Along these seventeen Calgary blocks —a onetime bullcart path —the destinies of Canadian oil are shaped, legends are spun, and fortunes made and lost with a shrug

Robert Collins July 19 1958


Along these seventeen Calgary blocks —a onetime bullcart path —the destinies of Canadian oil are shaped, legends are spun, and fortunes made and lost with a shrug

Robert Collins July 19 1958


Along these seventeen Calgary blocks —a onetime bullcart path —the destinies of Canadian oil are shaped, legends are spun, and fortunes made and lost with a shrug

Robert Collins

Two years ago H. M. (Bert) Houghton, the American-born head of an oil geophysical company in Calgary, was confronted with the fate all Calgary oilmen dread. His parent company posted him out of town, in this case to Europe.

As the deadline drew near Houghton made one last turn down narrow low-slung Eighth Avenue, nerve centre of the city and the Canadian oil industry. He filled his lungs with Chinook breezes fresh in ofT the Rockies. He scanned the clutter of ordinary shops and signs that hide all the romance of pioneer Alberta and Canadian oil. He jostled among Indians in plaid shirts, oil millionaires in business suits, ranchers in business suits, businessmen in cow'boy suits.

Then he turned into the Eighth Avenue office of his friend, independent oil consultant John O. Galloway, and pulled out his membership cards in the Ranchmen’s and Petroleum clubs.

“I want these renewed every year,” he told Galloway. “I’ll be back to use them, sometime. This is home."

Galloway, a stocky ex-Californian with a salt-and-pepper crewcut, understood. Six years earlier he d quit a job rather than be transferred from Calgary. Any other Eighth Avenue geologist, general manager, vice-president or president would likewise have understood and sympathized. Calgary is the oil folks’ home; Eighth is the oilman’s avenue.

No other street in Canada shelters as many of the oil industry’s hierarchy. Of the five hundred and fifty oiland gas-development, exploration and producing head offices in Canada, approximately half are in Calgary and a hundred and sixteen are on Eighth. The rest are divided among twenty-two cities and towns. Altogether Calgary has four hundred and twelve head or branch offices associated with oil and about two hundred of these are on Eighth.

Superficially, Eighth is disappointing. It was built foi bullcarts and buggies, not Cadillacs. Its tallest structure, the Mobil Oil building, is only eleven stories. Its seventeen blocks run through dreary continued on next page


The oil industry’s hierarchy meets in its

boardrooms; oil-sweetened cheques

jam its banks on payday; but the sect that

sent forth Aberhart’s brand of

Social Credit does business at the old stand

little east-end houses and crowded downtown blocks to a mere smattering of elegance in the west, where new banks strive to outdo each other with potted plants and escalators and the Sun Oil building stands gay and antiseptic in glass, steel and green tile.

To most people, Edmonton looks more of a boom town, but it isn’t so. While, since 1951, Calgary’s population has grown by seventy-one thousand and Edmonton's by eighty-one thousand, Calgary’s increase is 53.8 percent. Edmonton’s 50 percent. And although Edmonton's Jasper Avenue is broad and exhilarating, Calgary’s Eighth holds the oil industry’s purse. Indeed, the average Calgary annual income is $3,633—just a dollar less than topranking Toronto's.

Eighth is the avenue of the mahogany boardroom, the million-dollar gamble, the Big Deal. The slang here is “land play,” “rig,” “wildcat,” “pay zone” and “pipeline.” Probably no other street has on and around it as many men who, with guts, luck and good management, parlayed nothing into fortunes. Probably no other street has as many characters, for it takes imagination and a to-hell-with-it philosophy to gamble your shirt on a hole in the ground, year after year.

But Eighth's only visible touch of the bizarre has nothing to do with oil: La Boutique, a gift shop, and its coowner. Princess Tania Obolensky, a tall, dramatic, chainsmoking refugee from C'zarist Russia. She came to Alberta twenty-five years ago. After a stint as working partner on a foothills ranch, where she cooked for cowboys and Indians, the Princess and Edwina Miivain, a Calgary lawyer's wife, founded La Boutique. The shop, says the Princess, “is a sort of glorified Woolworth’s,” with silks from Hong Kong, glass from Venice, a fifty-cent four-way pocket screwdriver from New York and a $395 alligator handbag from Singapore.

“No matter the price,” cries the Princess, over strains of foreign music that flow constantly from the shop's hi-fi. “1 buy only the things that I luff.”

