Articles

The Place The Gas Will Come From

Dreams of what might have been will come true for the little Alberta town of Pincher Creek when a new pipeline starts feeding the east wit natural gas from Pincher’s near-bottomless pi

ROBERT COLLINS July 1 1954
Articles

The Place The Gas Will Come From

Dreams of what might have been will come true for the little Alberta town of Pincher Creek when a new pipeline starts feeding the east wit natural gas from Pincher’s near-bottomless pi

ROBERT COLLINS July 1 1954

The Place The Gas Will Come From

Articles

Dreams of what might have been will come true for the little Alberta town of Pincher Creek when a new pipeline starts feeding the east wit natural gas from Pincher’s near-bottomless pi

ROBERT COLLINS

FOR 72 frustrated years the cowtown of Pincher Creek, sixty miles southwest of Lethbridge in Alberta, has been unceremoniously kicked around by fate.

Like a thousand other crossroads in the west, Pincher was founded with visions of greatness. Like most of them, its hopes fizzled out and it resigned itself to a humdrum existence as an insignificant dot on the map.

Now, suddenly, everything Pincher used to dream about is coming true. At its feet lies the largest single source of natural gas for eastern Canada. When the trans-Canada pipeline is completed in a year or two, this town will be known from the Crowsnest Pass to Montreal as “the place the gas comes from.” But Pincher Creek, the cowtown that has always wanted to be famous, can’t even get excited.

In view of past experience, Pincher’s restraint

is understandable. Seldom has a town seen so many of its best-laid plans go sour. When its site was laid in 1882, in a deep ravine along the banks of Pincher Creek, pioneer traffic poured into southern Alberta toward the Crowsnest Pass. People prophesied that Pincher would be bigger than Calgary, which was then a shack town. Then settlement veered north and Calgary grew to 150,000. Pincher Creek has just reached 1,630. To aggravate matters, the CPR completed its Crowsnest line in 1898 and missed Pincher Creek by two and one-quarter miles. The town has never recovered from the slight.

“That was nearly sixty years ago but we still wonder why they didn’t build the railroad a little closer to town,” says Clarence Bundy, CPR agent at Pincher Station, which consists of railway buildings, stockyards and a filling station. “Some people say the town fathers quarrelled with the

CPR. But I suspect that there was an ornery engineer on that run and he refused to go anywhere near the ravine.”

The railway arrangement occasionally baffles strangers who get off the train at Pincher Station and can’t find Pincher Creek. Once it caused the post office to call out the army. That was the winter the road was snow-bound and postmaster J. D. Fraser had to haul mail for a few days with a tank from the local armories. Mostly, the absence of a railway just wounds Pincher’s pride.

When No. 3 Highway was paved through the Crowsnest Pass parallel to the railroad, Pincher suffered another blow since the road carries tourists right past the town. Pincher Creek is on an airline route but the planes don’t land there; the nearest TCA stop is Lethbridge, sixty miles away.

To ease its frustration Pincher drew its own map of southwestern Alberta. The map, an arresting spectacle 12 feet high and 15 feet long, in full color, is sketched on the west wall of the Marshall-Wells hardware store, just off the main street. It shows the district not as it is but as it might be or should have been. On it Pincher Creek, represented by an enormous red bull’s-eye, is credited with 2,000 people. A TCA emergency landing strip north of town is called an “airport.” No. 3 Highway is labeled the “Trans-Canada Highway,” ignoring the fact that the true trans-Canada route goes west via Medicine Hat, Calgary, Banff, and Kamloops, B.C., completely skirting Pincher Creek.

The map also pictures gushing oil and gas wells, 18 miles south of the town. This, too, is partly Pincher Creek fiction but it’s nearest of all to the truth. The wells are not yet gushing but they stand over the greatest single “wet gas” field in Canada. “Wet” gas is a compound of dry natural gas—as used for cooking and heating —and one or more byproducts. Pincher’s wet gas field is a half-billion-dollar mixture of natural gas, sulphur, light crude oil, propane, butane and gasoline. When natural gas is piped east from Alberta, much of it will come from this field.

