HISTORY OF THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY IN THE SOUTH PEACE
An address to the Oil and Gas Conference 2003, Dawson Creek, B.C., 30 September 2003 By Gerald Clare, President South Peace Historical Society Copyright 2003 – All Rights Reserved
Good afternoon Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen
When Paul Gevatkoff asked me to speak to you about the history of the oil and gas industry in the South Peace, I quickly had to decide just how to best approach the topic. I didn’t think a straight chronological account would be as interesting as – say – some of the less well-known stories about the early days of the industry in our area. I’m more of a storyteller than a historian, anyway. I suspected there were some good stories to tell and the advantage of dealing with history is that it just sort of sits there and lets you poke at it and turn it over at your leisure. The same can’t be said of either present or future developments in the industry, the focus of this conference for the next couple of days. You have an interesting and challenging time ahead of you! But for the next half hour or so you can relax, knowing that nothing will leap up and attack you. Keep in mind, though, that the information has to be taken in the context of the times and technology of 60 or more years ago.
With those introductory comments in mind, then, I can assure you that what I am presenting to you this afternoon is not a detailed or scholarly review of the oil and gas industry in the Peace. I will leave it for others who are more qualified by training and personal experience to describe and analyze the industry’s brief but exciting history. The major companies have written their own histories and most of the big names in the industry have had their biographies published. I will not try to duplicate these efforts. What I hope to do is describe some of the early incidents and highlights of the search for and development of oil and gas in this part of British Columbia and the area just across the border into the Alberta Peace. The period I will be able to cover in this short time is from about 1915 to 1960, with an emphasis on the time from 1920 to 1950. Whenever possible, I’ve used first hand accounts of the people who were there when the early attempts to find oil took place or other contemporary accounts. Because the search for oil and gas has always been more exciting than anything except a war or a major gold rush, there were frequent newspaper articles in the local papers. The South Peace Historical Society Archives has genuine copies – not microfilm — of the Peace River Block News from 1930 to the 1970’s. I went through all the papers from 1930 to 1953 and found no fewer than 160 articles relating to the gas and oil industry in the Peace country.
There has always been oil and natural gas, of course, but it could hardly be termed an economic resource until relatively recently. In ancient times some naturally occurring gas flares have been used in religious ceremonies. The Delphi Oracle in classical Greece was supposed to have been associated with one such flare. Closer to home, the native people around present day Fort McMurray used the sticky black “tar” of the tar sands to waterproof the seams on their canoes. The European fur traders, including Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie, had never heard of such a wonderful resource and were quick to adopt it. If that had been the end of the story we would not be here today at this conference, of course.
The Peace River area was not the first part of British Columbia to be investigated by the oil companies. As early as 1891 drilling was carried out in the Fraser Valley which geologists thought should be a deep and productive sedimentary basin. While several small gas discoveries have been made there over the years, nothing of commercial interest has ever developed. An area near Sooke, on Vancouver Island, attracted the Western Canada Prospecting Company to a location recommended by Dr. George Mercer Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. Beginning in 1910, three years of drilling produced nothing but disappointment for the company. Even the Queen Charlotte Islands came in for some early exploration with wells being drilled first at Otard Bay in 1913 and several more later on. The Flathead Valley in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, near the Alberta and Montana borders, was also tried but without success.
On to the story of oil and gas in the Peace Country, then – a story which begins quite a bit earlier than many people think it did.
Between 1913 and 1916 Lord Rhondda, a Welsh coal magnate, spent a small fortune on surveys in the Peace, looking for both coal and petroleum. His luxurious paddle-steamer, the D.A. Thomas,plied the Peace River from Hudson Hope to Peace River town for many years. Its huge boilers were fired by cordwood, but the boat was built with tanks for crude oil – just in case one of his survey ventures was successful. None of them were and the D.A. Thomas operated with wood-fired boilers until she was finally scrapped in 1931 after going over the Vermilion Chutes and losing half her huge paddlewheel. When the D.A. Thomas pulled in to Rolla Landing every week or so to let homesteaders off with their animals and equipment, the stern-wheeler was anchored less than 20 miles from oil, unaware of just how close it was. Such is life in the oil business!