Elsewhere Eighth looks less glamorous than Seventh or Ninth with their newer glossier cube-shaped buildings. To read Eighth’s story of oil you must peer into doorways and office directories. Only then will you find the twentynine drilling companies, the sixteen oil brokers or the seven oil consultants.

Here are men who will sell you a pipeline, or rotary drill bits, or the special “mud” that lubricates a bit during drilling. Here, inside a grimy pink building, is the monthly Oil Examiner, oldest and liveliest magazine in the industry. Lose a broken drill down your well? Eighth is headquarters for ten oil-well servicing companies. Want to move your rig? There’s an oil-well trucking firm on the Avenue. Need an oil lease or leasing advice? Five firms on Eighth specialize in leases.

There is oil even in many of continued on page 34

Calgarians earn ten thousand a year or more. For an entrepreneur such as Cliff Walker, a round-faced ex-farm boy of thirty-eight, the sky's the limit. Ten years ago Walker was an Edmonton catsalesman. Then he and a friend negotiated a bank loan without security, founded a drilling company and subsequently helped found Merrill Petroleums.

By 1957 Walker could afford to build a fifty-one-room ranch house near Calgary. It has a milk bar, carpets the Walkers shopped for in India, a TV set in the bedroom ceiling, nine bathrooms and a swimming pool. For the four little Walkers there is a junior gym. steam bath, shower and miniature billiard table. Once, an Indian en route home from a rodeo strayed into the Walker mansion, fell asleep in the study and lay undetected until morning.

When Merrill Petroleums merged with Pacific Petroleums late in 1957 the former had interests in a thousand wells and produced about two million barrels of crude a year. Merrill’s former offices on Eighth are now occupied by Merit Oils Ltd., a Walker associate.

Meanwhile, as a director of “Pacific Pete,’’ Walker is now matched with Pacific’s chairman of the board, Frank McMahon (with offices a short block off Eighth), who likewise lives in the grand manner. Ex-driller McMahon has a flair for the theatrical: he went to school

with Bing Crosby, has backed Broadway plays and, last October, turned on natural gas in his Westcoast Transmission line in a manner worthy of Hollywood’s late Mike Todd. McMahon transported his guests to northern B. C. in a fleet of aircraft stocked with food and drink, and handed out three hundred and fifty overcoats and pairs of overshoes.

Another oil-company head—H. John Eastman, of Denver, with head office in Calgary—has kept the oil flag flying by winning four consecutive costume prizes in the annual Calgary Stampede parade. Eastman emerged triumphant last year in hand-embroidered cowboy clothes,, matching six guns with silver bullets and a saddle dripping with silver fittings.

Still another Calgary oilman invented the now-celebrated Sunshine Steak Sauce. While at breakfast in Sunshine ski lodge near Banff he thought he detected gloom among his fellow diners. Accordingly he sent everyone a generous glass of his custom-made "steak sauce"—rye whisky with grapefruit juice. Elderly women were soon giggling over their scrambled eggs and the oilman went away with a distinct sense of achievement.

Not all of the oil colony are characters and those who are can be excused. Most came up the hard way. A case in point is Clifton Cross, sixty-three years old, short and perpetually jolly, looking somewhat like Santa Claus in a Florida tan and Stetson hat.

Cross is Eighth Avenue's sparkplug. In his handsome office with the lemoncolored folding doors one may find him. feet atop the mahogany desk, ordering twenty-five saddles and horses for a Grey Cup parade or a few dozen square dancers, cowboy singers and chuckwagons for the Eighth Avenue jamboree, held five mornings of every Stampede week. Cross is father of this street carnival. One year he organized square dancing and singing in his office, had so much fun he moved it onto Eighth and so a Stampede fixture was born.

It was Cross, too. who once escorted two bears to his offices in the Lancaster Building. The bears were tame but not housebroken, which distressed the building superintendent. Cross now bans bears

Eighth's fourteen branches of chartered banks. Entire bank floors are devoted to oil and gas with wall maps, murals, “museums’’ with crude-oil samples, and experts to explain taxes or statistics.

Oil makes its presence felt even among

non-oil companies, when the latter try to hire top employees. In some wage categories, non-oil companies can’t compete. According to the provincial government bureau of statistics, a junior male clerk can earn up to $226 a month

with a Calgary oil company, compared with $218 with any other city firm. A Calgary male office supervisor can make up to $432 if he’s in oil: $403 with any other company.

Two thousand, two hundred and forty

Eighth Avenue, Calgary

continued from page 23

in Calgary 2,240 people earn over $10,000. The sky’s the limit’

hut has admitted a few Shetland ponies.

