Liquid Treasure Hunting in the West

Most Albertans affirm, and not a few technical experts agree with them, that Alberta is one of the greatest potential oil fields in the world. This belief—and the existence of several producing wells—explains why the province is subject to oil fever at the slightest provocation. In this article Mr. Cowan explains the causes and the symptoms of the latest attack.

July 15 1926

Liquid Treasure Hunting in the West

Most Albertans affirm, and not a few technical experts agree with them, that Alberta is one of the greatest potential oil fields in the world. This belief—and the existence of several producing wells—explains why the province is subject to oil fever at the slightest provocation. In this article Mr. Cowan explains the causes and the symptoms of the latest attack.

July 15 1926

Liquid Treasure Hunting in the West

Most Albertans affirm, and not a few technical experts agree with them, that Alberta is one of the greatest potential oil fields in the world. This belief—and the existence of several producing wells—explains why the province is subject to oil fever at the slightest provocation. In this article Mr. Cowan explains the causes and the symptoms of the latest attack.


IT IS said that there are a few people in Calgary who are not interested in oil.

These must be persons interested in gas-wells.

In any case, a painstaking search of that city failed to reveal any of them. What was revealed, however, was an unusual display of complete unanimity, coupled with an unequalled exhibition of plain and fancy faith and hope, all of it centring around some holes in the ground.

Early last spring the citizens of Calgary commenced to purchase oil stocks en masse. This, quite naturally, was somewhat of a spectacular proceeding, particularly so since all the residents of the municipality over the age of nine with any spare time on their hands seemed to be doing a little brokerage business on the side.

Barbers sold shares along with shampoos. Vacant stores broke out with blackboards coated with quotations. A restaurant long known for its aged sign—Special To-day: Lamb Stew—added to its announcement the legend—100 Shares This-andThat Oils. Second-hand dealers moved a pair of sombreros and a saddle or so out of each window, inserting instead six papier mache derricks and a formal declaration of their willingness to sell stocks to all and sundry. Calgary began to look like a grand commercial mardi gras.

Being highly interesting, these facts were duly broadcast through the daily press, temporarily calling the attention of Canadians to Alberta oil.

But this state of affairs could not long continue without cash. All Calgary was busily buying but the capital involved was almost entirely local.

It needed no learned professor to predict that the ready money would eventually be exhausted and the end might be both sudden and soon.

Despite the raising of bevies of chattel mortgages, of loans upon furniture, the family flivver and next month’s salary, a slump duly arrived. Stock prices came down with a series of agonizing thuds.

When they fell, however, they did not bring with them the optimism of the populace. Three weeks after the soaring ceased, it was practically impossible to stop a casual pedestrian on the streets without being gratuitously informed that Alberta’s oil resources were among the greatest in the world and that you were conversing with a lucky gentleman who was in on the ground floor on several of the choicer things connected therewith.

The all-round optimism, it may be emphasized, was and is unique. The outward and visible signs of a boom decreased, but the firm belief in a great oil era to come did not. The doubting Thomases, indeed, are still conspicuously among those not present.

Of course, it may be argued that, since most of Calgary’s men, women and children bought all the oil stocks they could afford and many bought more than that, they must either retain their enthusiasm about what*the coming years will bring or admit that they were squandering the family bank rolls. But the writer, in an hour and three-quarters, found six Calgary business men who were willing to admit that the oil boom amounted to near-hysteria, that numbers of citizens were likely to lose money by it, that it injured business generally and that it had reached undue proportions. They thereupon proceeded to affirm that these opinions did not in any way affect their belief in the actual greatness of the oil resources of their province and added that they thought Alberta was destined to become, in the course of time, one of the Empire’s greatest producing fields.

In its essence, therefore, this Calgary oil boom of 1926 was a state of mind as much as a financial affair.

The boom happened to take place in Calgary. One of the remarkable aspects of the situation is that, barring the fact that the people of Calgary seem to be more volatile than their neighbors and that the worldfamous wet gas and naphtha gusher, Royalite No. 4, was discovered only a few miles from the city, the excitement might have occurred almost anywhere else in the province. The oil fever is anything but localized. It is Alberta-wide and spills over into Saskatchewan. It is having very concrete results in the matter of drilling and, if it continues, that section of the Dominion will be full of holes. At the moment, there are drilling rigs hammering steadily just above the Montana border to the south and in the shade of the Rockies to the west.