John Cole Gwillam spent three months in 1919 doing a survey of the Sukunka Valley as far south as the present site of Tumbler Ridge. His work led to the renaming of Rocky Mountain Lake in his honour. Gwillam’s party, and the Dresser-Spieker survey group of the following year were looking for both coal and oil. This work was done for the British Columbia Lands Department in areas that lay outside the Peace River Block which was still under the control of the Federal government. Coal was the main target of the surveys and of the1921 test drilling north of Hudson Hope because coal was essential if a railway was to be built through the area. But the presence of oil “of favourable quality – paraffin series” was confirmed and reported. No producing well resulted from this exploratory activity, however.
Homesteaders had begun to trickle into the South Peace in the spring of 1912 to take up the rich farmlands around Rolla and Pouce Coupe. There was really no practical way to get a grain crop to market in those days with no roads and no railway. Many early settlers ran trap lines as a source of cash for the things they couldn’t make for themselves or do without. One of these settlers was Blaine Pierce, a young family man who trapped along the Pouce Coupe River just east of Rolla during the fall and winter.
In the fall of 1914 Pierce noticed a “black, oily seepage” discoloring the fresh snow on the banks of the river as he checked his traps. He stopped to confirm his suspicion that this was indeed an oil seep and then he continued on his way. But on his next trapping venture in the valley he carried a small bottle and a teaspoon so he could get a good sample of the oil he had noticed earlier.
In January 1915 Pierce and his family travelled to Edmonton and then south to Minnesota where his wife’s family lived. He sold his winter’s catch of furs in Chicago – the prices were better than in Edmonton — and took his oil sample to the university for analysis. Experts at the University of Chicago told him it was “a specimen of fine crude oil … well worth investigating.” Back on the farm in Rolla in the spring, Pierce gave his oil sample to a friend, Jack Allerton, to take with him to Edmonton for another opinion. The University of Alberta said it was “the finest sample coming out of Alberta.”
But even with companies like the Lipsett Brothers and Alliance Power showing an interest in the prospect, nothing was done to develop the resource at that time. There were some real problems to be overcome, of course, in such a remote area as the Peace River country. The location was far from the nearest railhead in Spirit River, meaning that all the heavy equipment would have to be hauled cross-country by horses. The teamsters had to turn rough trails into a rough road to handle the job. With the war effort there was a distinct shortage of steel for equipment. In some places, rail lines had been pulled up for re-manufacturing into weapons and military equipment. How would any oil produced get to market anyway?
At this point, an interesting but not unusual research problem emerged for me. I prefer to work from original sources where possible and, in this case, I had three sources to consult. The problem is that they do not agree on the dates when key events happened. Some of the dates in the following account may be a bit suspect in spite of my efforts to sort them out!
Well aware of the problems they would face, Imperial Oil — through its Northwest Oil subsidiary — decided to begin drilling at the site near Rolla in 1921. A cable rig and all the support equipment for it was freighted by horse some 30 miles from Spirit River. Local freighters including the Yaeger Brothers, John Taylor and “Bull Dog Red” used teams of 10 or more horses to pull the 12-ton boiler to the site. The boiler, fired by wood, was used to hoist the drill – something like a large chisel – and then drop it into the hole again and again. A wooden derrick was built on the spot to hold the wheels and cable drums needed for the drilling process. The drills used in the cable rigs were large, some of them weighing in at nearly 1 tonne and while they hit the ground with quite an impact, their downward progress was slow.
Drilling began in mid-July of 1921 and continued through 1922. The Grande Prairie Herald reported that oil and gas had been struck at 185 feet in a test hole on July 16, 1921. Using the cable rig, three months of drilling got them down past 1000 feet. There was a large gas flow that was tapped to replace the firewood producing steam in the boiler and to provide heat for cooking and for the bunkhouses. Drilling continued, with oil as the desired but still elusive prize. Shortly after Christmas 1922 the gas line to the cookhouse ruptured. The December 28 issue of the Peace River Recorddescribed the result in this way: ” The men were seated at dinner when it was discovered that a gas pipe connected [directly] from the well to the cook stove was broken and leaking a large amount of gas. Just at the moment it was noticed, a spurt of flame ignited the gas, and men made a rush for the door. They had hardly reached it when the explosion took place, throwing them back to all parts of the building and burning them severely. Several of them were rendered unconscious and when they recovered consciousness it was to find themselves inside a burning building, with their clothing on fire. The injured men were immediately taken to Rolla, a distance of twenty miles, for medical attention. [The long ride] was one of greatest torture for them in their terrible condition. A messenger was sent ahead to bring a doctor from Pouce [Coupe’s Red Cross Hospital] to Rolla.”
