Rig Art – The Big Four

In this, the last Hitch issue of our seventieth anniversary year, we are saluting four historically significant rigs from Alberta’s drilling history. These beautifully restored images are available as premium quality museum prints in three size options with custom-framing to your specifications. 

Athabasca Landing — 1893

In 1893, the Canadian parliament passed a bill authorizing $7,000 for the exploration of petroleum resources in the Athabasca Region of the North West Territories. Directed by the Geological Survey of Canada, drilling contractor A.W. Fraser shipped a commercial cable rig by rail from Toronto to Edmonton. The rig was hauled 150 kilometres north by teams of horses to Athabasca Landing where Mr. Fraser started his drilling operation on August 15, 1893.

Seeking to find light oil deposits beneath the oil seeps along the river, this first well reached an initial depth of 306 metres on October 24. When some natural gas was discovered, work had to be stopped due to a lack of casing. In 1894, drilling resumed and the crew reached a final depth of 536 metres but no low-viscosity oil was found.

Exploration in the area continued and in 1897 the rig struck a high pressure gas field at a depth of 250 metres near Pelican Rapids. Without proper equipment, the well blew out and had to be abandoned. It continued to burn out of control at an estimated rate of 20 million cubic feet of gas per day until it was finally capped in 1918 by the legendary A.W. Dingman.

Bow Island — 1909

Geological engineer and experienced driller Eugene Coste relocated from Ontario to the Prairies with a dream of supplying natural gas to Alberta cities and towns. He contracted with the CPR to locate gas reservoirs near Medicine Hat. In 1909, his driller, Frosty Martin, made the first major discovery at Bow Island.

As luck would have it, the rig and work camp were mistakenly erected on the wrong site — not even on CPR land. At 515 metres, Coste told Martin to abandon the unsuccessful well. The team of drillers ignored his command and at 578 metres tapped into a reservoir that flowed 8-million cubic feet of gas per day. The discovery of Bow Island No. 1, or “Old Glory,” led to the development of a field that launched Alberta’s natural gas industry.

In 1911, Coste created “The Canadian Western Natural Gas, Light, Heat and Power Company” and the following year, with the financial support of British investors, built a 16-inch main line to Lethbridge and Calgary. Starting from opposite ends, contractors J.G. Corcorana and T.J. Driscoll completed the project in only 86 days using hand tools, primitive steam trenching equipment, and a tremendous team of workers. At 272 kilometres, it was the third largest pipeline in North America. The original company founded by Eugene Coste is now part of the ATCO Group.

Turner Valley — 1914

Pioneer driller Archibald Dingman and partner William Herron, with the financial support of local investors, founded Calgary Petroleum Products Limited to explore the mysterious gas and oil seepages along the Sheep River. On May 14, 1914, Dingman No. 1, located west of Black Diamond, found natural gasoline, also called “wet gas” or “naptha,” at a depth of 827 metres.

Oil-fevered Calgarians eager to see Alberta’s first major discovery employed every available vehicle to visit the site. As a reward, the wet gas was so pure that drivers fueled their vehicles from a makeshift separator when they arrived. This birthplace of Alberta’s oil and gas industry created an immediate investment boom and over 500 new oil and gas companies were formed in Calgary within a few days. Many of these companies were short-lived, with fewer than 50 actually drilling wells.

Dingman No. 1 streamed 4-million cubic feet of gas condensate per day and launched a drilling boom in the area. It became the largest production site in the British Empire and by 1942 was producing more than 10 million barrels of oil per year and billions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Unfortunately, so much gas was flared off that the production of oil diminished. The original well site is located at the Royalite Turner Valley gas plant which was in operation until 1985. This significant and reclaimed facility has been honoured as both a Provincial and a National Historic Site.

Leduc No. 1 — 1947

By the end of the 1940s, almost 90% of the crude oil refined in Canada was being imported. The Turner Valley oilfields had peaked in the mid-1940s and production declined after that. Subsequent to that initial discovery, thousands of wells were drilled throughout Alberta and no significant production fields had been found.

That all changed on February 13, 1947 when head driller Vern Hunter and his crew made history at a depth of 1542 metres. Prior to that day, Imperial Oil had invested $23 million over two decades with 133 dry holes! This was literally the “last chance well.”

On May 10, Leduc No. 2 made a much larger Devonian Reef oil discovery and during the next few decades more than 1,000 wells were drilled in what became the Leduc Woodbend Oilfield. At one time this area provided 90% of all the oil produced in Canada, supplying over 400 million barrels during the next 60 years. International attention was drawn to Alberta’s petroleum potential and that historic day created the foundation for one of the most entrepreneurial, innovative, and successful provinces in the country. Leduc No. 1 is also a National Historic Site and the home of the Canadian Energy Museum.

If you’d like your own custom-sized set of “The Big Four” museum quality prints (framed or unframed), contact Michael Liggett at 403-238-2631 or [email protected] Single prints and paired sets are also available.