The gas strike is the most fascinating tale in Pincher’s history. The district experienced a minor oil boom in 1901 after

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The Place the Gas Will Come From

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some Indians showed the white men an oily liquid they’d been scraping off the top of a slough and using for medicine. In the next forty years, 27 wells were drilled, some as deep as 7,000 feet. There were a few gas and oil ;hows but nothing encouraging. Meanwhile an equally obscure place called Turner Valley became famous overnight on oil. Fate, it seemed, had double-crossed Pincher Creek again.

Then in 1941 the Gulf Oil Company began an Alberta gas and oil hunt. Its seismograph crews probed the province, exploding dynamite deep in the earth and measuring the resultant sound waves for indications of oil-bearing geological formations. They were intrigued by the Pincher Creek area but realized that the formation they sought lay roughly two miles underground. Drilling a wildcat well—meaning one in unproven territory—is always a gamble. Deep drilling multiplies thé expense and risk of a breakdown.

But Gulf took the gamble. In April 1947 the company began work with the most powerful rotary drill then in existence, capable of cutting a 15,000foot hole if necessary. The average drilling rig only drills down about 6,000 feet. But nobody paid much attention to the project, outside of Pincher Creek. Another little place called Leduc was monopolizing the news with its oil strike.

By late 1947 Gulf was down 11,755 feet. On Dec. 28 the drilling crew ran a test, controlled at the surface by a one-quarter inch valve. Up gushed gas at the rate of ten million cubic feet a day, the maximum possible flow through that size valve. Pressure built up to 3,200 pounds per square inch. Two heavy steel L-joints straightened out like rubber. The drillers hastily closed off the flow. Now, at last, Pincher Creek had something to boast about.

Since then Gulf has drilled seven wells, each about 12,000 feet deep and costing roughly a million dollars apiece. The average gas and oil field in western Canada is about 5,000 feet deep. One Pincher well, the Bruder, yields 168 million cubic feet of gas a day when flowing wide open. Currently the average daily gas consumption for all of Canada is only 204 million cubic feet.

Pincher’s field as a whole contains about 2,200 billion cubic feet of gas, which will yield about 1,760 billion cubic feet of dry gas. Toronto, when fully converted to gas, is expected to use 22 billion cubic feet a year. Theoretically, there’s enough gas at Pincher Creek to supply Toronto for eighty years.

Since only the dry residue gas will go east, plants will be built to extract the byproducts from the wet gas, such byproducts as condensate and light crude oil; propane and butane, gasoline and sulphur. The yearly sulphur output, equal to about half of Canada’s present consumption, can be used for fertilizers and in pulp and paper manufacture. There will be enough propane —a convenient fuel for homes that do not have access to gas pipelines—to serve 66,000 farm homes for twenty years. Butane is used in synthetic rubber, synthetic fibres and plastics.

Last May Alberta’s petroleum and natural gas conservation board gave Trans-Canada Pipe Lines Ltd. permission to export natural gas from Alberta. Pipeline construction will probably begin early next year and gas should be flowing east by 1956.

About 31 percent of all the natural gas serving the east will come from Pincher Creek’s field. The remainder will come from several smaller fields, the largest of which has little more than half the gas supply of Pincher.

Within the limits of the field as defined by the conservation board, nearly all mineral rights are owned by the Alberta Government or by the Calgary and Edmonton Corporation, a land company. The one exception is 73-year-old Fred Schrempp, a Pincher Creek district changer who homesteaded in 1906 on what was originally Hudson’s Bay Company land and thus retains his mineral rights.

Under the standard mineral lease Schrempp, like the provincial government and the Calgary and Edmonton Corporation, stands to receive 12.5 percent of the value of all production from his property. A few other ranchers and farmers in the gas-field area benefit to a lesser extent. They don’t own mineral rights but are paid varying amounts for the surface lease of their land for drilling and producing operations.

Only about 160 acres of Schrempp’s 1,900-acre ranch are in the gas field. Schrempp isn’t counting on greai wealth; he’s waiting to see what production will be. Similarly, there’s no boom fever in Pincher Creek although fame is now within reach. Because payments vary, Gulf will not quote surface lease figures.