The well was capped but continued to leak and eventually caught fire, burning fiercely for several weeks. There was no high-tech fire suppression equipment or well fire specialists available at the time, of course. According to Elmer Braden’s recollections, “Mr. Bird of Imperial Oil flew in, landed in a hay field at Rolla then along with Pete Ollinger, myself and other local residents proceeded to the well site with dynamite. On the second try we were lucky enough to blow out the fire.” Everything still standing on the site was dismantled and the well abandoned. After all, it was not natural gas that Imperial Oil was looking for and the little oil found was insignificant! For some strange reason – strange to me, that is – the well was never reopened although others were drilled nearby in later years.
An interesting news story from April 1931 stated that “there is an oil-bearing formation extending from near Quesnel to the centre of the Peace.” Rather than do anything about developing that potential source of oil, the B.C. government put all the Peace River lands in reserve. The government of the day felt that any resources in the province should belong to the people of the province. They were very much afraid of the power of the large, mainly American oil companies to exploit the resources without benefiting the province.
The Alberta government was more interested in oil exploration than was the case in British Columbia but not everyone was convinced there was much of a future for oil even in Alberta. A report produced for Alberta’s Legislative Assembly by Dr. Ralph Rutherford in 1930 contained a rather pessimistic view of the potential for oil in the northwest part of the province. “Many of the inhabitants”, he said, “hold the belief that valuable reserves of oil occur in the Peace River country. It is evident that such beliefs held here as elsewhere are founded on hope rather than on definite evidence.”
But there was always someone willing to try and to put up the cash to start a hole. Another well was drilled at Bear Creek near Bonanza and a third one at Landry Crossing. These wells produced large volumes of natural gas but very little oil and were therefore not of much commercial interest at the time.
But drilling did go on, of course. In June 1936 the Canadian Empire Oil Syndicate of Calgary leased 77 square miles of Peace country land from the Alberta government. There was discussion about supplying natural gas to nearby towns as part of the project.
In August of 1936 the old Imperial well near the Pouce Coupe River was set on fire by three unidentified arsonists. When the well was abandoned it had reached 3,057 feet and had been venting a large volume of dry gas every day. It burned for two months and was finally capped in 1937.
Dozens of geologists and oil field engineers toured the Pouce Coupe area on the Alberta side and almost all of them saw a huge potential for oil production. In the spring of 1937 Dr. E. Lovewell of Calgary advised companies to go to 4,000 feet. He told the companies that they should hit Dakota sands with Triassic limestone under that and then the Devonian sediments. “This is”, he said, “the richest oil bearing rock known to the science of geology.”
A year later the Guardian Oil Company began drilling near the little village of Bonanza with plans to go at least to the recommended 4,000 feet. So confident was the company that they also announced plans for a 20-inch pipeline to take oil to Bella Coola and a second pipeline to transport natural gas to Vancouver by way of the Monkman Pass. Alberta-based companies were pleased to find that it cost only about $75,000 to drill in the Pouce Coupe fields compared to some $200,000 in the Turner Valley. These were 1938 dollars, of course, but the ‘three to one’ difference in drilling costs made the northern ventures very attractive.
By February 1939 the Guardian Well #1 at Bonanza was “standing full of oil” at 2300 feet. With tensions growing in Europe Dr. Lovewell also hinted at the strategic value of the field “in this present world of crisis.”
Throughout that spring there were more glowing reports about the prospects of the Pouce Coupe fields. They were frequently likened to the West Texas and Mexican fields that were producing huge amounts of oil – and huge fortunes for a few people. Even the local farmers benefited from the oil activity, sharing in contracts for 1,000 cords of firewood for the boilers. A second rig was shipped in from Turner Valley and a second well begun.
By early summer there were hints that American oil magnates were becoming interested in buying up leases in the Pouce Coupe field. Philadelphia financiers announced they would drill five more wells and, once again, plans for a pipeline to Bella Coola were dusted off and fed to the local newspapers.
A letter to the Peace River Block News in August 1939 showed that the oil industry was being noticed and talked about by everyone in the area. The author, an oilman, undertook to explain to the uninitiated exactly what a number of strange words meant: tool pushers, derrick men, floor men, lead tong men, pipe rackers and roughnecks were all defined in the letter.