Fourteen companies are concentrating on the Wainwright-IrmaFabyan field near Edmonton. A carload of drilling machinery has arrived at Lesser Slave Lake to the north. English oil scouts are about to head towards the Athabasca and prospect among its outcroppings of tar sands. There are indications of renewed activity in the hard-luck field, Peace River. President Stillman, of Imperial, said recently that a small refinery might be built at Fort Norman to care for the output of local wells, which, if it is erected, will give Canada the most northerly refinery on earth. Development is due to commence this summer in the Ribstone Creek sector, and across the Saskatchewan boundary south of the town of Lloydminster. In Turner Valley, near Calgary, the money being spent on operations is running into the hundreds of thousands; investigators representing California, Montana, Texas, Colorado and eastern Canadian capital are buzzing about like so many bees, while the rigs pound away twentyfour hours a day in what is rated as the most thrilling race for oil sands the country has ever seen.

Work, in short, is going on in all directions so that it is no trick to explain the intensity of the general interest.

All this does not mean that buying in on Alberta oil is a fine, safe way of getting rich before next Christmas, but it does show that more energy is being used up in looking for oil and gas and less in looking for investors.

Westerners, naturally inclined to be good speculators, follow proceedings with keener enjoyment, confident that they are getting a real run for their money and not merely contributing to a benefit fund which will help some imported promotor along life’s highway.

Obviously, then, the so-called underlying cause of this wholesale enthusiasm is right on the surface, so simple and so apparent that it is apt to be passed over in the general excitement.

Testing Out the Theories

FOR twelve and more years, the inhabitants of Alberta have been boosting their largely unproved oil-fields. But even the most loyal and consistent supporters have felt that they could talk with greater eloquence if they had more real information and fewer hypothetical calculations on which to base their assertions. For their own sakes, too, they have been anxious to see an attempt made to open up the fields.

They have been waiting a long time.

Once before they believed themselves on the eve of a period of large-scale development and then the war intervened.

Now the day appears to be more or less at hand. More real work is likely to be done in Alberta’s prospective fields this summer than in any previous season. The movement which should eventually result in definite and detailed knowledge of the value of these much discussed oil areas, has commenced. The suspense must finally come to an end.

For a decade, hundreds of Alberta people have been devotedly faithful to the idea of great wealth in local oil wells. They have had their pulses quickened by sporadic bursts of drilling here and there. They have suffered disappointments. These, in turn, have been offset by occasional successes. At last, confident that they are entering a period which is to be .marked by a concerted drive to explore the geological formations beneath their well-known landscapes, a drive which will ultimately tell them, whether their hopes are to be boosted or blasted, is there any mystery about the fact that whole countrysides are on edge concerning oil and that a boom can come into being almost over-night?

If any farmer happens to slip into a nearby town and let drop the story that he sniffed a whiff of natural gas on his land or saw a trace of oil, a rush for leases is likely to be the result. This is the synopsized story of half a dozen different flurries. But in spite of all these side attractions, the main points of interest are confined to two.

Turner Valley Hopes

' i 'HERE is the Turner Valley field, a pleasant taxi trip A from Calgary if you are lucky, and there is the Wainwright field, not far from Edmonton.

Turner Valley itself is a charming piece of scenery. Even an early spring trip, over the stretches of mud which are locally referred to as roads, cannot completely dim the beauties of the foothills in the eyes of the bogged travelers.

These delightful foothills, however, give no thrills of pleasure to the non-aesthetic driller. Putting down a well in the Turner Valley calls for much more skill, luck and good management than a similar operation in the average field. A Montana contractor who is now working in Alberta asserted that the geological formations there seemed to be in an uproar, more or less. He blamed it all on the presence of the foothills. A hole might be bored through standard sorts of strata to a depth of, say, two thousand feet and then the crew would suddenly discover that the drill was penetrating a lot of boulders which had made their way down there by some inexplicable means. A highly annoying situation in the opinion of the gentleman from Montana, who is now deeply opposed to foothills.

Aside from all this, Turner Valley requires very deep drilling, which automatically makes the creation of boreholes both a laborious and costly process. It is quite impossible at this stage in the field’s development to say what the cost of an average Turner Valley well should be or the time required to drill it, but $100,000 to $150,000 has been quoted as an estimate which is not at all exorbitant. One to tw® years is also given as a good guess at the time needed.