Promoter Cross is head of C. C. Cross and Company and a director of TransEmpire Oils, a consolidation of several companies he founded in Leduc days. But once he was a Toronto newspaper hoy (he borrowed seven cents to buy his first twelve papers) and, later, an impoverished Regina broker. When he came to Eighth in the Thirties “1 used to go next door now and then to borrow five bucks from Carl Nickle.”

I he rest of the time Nickle borrowed from Cross: not long before. Carl Nickle had been swinging a shovel in a relief work camp. Now forty-three-year-old Carl is director of several oil companies and publisher of the Daily Oil Bulletin, the annual Oil and Gas Directory, and has an interest in the weekly Oil in Canada. His father, Sam Sr., who used to operate a shoe store, is president of Anglo-American Oils. His brother. Sam Jr., runs Nickle Map Service on Eighth, providing aerial maps of western Canada for oil and mining companies.

The Nickle story is comparable with the Alex Bailey story, also on Eighth. Bailey Selburn is one of the top four independent oil and gas companies but twenty years ago president Bailey was a kresge’s assistant manager in Montreal and Ottawa. He got into the oil business in 1944, founded his own company in 1949 and amalgamated into the present organization in 1952. New Bailey Selburn produces forty-five hundred barrels a day while its unassuming president refutes the theory that all successful oilmen are eccentrics and American.

Calgary for Texas? Never

The odds are against their being American. Of the six thousand nine hundred and thirty oil-company employees in Calgary, not more than three or four hundred are U. S. citizens. Of these, George Dunlap, the soft-spoken, sedately dressed general manager of Sun Oil, is typical. A family man, he lives in south Calgary, loves Alberta winters, sits on the symphony board and is a member of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church of Canada.

“My wife cried when we had to leave our home in Dallas,” says Dunlap. “But now we’d never leave Calgary, not even for Texas.”

Most Americans in Alberta got their start as farmers or ranchers, long before oil. There was a time before oil. Its story, too, is etched on Eighth for those who can read it. There, at the east end, is the cairn commemorating old Fort Calgary, established by the Royal North West Mounted Police in 1875. The Mounties are still on Eighth in the Calgary Public Building.

For a while the railway was everything so, naturally, Eighth, the most important street, was in the beginning called Stephen after CPR president Lord Mount Stephen.

In those days the Alberta Hotel on Eighth had the biggest bar between Vancouver and Winnipeg. Newspaperman Bob Edwards, later of the Calgary EyeOpener, took refreshment there. So did Paddy Nolan, the great criminal lawyer who kept offices on Eighth, and Mother Fulham, one of Nolan’s regular clients, who drank with abandon, kept pigs and spurned soap and water. Once she went to her doctor with a sore leg. The doctor removed the stocking and gasped, "i'll bet five dollars that’s the dirtiest leg in the west.”

“You're on!” cried Mother Fulham, baring the other leg and collecting the five.

By the end of the century Eighth was

the cattleman’s avenue. The grey old Pat Burns building is still there, memento of a Stampede co-founder, meat-packing magnate and perhaps the greatest rancher of them all.

With the cattlemen came the remittance men—young Englishmen, often of noble birth, out to seek a fortune or escape some nameless shadow at home. So. in 1890. began the aimless career of Robert Purcell (Percy) Grosvenor. distant cousin of the first Duke of Grosvenor and descendant of an earl who fought beside William the Conqueror. Gros-

venor was first a CPR laborer; served with the Canadian infantry in France, inherited a legacy: invested it well.

But somewhere along the way Grosvenor turned his back on society. Tall, gentle, with impeccable accent, hawklike profile and untidy clothes, he began to room behind Eighth and surrounding avenues, filling a pushcart with rubbish. Finally, not long ago. he entered a veterans' hospital clutching the oddly assorted relics of his life: a few faded photographs of English mansions and nobility, a copy of his genealogy and a list of

securities valued at a hundred and sixty thousand dollars.

In his pushcart days Grosvenor prowled behind ghosts of the past, such as Eighth’s I eeson-Lineham block, relic of the men who struck Alberta’s first oil in the Waterton Lakes area fifty-six years ago. Or he passed behind Alberta Consolidated Oils 1 td., sole Eighth Avenue survivor of the first Turner Valley boom. A.P. Con’s offices are no bigger than the anterooms of some of its competitors. But while thousands of companies have failed, this one. through caution, is solid-

ly entrenched in Leduc, Turner Valley and the Bindloss gas field on the TransCanada Pipeline route.