“No, we’re not getting worked up yet,” says real-estate man Colin Hedderick. “We’ve had too many false alarms in this town.”

Whar’s the Posse?

Bastien Zoeteman, the town’s lean solemn mayor, adds, “There’s more talk about our gas field outside the district than here. Before we get excited we want to know where the plants will be built. If they’re too far from Pincher Creek, another town might spring up.”

“Still, we should get some business,” the police magistrate W. A. McLeod muses. “We have a liquor store and two beverage rooms.”

So, the place the gas will come from is watching developments with interest but no excitement. It is the epitome of all small towns. Automobiles and cement sidewalks have replaced horses and hitching posts all right but Pincher still has the air of a movie cattle town. Any minute you expect to see a sheriff’s posse gallop through to head the bandits off at the pass.

Most of its buildings are old and those that aren’t look out of place. Its small frame houses snuggle along the ravine, shaded by windswept cottonwood trees. From the banks and narrow bridges of the creek small boys fish for trout.

For nearly fifty years idlers have been keeping an eye on narrow dusty Main Street from the King Edward Hotel. The King Edward’s old-fashioned portico supported by four drab cream-colored pillars is a popular summer vantage point. From here one can see Mayor Zoeteman saunter into Norman Edgar’s barbershop for a trim; watch dapper Oswald Blakely, manager of the new hundred-thousand-dollar Bank of Commerce Building, discuss the latest gas-field goasip with James Scott, owner of Scott Furniture; see old-timers drift into Sam Fraser’s men’s wear store for a gin-rummy game in the back room.

In the winter the hotel loungers retire to the high-ceilinged lobby with its deep leather-upholstered chairs. Here, every day, spectators like Andrew Foote peer out the front window. Foote, 83-year-old ex-carpenter, has

roomed at the King Edward for five years. His favorite pastimes are watching baseball games and watching the eastbound and westbound Greyhound buses go through the town eight times a day. When the hotel desk clerk who doubles as bus agent calls “Greyhound tnis arriving,” Foote and his cohorts arise automatically to have a look.

It’s rumored that Foote is wealthy but he habitually wears a blue suitcoat, khaki trousers, a plaid shirt, grey cloth cap, spectacles twinkling amidst a bushy beard and grey hair hanging to his shoulders. A few years ago an oilman’s wife staying at the King Edward complained to the desk clerk that Foote and his friends were monopolizing the lobby.

“Don’t let appearances deceive you, ma’am,” said the clerk. “Some of these men are hotel guests and some of them could buy and sell this place.”

In one respect, the town’s appearance is equally deceiving. From behind its sleepy facade have come such widely traveled newsmen as Matthew Halton, European correspondent of the CBC, and his brother Seth, publisher of the Victoria Colonist, both Pincher Creek natives. Freda Graham Bundy, the station agent’s chubby cheerful wife, writes children’s fiction, plays, newspaper features and spent twenty years compiling an early history of Pincher Creek.

Sixty-eight-year-old F. H. (Bert) Riggall, who has a soft Lincolnshire accent, guided some of America’s richest men on hunting trips through the Rockies before heart trouble grounded him in Pincher Creek. Now he writes magazine articles on big-game hunting, from a cottage cluttered with guns, books, photographs and trophies. He wears a wrist watch once owned by Henry Ford and given to Riggall by one of Ford’s in-laws. Riggall knows it’s a good watch because it costs him $16 to have it cleaned.

The most popular literary man locally is Adam (Scotty) Freebairn, the poet of Pincher Creek. He has published several small volumes of verse at his own expense and is constantly called upon to read his latest effort at town social affairs. Freebairn is a short, good-humored pipe-smoking Scot, 73 years of age. He came to Pincher Creek in 1899, punched cows, clerked in a drugstore, then ran a ladies-wear shop. Through the years he frequented a tailor shop where at one time or another most district men gathered for gossip. Here Freebairn collected yarns and characters for his poetry. He’s retired now but keeps up to date on local happenings by visiting the card game in the back of Fraser’s Men’s Wear.

