Oil City

It is hard to believe that Oil City, located within Waterton Lakes National Park, is where the first oil well in Western Canada was drilled. Even though nothing remains today, except for a couple of informational plaques, its existence has had an undeniable role in spurring the modern day oil and gas industry in Alberta. 
Directions to Oil City from Waterton, AB.
Red: First producing oil well in Western Canada
Blue: Approximate location of the townsite of Oil City
          Alberta’s oil and gas industry is possibly the most important industry in all of Canada. In 2013 alone it produced revenues of about $33 billion, which has stimulated economic growth within the province (Alberta, 2016). Today the majority of investment in Alberta has been concentrated in the Athabasca Oil Sands, which is rich in deposits of bitumen and heavy crude oil. The methods of extraction come from in-situ (greater than 75m in depth) and mining methods (less than 75m in depth). Geologically most of the exploration in Alberta for non-oil sands reserves (unconventional shale and conventional oil) occurs in formations such as the Swan Hills, Viking, Duvernay, Montney, and Pekisko formations. As a student focusing in the oil and gas sector, the Waterton Lakes National Park was the last place I would suspect the very first producing oil well to be drilled in Western Canada. In fact, the story of Oil City foreshadows what was to come for Alberta, with hopes of finding an abundance of “black gold”.
          Oil City saw its beginnings in 1875 when John George Brown settled in Waterton Lakes National Park. He spotted the oil seepages by Cameron Creek, which is also known as Oil Creek, and used the oil to grease his wagon. Seeing the economic potential of the oil, he teamed up with William Aldridge who was a Mormon farmer who settled in Cardston (Fryer, 1976, pg. 21). The oil was originally sold to farmers as machinery lubricant. Needing to store their product, Aldridge would soak up the oil in gunnysacks and store it in barrels, which was a common practice among oil prospectors in the 1800’s. Using these primitive means to collect oil, they would produce an average of 10 to 15 barrels a day, and on a good day they could collect up to 40 barrels (Fryer, 1976, pg. 22). In 1889 Allan Patrick staked a claim near Oil Creek, and up until 1893 more than 150 claims were registered, which all failed. William Aldridge was the first person to commercially use the oil, and was probably the largest beneficiary from the deposits (Dormaar, 2007).
          A couple of years later a man named Lafayette French told Dominion Land Surveyor Allan P. Patrick about the oil seepages along Oil Creek. Apparently French broke his leg along the creek and a native woman dressed his wound with the black substance. Intrigued by this prospect, Patrick and French gathered a group of natives to lead them to the source of the seepages. According to Ghost Towns of Alberta by Harold Fryer, the natives were more interested in the food the prospectors had than the oil itself. The natives then led the men on a “wild goose chase” to prolong their food supply. Figuring out their plan, Patrick threatened to end the expedition if they did not hold their end of the bargain. Upon arrival French resigned from the venture while Patrick registered his claim on an altered quartz mine form on August 26th, 1889 (Dormaar, 2007). Shortly before staking the claim, in 1887 John Lineham of Okotoks formed the Rocky Mountain Development Company and established an office in Pincher Creek with John Leeson of Calgary and Allan P. Patrick. In the wake of this discovery there were newspaper reports boasting of the upcoming oil boom that made whole communities excited. As a result, the government office in Fort Macleod was overwhelmed with claims, where many were either incomplete or lost. R.C. Selwyn, director of the Geological Survey of Canada stated that the entire country of Waterton Lakes was “marked off with the oil claims” (Dormaar, 2007). Only a few of the claims were made near Oil Creek, while the majority was in the valley itself. The actual creek is quite difficult to access with the proper equipment without hardy horses and a solid wagon.
