of
Exploration Geophysicists. Web. 10 July 2015. .
Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)