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Feature Article


Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog

60 years of black gold

It's been 60 years since a group of men, working in a windswept field just south of today's Devon, pulled the cork out of Central Alberta's bottle of oil prosperity. In the spirit of tenacity and persistence that led to the discovery, a group of volunteers pulled together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the occasion by building a monument to achievement on the very spot where it all began.

The Canadian Petroleum Discovery Centre, erected on the site of the Leduc No. 1 discovery well, officially opened in the summer of 1997. With its displays, artifacts, collections of memorabilia and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, the centre pays glorious tribute to Central Alberta's oil industry.

The centre tells the story of the roughnecks, wildcats and doodlebugs who brought Alberta into the oil age " first at Turner Valley in 1914 and later at Leduc in 1947. Those who worked to create the commemorative centre were driven by the example of those who, a half century earlier, wrote history with their hands, toiling in the harsh extremes of climate in often very hazardous conditions.

Through the generosity of Albertans, the society built the centre right next to a 48-metre high replica derrick, found sitting abandoned on a barge off the coast of Louisiana. Although Leduc No. 1 stopped pumping in July 1974 after producing 317,000 barrels, the pump remains in place as a memorial. The replica derrick stands 60 metres north of the original pump site, part of a 4.5 hectare parcel purchased by the Leduc/Devon Oilfield Historical Society.

The project ended up costing more than $2.2 million, and money was raised by donations and the sale of 500 bricks at $50 each.

When Leduc No. 1 came gushing in on February 13th, 1947, it changed the course of Alberta history. Over the previous 28 years, Alberta's oil industry had uncovered a collective 250 million barrels of oil. Imperial Oil had spent more than $23 million to drill 133 wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan but not one proved to have any commercial potential.

Geologist Aubrey Kerr, author of "Leduc," a book chronicling the discovery and its impact, says that the petroleum future appeared so bleak Imperial Oil was planning to construct a plant to convert natural gas from eastern Alberta to synthetic gasoline products. "There was utterly no future in the oil business," he says. "The Turner Valley field (south of Calgary) was producing about 15,000 barrels a day and was on its last legs.

"You"ve got to remember that farming was it in the Edmonton area. If you had told people about such a vast quantity of oil, they would have figured you"d lost it."

But Imperial Oil decided to give Alberta one last shot and so began drilling some deep wells in the province, learning about the basic geology. In mid-1946, studying data from seismic tests of subsurface formations of the Leduc area, Imperial Oil geophysicists made what was to become a dramatic discovery.

They identified an unusual underground feature called an anomaly " an unexpected rise in underlying Cretaceous rock formation, which might have oil trapped underneath it. This one wasn"t too significant, but head geophysicist Ray Walters had a feeling and convinced the company that, if Imperial was going to drill anywhere in the Leduc area, it might as well be at that anomaly.

That winter, a drilling crew from Provost, headed by Vernon "Dryhole" Hunter was brought in and they set up on Mike Turta's farm northwest of Leduc and began pushing downward. On February 3rd, 1947, at a drill depth of 1,541 metres, a geyser shot from the drill pipe.

"Air from the empty pipe started to flow, to be followed by gas and mud and then oil," Hunter recalled, writing for the Imperial Oil Newsletter ten years later. "We lit the flare and all stood around it, grateful for the heat even though we were frying on one side and freezing on the other."

The news was too momentous to stay secret for long. On February 5th, Edmonton and Calgary newspapers carried rumours of "a strike of major importance."

Imperial Oil's public relations department convinced management to name a specific date and invite the press and public to view the wildcat well actually come into production. With Hunter's input, February 13th was agreed upon.

More than 500 media and dignitaries assembled on the site, waiting for history to be made. Hunter recalled it this way: "A large crowd had gathered, visibly shivering in the cold wind. The boiler house was so full that the man in charge of the boiler could hardly get near it to throw in the coal and was tempted to throw in some of the visitors."

A swabbing unit broke and, while the guests waited, the crew spent several hours frantically repairing it. At four o"clock in the afternoon, the well, as Hunter wrote, 'started to show some signs of life. Then, with a roar, (it) came in, flowing into the sump near the rig."

A roughneck, Johnny Funk, ignited a diesel-drenched sack at the end of a rope, swung it lariat style over his head and tossed it, igniting the flare line. Flames immediately soared 15 metres and, as Hunter observed, "the most beautiful smoke ring you ever saw went floating skywards."

Edmonton radio station CJCA was at the site, recording the noise of the oil as it gushed into the sump pit. "That swooshing sound you just heard," the announcer explained, "was the Imperial Oil Limited's Number One well at Leduc, Alberta, coming into production. The oil started flowing under its own pressure at four o"clock this afternoon, Thursday, February 13, in what may be a momentous occasion in the oil world."

The well was the first of 1,000 to be drilled in the Leduc-Woodbend field. Over the next few decades, the field produced more than 400 million barrels of crude.

The Canadian Petroleum Discovery Centre is located at the junction of the Devon and Nisku Highways (60 & 19), just 10 minutes west of the Edmonton International Airport. The centre is open daily, 9 am to 5 pm.

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