          The first drilling attempts were horribly planned and had many supply chain issues. On the shore of Middle Waterton Lake they attempted to drill during the winter, resulting in shipping delays due to snowstorms, The investors in the operation were stretched thin with costs, and as operations began the boiler caught fire and destroyed the rig. Another company attempted to drill with a pole rig imported from Ontario. The winds that Waterton is known for blew down the rig, resulting in broken wallets and dreams (Dormaar, 2007). The Rocky Mountain Development Company was the first company to drill a producing well in all of Western Canada. The company purchased a rig and shipped it from Fort Macleod to Oil Creek over a sketchy and thin trail constructed by the company. The entire journey took 9 days. In November 1901 they commenced operations with a full crew. They had Alex Calvert as Driller, Jerry McDonnel as tool-dresser, and Frank Urnberg as Driller’s helper (Fryer, 1976, pg. 22). The workers struggled, as they would try to drill a hole through the tough limestone stratigraphy using a Canadian Pole Rig. This rig was made entirely of wood and powered by a 35 horsepower boiler to raise and drop the drill bit, using pure force to break the rock (Dormaar, 2007). This was extremely inefficient by today’s terms, however the rotary rig was not accessible at the time due to it being brand new technology in 1901, being first used at the famous Spindletop well in Texas. The drill string consisted of hard wood poles that were connected together, and the total depth a pole rig could drill was only 2,000 feet, or 610 meters. The most important job on the rig was the woodcutter, who had to cut, haul, and burn logs to power the boiler to keep the rig working. The woodcutter, W.M. Terrill was doing a "double duty" by hauling freight as well as working as a woodcutter (Dormaar, 2007). The work progressed slowly, but on September 21st, 1902 they struck oil at 311 meters and settlement began at Oil City (Kavanagh, 2000). The initial output was 300 barrels a day, with much of the oil flowing downstream in Oil Creek, the eventual decline of the well led to a 30 to 40 bbl/day production rate (Fryer, 1976, 22).
          With the success of the first producing well, the media made it seem that they have found a real jackpot. Almost instantly you saw a town sprout up, with log cabins, a poolroom, stores, and even a foundation of a 10-room hotel (Canadian Parks, 2013). Prospectors and oilmen from Alberta flocked to Oil City, which attained a peak population of a few hundred residents. However, the prospect of newfound wealth spawned jealousy and greed. The NWMP in the area had to patrol drilling camps throughout the Waterton Valley to break up brawls and disagreements between competing companies. A famous story of Oil City’s battle for riches surrounds a man named John Drader, who was a driller from Petrolia, Ontario, who worked for the Rocky Mountain Development Company. Drader and Lineham had a falling out over newly discovered oil seepages found on Lineham Creek (Dormaar, 2007). Legend has it that Drader was chasing a wounded bear while hunting, and came across the pool of oil. As he was not the most loyal character to his employer, he staked a claim at the spot and returned to Oil City. To fool his boss, he pretended to be sick and headed or Pincher Creek to see a doctor (Fryer, 1976, pg. 23). Instead, Drader formed the Pincher Creek Oil and Development Company with R.W. Dobie and J.S. Herron and purchased a drilling rig (Dormaar, 2007). Lineham was not oblivious to Drader’s plan and acted promptly to prevent Drader from reaching his claim. They assumed the claim was beyond the Rocky Mountain Development Company’s holdings, and created a barrier with cut trees to prevent Drader from transporting his drilling outfit beyond their holdings. Simultaneously, Lineham sent an employee to Pincher Creek to register a claim he had staked out, which he assumed to be Drader’s claim. Upon arrival at Oil City, Drader met face-to-face with the Rocky Mountain crew, where an argument escalated into a fistfight (Fryer, 1976, pg. 23). According to Ghost Towns of Alberta, the fight spooked the horses and the drilling rig was thrown into a ditch. Drader, being an opportunist, waited until the Rocky Mountain group were sleeping and continued moving his equipment to the claim. By some accounts, Drader apparently held the group at gunpoint as they moved the rig past the barrier (Dormaar, 2007). Upon arrival, the Pincher Creek outfit promptly set up camp and spud the well. Lineham guessed wrong on the claim Drader staked out, being a mile or so away. Drader drilled to a total depth of 800 feet before running out of finances, and was facing a dry hole. In his last ditch efforts, Drader decided to “shoot” one of his wells. This process involves setting off explosives at the base of a well bore where oil would pool to pump it out easier, which is a primitive version of modern day fracking. Unfortunately half way downhole the dynamite exploded and large pieces of casing shot up into the air, creating a blockage within the well. Despite his efforts, John Drader never drilled a producing well within the Waterton valley (Dormaar, 2007).