Meanwhile the government of British Columbia was beginning to show some tentative signs of interest in developing oil and gas reserves in the province. In December 1938 the Peace River MLA, Glen Braden, announced that the spring budget would include $60,000 for oil exploration. That money was approved and in March the Premier, Duff Pattullo, signalled his government’s newfound enthusiasm for oil. “If we find oil in the Peace River Country,” the Premier told the press, “our troubles will be over.” Two geologists, Dr. A.H. Cox and Dr. M.Y. Williams were put in charge of overseeing the exploration programs.
The Commotion Creek area in the Pine Pass was eventually chosen for B.C.’s first government well. There was a road of sorts between Dawson Creek and East Pine and a new stretch of road from there to Commotion Creek was to be rushed through. This would allow drilling to begin in the spring of 1940, assuming some of the heaviest equipment could be hauled across the Pine River during the winter. A total of $200,000 was set aside for completing the “test hole” at Commotion Creek.
At the end of November 1939 Pattullo tried to reassure skeptics by stating that “the administration had secured the best advice of geologists and oil engineers, including experts from Wales and the University of British Columbia.” So confident was the Premier that he announced that, based on his experts’ reports, “the prospects were excellent that if oil were found it could be expected in a much larger field than in the Turner Valley.” And so the first serious drilling for oil in northern British Columbia began as a government project. It is unlikely that any private company would have chosen that location at that time.
The chronology of the Commotion Creek well is pretty simple. The date for beginning the drilling was set at May 15, 1940 with an eventual target depth of between 6,000 and 7,000 feet. The Minister of Mines, W.J. Asselstine, stated that “what we are after, if we can get it, is some arrangement on a footage basis, for actual work done.” A contract was signed with Newell and Chandler of Calgary for $22.50 per foot. The derrick, a 133-foot structure, was completed late in May of 1940 and 2,000 cords of wood were stacked on site for the boilers. By the end of July the hole had reached 2,500 feet and the men were working in three shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. MLA Glen Braden commented on the secrecy surrounding the project, saying that “it is essential, in the sphere of oil drilling, to maintain complete silence concerning operations in order to avoid revealing valuable information to powerful international oil combines.”
By February 1942 it was obvious that Commotion Creek was not meeting the high expectations set for it. It was decided to go down another 1,000 feet. A federal geologist, G.S. Hume, was brought on site and he recommended continuing drilling to 8,000 feet. Costs for the project were now running at over $60 per foot. A few spoilsports pointed out that even if huge quantities of oil were found, freight rates on the NAR and CNR to get it to market in Vancouver would make the oil three times the cost of crude oil imported from California by ship. There was no direct rail connection to the coast at the time so every barrel of oil would have to be trucked or piped to Dawson Creek, loaded into Northern Alberta Railways cars and shipped out by way of Edmonton and the CNR.
Drilling continued but there was still no sign of oil at 5,500 feet. The Peace River Block News reported in mid-September 1942 that the hole had reached 6,900 feet but was “off structure”. There had been no oil or gas showings – a dry hole in other words. The Minister of Mines for BC reluctantly announced that “the government has now decided to close the well down and no further work will be undertaken.”
But was the Commotion Creek well a complete failure? In terms of producing any oil for the war effort or for the government it was a complete failure, of course. From the point of view of oil company people like Frank McMahon it helped force the provincial government, eventually, to let the private companies in. From the point of view of the two different provincial governments (there was an election during the project) involved, it showed that while they could control the industry to some extent, the actual development would have to be left to the private oil companies.
Other than the drillers and others with special skills, most of the work on the Commotion Creek well was done by local people – farmers, truck drivers and young men hoping for a bit of cash and an interesting job. E.J. Spinney of Dawson Creek bought large new trucks and hauled much of the heavy equipment to the site and then continued to service it. He hauled nearly 500 tons of equipment and machinery on roads that were not much better than primitive trails west of Chetwynd, or Little Prairie as it was known then. Olsen’s sawmill cut 30,000 feet of lumber to build the boiler house and bunkhouses needed for the actual drilling crews. So, for some local people at least, Commotion Creek was an economic bonanza in a time of limited employment.