Little A.P. Con was organized under its present name in 1914, the year Calgary became capital of the oil industry. On May 14 that year veteran driller A. W. Dingman brought in a sixty-foot gusher in Turner Valley, forty miles to the southwest. Calgary barbershops, cigar stores, hotel lobbies, livery stables, even the railway station rented space to brokers.

Money piled up in clothes baskets, waste baskets, buckets. Every loyal Calgarian bought stock. What stock? It didn’t matter. Five hundred “companies” were formed in a few weeks. Some hired saleswomen to woo the woman speculator. Most, such as the now-defunct Calgary Alberta Oils on Eighth, ran extravagant, screaming, full-page newspaper advertisements:

“Cunningham Craig says, ‘And the best is yet to come.’ This Man, the World’s Greatest Oil Geologist, has selected territory directly adjoining our location. If Cunningham Craig does not know Oil Lands, Who Does? . . . The stock may soon he withdrawn from the market. BETTER GRAB IT.”

Cunningham Craig (whoever he was, modern Calgarians have never heard of him) was right; the best was yet to come, but it was a long time coming. The first Turner boom featured waste effort and waste oil. World War I killed it. Turner’s entire output in its first seven years was less than one day’s current Canadian oil production.

The Twenties came and with them Edward, Prince of Wales, darling of the west. He bought a ranch near Calgary and a hat at Tom Campbell’s shop, now on Eighth, giving the shop one of Canada’s few royal warrants. But the present owner, a World War II RAF officer named W. A. Mostyn-Brown, has registered his disapproval of Edward’s abdication by not using the warrant.

In 1924 Turner broke out again with less boom but more oil. Eighth grew a little more. A schoolteacher named William Aberhart built the Prophetic Bible Institute, held Social Credit classes in the basement and set the stage for the world’s first Social Credit government. His first student was a lean, flat-voiced youth named Ernest Manning, who learned his lessons well. Manning is now Alberta's premier and he, too, conducts Sunday services in the Institute on Eighth.

While Bible Bill Aberhart was denouncing the banks, promising twentyfive dollars for every citizen and assembling his first government, a persistent Calgary street-railway superintendent and part time oilman, Robert Brown, was coaxing the third boom out of Turner Valley. It took him two years with many delays for refinancing but he struck oil in 1936. He did well enough to leave the

street railway. Today his son, Robert Jr., is president of Home Oil, largest single shareholder in Trans-Canada Pipelines.

Eleven years later Leduc came in, cinching Calgary’s stranglehold on head offices. Leduc is near Edmonton; one might have expected oil companies to migrate there but they stayed and expanded in Calgary. Today it’s said that oil-company office space in Calgary would stack up into a one-hundred-andfifty-story skyscraper. Oil-company personnel and their families account for a tenth of Calgary's population. Ninety percent of the oil and gas in western Canada is produced by Calgary-based companies.

Oil and gas fever never abates on the Avenue. In early 1957 two and a half million shares of common stock in Alberta Gas Trunk Line, a five-hundredand-fifty-mile link in the Trans-Canada delivery system, were offered to Albertans. Pipelines were a good investment and, says Jim Gray, editor and publisher of the Oil Examiner, “A lot of larceny grew in the hearts of a lot of Albertans.”

Why not, they reasoned, buy Alberta Gas Trunk at $5.25 and sell to eastern speculators at double the price? Eighth Avenue brokers and bankers were inundated with phone calls. It was almost like 1914.

“Anybody who didn't have at least one order in for this stock was out of town, or deaf, dumb and blind,” says Gray.

The underwriters stemmed the tide by making all subscribers pay cash with their purchases or, at least, by a deadline. Companies were not encouraged to buy shares. No one got more than twenty shares on any one order, although some tried. One company office boy asked for (but was refused) a thousand shares for, he said, himself and a thousand for mother.

“Where would you get ten thousand dollars?” asked the banker.

“My company will advance it and I'll pay them out of my wages.”

The stock, currently about twice its original value, made money for everyone. That guarantees that the next rush will be a big one, too.

So, to see the Avenue’s blood pressure and permit it to age gracefully, Calgary's mayor Don Mackay has a dream. He wants the Avenue to become a Mall. Side streets would be blocked off and asphalt would be transformed into trees, shrubs, grass and flowers.

Nothing would be lost except traffic. Inside the banks and oil and brokerage offices big deals would simmer as always. Along the sidewalks Indians, cowboys and bearded Hutterites would amble with the countryman's measured tread. In the centre, children would play and old men would reflect on the glories of Alberta and this avenue — hub of it all. *