          Unfortunately for Oil City, in 1908 the boom was over and as a consequence only a few lots sold in the new townsite despite ambitious plans (Dormaar, 2007). The post office that opened in 1905 closed down the same year.  The amount of oil resource within the Waterton mountain range was a sort of geological fluke. Cameron Falls cascades over dolomite rocks, which came from younger Cretaceous formations that were underneath older Palaeozoic sedimentary structures (Lindsay, 1997). Small amounts of oil were forced to the surface from the fault cracks in the older rock. However, most of the oil reserves from the cretaceous rock were below the Lewis Overthrust, this structure was seven times deeper than the pole and cable rigs could drill (Canadian Parks, 2013). In addition, even if the rig could reach that depth, the primitive nature of the equipment could not penetrate the resistant rock of the thrust fault. It is said that if Oil City had modern drilling technology Waterton Lakes National Park would become an oilfield.
          The Rocky Mountain Development Company also saw failure much like the other companies in the area. In 1904 the well casing in their producing well failed and gravel fell into the hole. While attempting to trip out the tools the boiler burst from an increase in the steam pressure, ceasing work for the rest of the season (Dormaar, 2007). In 1906 they saw more problems when the drill bit got stuck in the hole, increasing the rate of decline on the well. In 1915, after being abandoned for a number of years, Alfred Patrick formed the Patrick Oil Company and returned to the site to fish out the bit and pump the oil out (Fryer, 1976, pg. 24). The attempt was a failure, and in 1920 he abandoned the site completely. The Patrick Oil Company returned to Oil City in 1929 and drilled a hole to about 2,500 feet. It turned out the original well was a fly-by-night operation and was overall a fluke in the era of prospectors and primitive drilling technology. Around the Waterton Lakes National Park companies such as Gulf Oil and Shell discovered an abundance of natural gas in the area, but little oil was ever recovered. As of 1968 Oil City was declared a historic site, and the monument you see erected commemorates the beginning of Alberta’s oil and gas industry. Today, the location of the fist oil well in Western Canada is greatly mistaken for the original townsite of Oil City. If you drive up the road further you will see a turnoff on your left with an informational plaque telling you the path to the original Oil City townsite. As you walk through the overgrown forest you will not believe that a prospective oil boom townsite was here. All that remains are the decrepit foundations of the 10-room hotel that never materialized, an open field where a few log cabins may have once stood, and the broken dreams of the first Oilmen in Western Canada.
  1. Plaque marking the location of Oil City
    Plaque marking the location of Oil City
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Cameron Creek (Oil Creek)
    Cameron Creek (Oil Creek)
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. Inside Oil City
    Inside Oil City
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  4. Monument for discovery well
    Monument for discovery well
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Hotel Foundations
    Hotel Foundations
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. Oil City
    Oil City
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  7. Oil City Sign
    Oil City Sign
    Photo by Jason Ferris
Alberta, Government of. "About the industry." Alberta Canada. Government of
          Alberta., 2016. Web. October, 2017.

Canadian Parks. "Waterton Lakes National Park - Main Page." Waterton Lakes
National Park - Main Page. Canoe Inc., 2013. Web. 22 May 2015.
Dormaar, J.F. and Watt, R.A. Talles of Mountain Oil: First Oil Well In Western
Canada National Historic Site. Lethbridge Historical Society. 2007. Print.
Fryer, Harold. "Oil City". Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley, BC. Stagecoach
Publishing Co., 1976. Print. Pg. 21 - 24.
Kavanagh, D'Arcy. "Ghost Towns In Alberta." Westworld Nov. 2000. Print. Print.
Lindsay, Karen. "Waterton Lakes National Park." University of Lethbridge.
University of Lethbridge, 1997. Web. 22 June 2015.
Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)