John Kenneth Thompson was a 17-year old boy in the spring of 1940 living on the family farm near the road between Dawson Creek and Arras. His summer job that year would be to remove – roots and all – some 100 large poplar trees from a neighbour’s pasture. Working with an axe and a grub hoe he would spend all the time between June and harvest time getting those trees out – at about 50 cents per tree! It’s no wonder that when a friend offered John a job with a woodcutting crew at Commotion Creek he leaped at the chance. Adventure and the prospect of good pay were compelling forces. Everyone knew about the Commotion Creek well and young Thompson had seen the heavy equipment rolling past the farm during the previous winter while the ground was frozen hard. Looking back at that time from 60 years later, Thompson said this: “If I were to sum up my recollections of Commotion Creek in 1940, it would be to say that as a teen-aged wood-cutter arriving at the well-site, I was awed by the vast expanse of clear-trunked aspen awaiting our saws and axes. When I left [three months later] I was aghast at the stark field of stumps we were leaving behind! Perhaps the drilling was done there because of the good supply of trees for fuel.”
A community of sorts even developed around the Commotion Creek well. About 60 people lived there and enjoyed electricity from generators on site and there was even running water and hot showers. These were luxuries for most people at the time, especially those who were used to homestead life. Fred Liefson ran a general store with a pool hall attached and hosted many weekend dances – the first one had six girls among the guests. A dining room with a 40-ton ice cooler kept the drilling crew fed using supplies trucked in from Dawson Creek to go along with the odd unwary moose that wandered past at the wrong moment. There was even a First Aid service and a radio operated by future MLA Stan Carnell who brought his new bride to the site. Eventually, coal mined at the nearby Hasler Creek replaced the firewood as fuel for the boilers and several men were engaged in mining and delivering the coal in loads hauled across the Pine River. Hasler Creek coal was also sold in Dawson Creek in small quantities to fuel the cook stoves and furnaces of the booming town at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway.
The Pouce Coupe field in the Alberta Peace remained the most active area for drilling throughout the war. In the fall of 1943 the Alaska Highway Oil and Gas Company’s Well #1, 20 miles northeast of Dawson Creek and three miles inside Alberta reported a gas flow of some 5 million cubic feet a day. “The financial value and economic significance of the Pouce Coupe oil field is tremendous”, enthused the company spokesman. Two more wells were planned for later in the year.
Meanwhile the British Columbia government began reviewing its restrictive regulations for oil exploration in hopes of attracting the private investors it needed. Early suggestions included matching each permit granted with an equal-sized, adjacent grant to be held by government. Low lease rates during development would rise to $1 per acre for producing wells with royalties of 12-1/2% of gross for oil and variable rates for gas dependent on market conditions. In June 1944 some of the reserves were lifted. More changes came quite quickly after that as well, relaxing the restrictions even more.
The changes to the regulations led to more drilling activity, naturally. By 1946 the Socony-Vacuum Company was in the Fort Nelson area carrying out a test-drilling program. Fourteen geologists travelled in a group from Calgary to Banff and then on to Jasper and Grande Prairie before moving up to the Fort Nelson area – a good sign that several large companies were getting very interested in Peace River oil and gas. In November of that year reports out of Victoria indicated “vast new seams of coal and signs of oil” along the intended route of the Pine Pass highway. The signs of oil were probably not where the Commotion Creek dry hole had been drilled four years earlier!
In March 1947 Northland Utilities officials met with the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce and outlined a plan to supply Alberta natural gas to Dawson Creek for household use. Voters were asked to approve granting a franchise to the company and did so in July by a vote of 170 to 3. It was not until October 1950 that the gas actually arrived in the village but even so Dawson Creek was the first town in British Columbia to be served by natural gas. The gas was carried in a four-inch pipe built and operated by Westcoast Transmission using pipe salvaged from the wartime Canol Project at Norman Wells.
A new Petroleum and Natural Gas act came into effect in the summer of 1947 and, while it did not completely satisfy the oil companies, it did lead to much greater drilling activity. In November 1947 three 25,000 acre permits were granted to the Peace River Natural Gas Company which included Pacific Petroleum, Frank McMahon and four other partners. Victor Brandl offers this account of the company’s progress: “On Christmas eve 1947, the first well was spudded just on the BC side of [the] Pouce Coupe field and on 18 January 1948 the first commercial well in the BC Peace had been drilled. Unfortunately for the Peace River Natural Gas Company, the next six wells turned out to be dry hole.”
