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Norman Wells (1920)

An oil well at Norman Wells in the late 1930s.The Paleozoic rock formation in the Northwest of Canada is a thick layer of sedimentary rock, standstone, shale and limestone. Seeping to the surface of the Mackenzie River was oil, which was known to the Aboriginal People living in the area. The Dene name for the area, "Le Gohlini," means "where the oil is." This area known now as Norman Wells is located seventy-five kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.

The first picture taken in the air of Norman Wells, 1920s.Geologist T.O. Bosworth knew that what he saw on a trip through the north in 1914 was promising and important. He examined many known oil seeps and believed that they would result in high yields of oil and gas. Even with the call from a respected geologist, work on the Norman Wells area did not begin until after the First World War. In an area recommended by Bosworth and company geologist T.A. Link, Imperial Oil began to drill in the summer of 1920 in a seepage area located on the Mackenzie River. In August of the same year oil was hit at 783 feet. The flow of oil could not be contained and burst above the derrick floor to seventy-five metres in height. One can only imagine the excitement that hit with such a display.

The first Imperial Oil well at Norman Wells, 1920.To secure their ownership of the area, Imperial Oil quickly staked many claims. Literally, surveyors would place stakes in the ground at the corners of the land claim. Development, however, was slow. A small refinery to service local needs was built in 1933. At its maximum output in 1939, over 840 barrels were produced per day. With the advent of the Second World War, the United States was concerned that an attack by the Japanese would effect oil production in Alaska. As a result, the Norman Wells field was expanded under the CANOL agreement. Pipelines were also built to deliver the oil to domestic markets in Canada and the US.

After the war, the pipelines were dismantled and the wells cut off due to new finds in more accessible southern sites, especially in Leduc. However, the town that had grown up around Norman Wells continued serving the mining industry.

The town is very proud of its history, and have a site at http://www.normanwells.com/visit/proud_history.html

The men that worked in Norman Wells in the 1920s and 1930s were opening up an unknown frontier in Canada. Listen

The sub-Arctic oil strike

On 23 August 1920, a significant petroleum discovery was made at Norman Wells, Northwest Territories by an Imperial Oil company expedition led by geologist Ted Link. In this excerpt from the JuneWarren publication, The Great Canadian Oil Patch: The Petroleum Era from Birth to Peak, author Earle Gray describes the events leading to this important sub-Arctic oil strike. Read more…


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