His verse has a Robert W. Service rhythm and a distinct western flavor. It is the poetry of cowpunchers, pioneers, Indians and Mounties; of characters named Windy Bill, Op-e-o-wan and Old Nosey Ford; of titles like the Bootlegger, the Story of Massacre Butte and the Bones of Old McGuire.

Most of Freebairn’s subjects deal with ranching because this always has been the district’s main economy. The Pincher Creek Community Auction Sales Association, a co-operative enterprise with a thousand rancher members, is the town’s biggest business. With headquarters in Pincher Creek, it holds cattle auctions at nine points throughout Alberta every year.

Buyers attend from all over the west. In a few minutes they can look over scores of cattle, avoiding long trips to individual ranches. The ranchers benefit too by the higher prices resulting from competitive bidding. Last year 41 sales were held in the nine communities and $250,000 worth of cattle changed hands. Pincher was the busiest

point, disposing of 8,900 cattle at 17 sales for a total of $971,000.

Cattle auctions held at the stockyards beside the CPR station are a heady mixture of sights, sounds and smells: milling bawling herds of Herefords; ten-gallon hats bobbing around the corrals; the singsong chatter of the auctioneer; the aroma of hot dogs and coffee which Pincher Creek women sell from nearby booths.

Yet Pincher’s present ranching color is pallid beside the characters and antics of early days. Pincher was in the making early in the 1860s when a party of prospectors lost a pair of pincers in the creek. Tools were difficult to replace and the prospectors complained so bitterly that the creek was named after the pincers.

Uninhibited Englishmen

As a settlement grew it attracted the gayest adventurers, particularly Englishmen. One of them, John George (Kootenai) Brown, rode into southwestern Alberta before the settlement was founded. Brown was a regallooking man with flowing mustache and hair that curled to the nape of his neck. He’d panned gold in California, fought Indians with Custer, punched cows in Montana and been educated at Eton ai\d Oxford. He could rattle off a Latin phrase as handily as his side-kicks could utter a cuss-word. He rode into the Waterton Lake country, 32 miles south of Pincher Creek, vowed he’d never seen a prettier spot and settled there in 1895 as the first warden and later superintendent of Waterton Lakes Park.

In the 1880s Lionel Brooke, son of an English knight, came to the district, moved on but returned often and was buried there a few years ago. Once, after the highway went through the Rockies, Brooke felt the urge to return to Pincher Creek while in Vancouver. He flagged a taxi and said matter-offactly, “Pincher Creek.”

“Sure,” said the cabby. “What part of town’s that?”

“Pincher Creek, Alberta," said Brooke with a trace of pique.

They arrived eventually. The fare was $350, the tip $25 and Brooke gave

the driver a ten-gallon hat to boot.

In his youth Brooke played on Pincher Creek polo teams which were founded in the 1880s and flourished for forty years. According to one historian, the game got its start when some Englishmen at a ranch were seized by nostalgia, sawed off several rake bandies, mounted their shaggy range ponies and began chasing makeshift polo balls around the prairie. Proper equipment was then imported from England and a league was established In 1913, 1918 and 1919 the North Fork team, from twenty miles north of Pincher Creek, won the western American polo championship in playoffs at Spokane, Wash.

To many residents, today's Pincher Creek is humdrum by contrast with the old days. They live for the time a gas well, a highway or a miracle puts their town on the map. “The stretch between here and Waterton Lakes Park has been called the prettiest drive in Canada,” says Chamber of Commerce president James Scott. “For years I’ve been trying to sell our local people on this country but I think we all take it too much for granted. Matthew Halton came back once, gave us a talk on some of the places he’d seen and told us how lucky we are. But hardly anyone was impressed.”

Still, Scotty Freebairn touched the pulse of Pincher Creek one autumn day when he looked at its mountains, its cottonwoods and its mellow rangeland and wrote:

Pen cannot tell of its charm or its grandeur,

Artist ne’er painted so gorgeous a scene. Only to you who have lived in the foothills

God hath revealed where His footsteps have been. ★