Are gas wells a good place for a picnic? Apparently they were in the spring of 1947 – at least for a few people. There’s a photo in the Peace River Block News showing a group of eleven Dawson Creek residents, young and old, enjoying a wiener roast over a natural gas fire at one of the gas wells northeast of town. Pipe couplings were used to spread the flames and a pipe led directly from the well. Gas pressure was reported at 600 psi at the well. It looked like fun but it probably wouldn’t be allowed today for any number of good reasons!
The companies that kept drilling for oil and just finding gas were obviously looking in the wrong places. The village of Pouce Coupe had never had a good supply of drinking water so, in the fall of 1947, an experienced driller was hired to put down a well to at least 1,000 feet in the centre of the village. At around 800 feet Mr. Lund hit gas – and oil. The well produced 15 to 20 barrels per day of good oil but never did produce a drop of water!
The 1948 and 1949 drilling seasons were very busy ones in the Peace, taking advantage of the new permit system which encouraged exploration and production. The Peace River Natural Gas Company was very active, putting down 6 wells on the Alberta side of the Pouce Coupe River in 1948. Four of those wells were good ones, one was dry and one had too much water. They should have traded that last one with the village of Pouce Coupe! On average the producing wells came in at about 2100 feet with a 20,000,000 cubic foot per day flow. The General Petroleum Company had a mobile crew of fourteen busy in Alberta but scheduled for drilling in BC in the fall. The eighth gas well in the Rolla area was located on Blaine Pierce’s farm. You will recall that Pierce was the first of the early homesteaders to report oil seepages along the Pouce Coupe River, and now a derrick stood on his land.
As 1948 drew to a close, proven production in the Rolla area was reaching 70 million cubic feet per day and many more wells were being planned. I wonder if it seemed as easy to the companies as it does to the casual reader of the news stories of the day: Pick a spot – any spot – and punch a 2500-foot deep hole in the ground. Then, just stand back and watch the gas blast out under high pressure.
In January 1949 Peace River Natural Gas applied for a 253,000-acre permit which straddled the Peace River from near Charlie Lake to the Halfway River to a point west of Taylor and back north. Another pipeline proposal was brought forward but since this one was promoted by Frank McMahon – who controlled enough gas to fill it – it got serious consideration. In May, Westcoast Transmission announced the beginning of a survey to locate a suitable route for a 30-inch pipe from the Peace to Vancouver by way of the Pine Pass, Prince George and Kamloops at a cost of about $175 million. Formal application was made in January 1950 for permission to gather gas from BC and Alberta fields and move it by pipeline to Vancouver and onward. The Member of Parliament for the BC Peace, George Murray of Fort St. John, demanded that Westcoast supply distributors such as Northland Utilities with enough gas to serve small communities like Dawson Creek, Pouce Coupe and Rolla as a term of the pipeline permit.
The spring of 1950 saw another surge in exploration. Mr. G.C. Mitchell of Vancouver, a professional prospector, finished staking several large blocks of oil leases – some 800,000 acres in total – from the Kelly Lake area to the Wapiti River and west to the Monkman Pass. Across the province some 9 million acres were under prospecting licenses with two-thirds of that area in the Peace. The original Peace River Block had been considered huge at 3-1/2 million acres but that was only half the land area being staked for drilling in the Peace. Mr. J.L. Wilson of Wilrich Petroleum expressed an interest in establishing a refinery in Dawson Creek if the new drilling produced enough oil. Wilrich had a link with the Excelsior group that eventually did build a refinery in Dawson Creek in 1955.
Providing gas to Dawson Creek for domestic use was a small-scale but continuing saga during this period. Used 4-1/2 inch pipe from the wartime Canol Project was purchased and plans were made to service schools, businesses and the power plant by the fall of 1950. Westcoast Transmission applied for permits in Alberta to “export” gas to British Columbia for distribution by Northland Utilities. The communities of Grande Prairie, Hythe and Beaverlodge protested vigourously to the Alberta government about the unfairness of Alberta gas heating British Columbia homes while they were forced to cut wood or use coal. The Alberta government approved the movement of one trillion cubic feet of gas a year for 30 years so that Northland Utilities could service Dawson Creek.
In early October 1950 the Peace River Block News carried its first ads for gas appliances as local merchants geared up for the new world of natural gas. October 31 was the date set for the official turning on of the gas, marked by impressive flares at the Mile Zero Post and speeches by assorted dignitaries. By January 1951 some private homes were being heated by gas and the gas company was providing free lessons to housewives wanting to cook with gas but unsure how the new fuel would behave.