The beautiful Turner Valley, then, is no place for the little operator who is courting bankruptcy if called upon to face a loss of $100,000. Even the best drilled holes may turn out to be nothing more than that— merely well-drilled holes. It is a district for the well-backed concern which can afford to absorb the expenses of an unsuccessful attempt, if need be, and then go right ahead and make new tries for the paying oil-sands.

It was the wonder well of the west, Royalite No. 4, labelled by some as a freak and by others as a forerunner of what is to come, which caused all the commotion. At the moment, it is producing each day 500 barrels of practically pure naphtha, which is valued, unofficially, at six dollars a barrel. In addition, the daily income from the gas which pours up its casing and which is sold to the city of Calgary is said to be somewhere between $1,200 and $1,800. No figures on the subject have ever been issued by the well’s owners, but many thousands of westerners, nevertheless, have carefully calculated what a good time they could have on its earnings if they owned the property for as much as half an hour.

When news of its remarkable performance leaked out, the valley slowly commenced to sprout derricks. Roads leading to the scene of operations began to be cluttered up with machinery, supplies and visiting experts. Well after well was spudded in and the race was on. Speed in the business of boring deep holes usually means a few feet a day, so that the race into the depths has now been continuing for what seems like a monotonously long time. Actually, it is no time at all, viewed in the light of the statement that it takes from ten years upwards to develop a real oil field. Under the direction of as close-mouthed a battalion of mudspattered drillers as was ever gathered from the four corners of the earth, the wells have been going deeper by inches. There is nothing to do but wait for the final announcements from each little corps of workers—which may come to-morrow and may come next year.

Development at Wainwright

THE Wainwright field differs from Turner Valley in almost every important feature. Wainwright wells are shallow ones which can be put down rapidly and comparatively cheaply. The time record for the field was set up in April when a Toronto-financed well struck oil at a depth of 2,275 feet, thirty-nine days after the commencement of operations. The cost per well in this field is approximately $25,000, but contract turn-key jobs will be undertaken there this summer for $5,000 less.

The chief trouble about Wainwright at the moment is the oil itself. It is a heavy, asphaltic base oil not noted for its high gasoline content and, therefore, not nearly as valuable commercially as the Turner Valley product. Those interested in the field say that with the building of a “cracking” plant, the oil could be made to give a very satisfactory gasoline yield and there are also hopes of obtaining a much better grade of oil in future wells.

One important factor is that there is an immediate market for all the oil which is likely to be produced in Wainwright for some time to come.

Dr. J. A. Allan, who is the leading geologist of the University of Alberta, has estimated that it will be necessary to drill a thousand wells before the possibilities of the Wainwright area will be generally known. If a dozen and a half wells are drilled there this summer, then operations of unprecedented proportions are taking place. When these eighteen bore-holes are stacked up against the thousand which an outstanding authority Continued on page 51 considers necessary for a real beginning of development, then it can be readily agreed that Wainwright is to have quite a large-sized future.

Just to the east of Wainwright, across the Saskatchewan border, a Dominion geologist, Dr. G. S. Hume, has made extensive researches and only recently declared, in a published report, the discovery of a very promising stretch of land lying south of the border town of Lloydminster.

Lloydminster, incidentally, is the boomless wonder of the west. Never before in its history has it had anything even faintly resembling a boom and now it has been struck by a double-header. First, the announcement was made that the town was likely to become a railway divisional point and real estate values gave immediate evidences of nervousness. Next came the warning of oil possibilities and the little town was in a rare state of agitation.

There have been stories of weird oilbearing water-wells coming out of the district for years, but at last science has stepped in and backed up the tales of casual observers.

The Pool of Liquid Gold

FOR instance, the watering-trough of Charles Marren attained a wide degree of local fame because it continuously boasted a petroleum film. The possession of this phenomenon was not entirely a matter of unmixed joy. Mr. Marren’s opinions on the matter at different times when he led the horses to drink and they refused to imbibe or when he unsuccessfully attempted to perform other similar pastoral tasks, it is not possible to quote in full.

Mrs. Marren never failed to declare that this evidence of oil meant something. She coined a phrase which may yet go down in history along with the one about “gold in them thar hills.”

“Who knows, Charles,” she said to her husband one day, “we may be living on top of a pool of liquid gold.”

Finally, she induced her husband to skim off a sealer of the oily liquid and take it into town for the boys to examine. After going into conference in a prominent local garage, the boys decided that it looked like oil and smelled like it and so the chances were that oil was exactly what it was. Not wishing to make any rash declarations, they sent the sealer on to an Edmonton expert who described it as a species of pallid near-kerosene likely caused by a seepage from a petroleum pool nearby.

As Mr. Marren had no means of calculating the probable whereabouts of this deposit of riches, he did the wise thing— which was practically nothing. He does not propose to attempt numerous costly bore-holes among his wheat-fields, but he has taken the precaution of securing a good collection of oil leases. When the time comes, gentlemen who make the sinking of wells their life-work will conduct the actual operations after suitable financial negotiations.

Charles Garton, another farmer of that district, found a gas well in addition to oil in his well-water. He decided to make some real use of this gift of nature by piping the gas into the house. Mr. Garton is an excellent agriculturalist but plumbing is not one of his chief hobbies. He piped the gas in satisfactorily buta pair of small explosions showed him that it might easily blow the roof off his residence one fine day and he took it out again. Now the services of his personal gas well are confined to heating the pig feed.

Rush for Leases

ONE result of Dr. Hume’s report on the Lloydminster field, however, was an amazing rush for oil leases. Saskatchewan and Alberta do not control their own natural resources. These are in the hands of the Dominion government and, since the oil and other mineral rights are not usually sold with the land but retained by the Federal authorities, it is possible to step into any Dominion Lands Office and obtain oil leases on a given piece of property by merely specifying where it is and paying the required fee of $5.00 and

fifty cents rental per acre. A farmer may j dis ?over that the oil rights on his farm have j passed into the hands of a total stranger I without he himself knowing anything j about it. It is not necessary to notify him that any transaction has taken place. ¡

Once the word went round that oil ¡ was thought to exist near Lloydminster, j the land offices in that town and Prince j Albert were stampeded. J. 0. Williams, a well-known Alberta geologist, said that J all the good drilling locations, with one j exception, were snapped up on the first day. But the rush continued for weeks and leases were obtained on tens of thousands of acres—everything within miles of the district specified was promptly taken.

These sporadic stampedes for leases are much more spectacular events while they last than any boom or the actual process of drilling. There was the spring outburst at Ardill, Saskatchewan, for instance. Unlike the Lloydminster affair, it was ; built largely on rumor.

A gentleman named John Hinton had been laboring steadily with somewhat antiquated drilling equipment near the shores of Lake of the Rivers. When his well had reached the modest depth of 800 feet, he suddenly capped it and hastened ¡ to the nearest lands office, which is at Moose Jaw, to take out all leases possible. He announced that he had found twelve ! feet of oil in the bore-hole.

Mr. Hinton was followed to Moose Jaw by a frantic stream of all sorts of people united in a common aim. They all wanted leases, too. Most of them got them. Before the fever abated, leases had been ¡ obtained on 60,000 acres and the coffers of I the country had been enriched by well over thirty thousand dollars. Doctors, lawyers, stenographers and assistant janitors were swapping leases back and forth. Buying and selling went on at a dizzy rate of { speed.

Eventually, some one conceived the idea of going out and looking at the original oil well and a trek started. A ' steady flow of motors headed towards Ardill and John Hinton. Unfortunately, the highways were exceedingly muddy and many reached their objective only with great difficulty, after prying their vehicles out of a series of morasses.

When they finally arrived, there were evidences of bitter disillusionment. Some had expected to see a geyser-like pillar of petroleum rising toward the heavens. Others merely expected a bubbling stream.

A few had been suffering from the hallucination that they would be able to step up and fill the tanks of their cars with ready-made gasoline. There was a considerable amount of reviling done on the way home and the frenzy soon died away.

But it was discovered that, in the hurry, leases had been taken out on most of the bed of Lake of the Rivers. One brave soul had even discussed the possibility of drilling from scows, a feat which has not yet been accomplished in the history of engineering as far as anyone knows.

Whether Mr. Hinton did or did not ¡ discover oil is still a moot question. His ! more recent doings have taken place without benefit of publicity.

These odds and ends of excitement are not particularly important except as evidence of the general state of mind. They do, in addition, show the widespread nature of the west’s oil possibilities.

Capable and experienced geologists have testified that there are indications of oil in a host of different localities. Promotors and private individuals, engineers and contractors, are preparing to test out the geologists’ statements with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of modern equipment. Alberta already has a small group of producing wells, including one which will shortly make a world record if its production holds.

This, in brief, is the condition of the moment. It appears that the present generation has a good chance of living to see the conflicting reports about Alberta oil sifted out and the actual truth ascertained.

Which should be a great relief for everybody—particularly the people of Alberta.