Soon, gas furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces were being hooked up at a frantic pace, leaving the local coal and firewood dealers without enough customers. Typically, three trucks would arrive at a house to do the job – one crew to remove old stoves and heaters, a second one to install the new appliances and the third crew, from the gas company, to hook up the meter, connect the gas and ignite the pilot lights.
Dorthea Calverley, local historian and housewife, was inspired to write about her experience with the new technology and this is part of what she had to say more than fifty years ago when gas was new and exciting: “I never felt warm since we got the gas! Don’t mistake me. Indoors I’ve never been really chilly either. In a house where the air is thermostatically controlled, circulated, humidified and filtered, that would be impossible … unless the power fails … or the gas. A neat, gray-green genie, about two feet square and five feet high, takes care of it all without so much as a wave of the hand. But he is not a friendly genie. Somehow he can never make me feel warm inside! He is not an obnoxious genie, yet I am never unaware of him. Several times a day a slight sensation tickles underneath my skin as if ranks of goose pimples were taking up stations. Just before someone is tempted to twiddle the controls, there is a slight “Click!” which says that the thermostat has gone into action. A far-off “Whoosh!” says that the pilot light has ignited the released gas. There is silence while, alerted, I subconsciously wait for the fan to cut in. Then it comes – an indescribable sound purring through the air ducts, barely audible. Oddly enough, I never hear the fan go off!”
The City of Medicine Hat, which had enjoyed natural gas for years, presented Dawson Creek with two large natural gas lamps – each with three mantles – and these were installed on top of the Mile Zero Post. They made quite a spectacle at night but unfortunately they also attracted vandals and they did not survive their first season.
November 1951 marked a major new stage in the industry’s growth in the Peace. A short distance west of Taylor, Pacific Petroleum’s Fort St. John #1 well found significant quantities of good quality oil just below the 5,000 foot level. Victor Brandl described the importance of this discovery to the development of the industry this way: “Almost overnight the population in Peace country communities like Dawson Creek and Fort St. John increased at a dizzying pace. In fact, 1952 witnessed a five-fold increase as newcomers flooded into the region in pursuit of work and gas field riches.” This was the sixteenth well drilled by the Pacific Petroleum group and Frank McMahon was quoted as saying: “This is the first oil discovery in British Columbia and we are proud to have made it.” The provincial government was also pleased with the way things were going and issued more than 75 drilling permits during that one year.
About this time the pace of development in the region becomes so rapid that it is difficult to concentrate on any single exploration project. The pioneering days are clearly over and now it is the time for the huge corporations to move in with the latest technologies and seemingly unlimited amounts of capital. In July 1953 two oil refineries were announced for the BC Peace – one to be built in Dawson Creek by Excelsior and the other by Peter Schwerdt and associates, this one planned for the Pouce Coupe area. By 1955 the X-L refinery was a reality but the second one was never built.
Two regional telephone books from the early days of rapid growth in the industry give an interesting picture of change, first in 1957 and then in 1963. North-West Tel provided the phone service in 1957 and while Dawson Creek had fairly modern phone numbers like Sterling 2-3938 the numbers in Fort St. John were likely to be just something like “218”. Dawson Creek was by far the larger and more important town in the Peace at the time and remained so for a while after 1960.
In 1957, the yellow pages for Dawson Creek and Fort St. John listed about 25 companies in the Oil and Oilfield Service categories for each community. Six years later, Dawson Creek showed a small decline in numbers while Fort St. John was home to about 65 such companies. The movement of the oil companies to the fields north of the Peace River was well underway and continued for the following 40 years. With the discovery of a very deep and very large gas field just south and west of Dawson Creek, oil patch activity may move south again for a while.
My time with you is just about over so I will close by simply hoping that your conference sessions will be valuable to you as you take on the opportunities, the challenges and changes that lie ahead for your industry. Thank you.
- Bowes, Gordon E. Peace River Chronicles. Vancouver: Prescott, 1963.
- Braden, Elmer. “The First Oil/Gas Drilling in the Western Peace Area”. In History is Where You Stand, Book 12,
- compiled by Dorthea Calverley.
- Brandl, Victor. A Short History of the Oil and Gas Industry in the Peace Country of British Columbia, 1999.
- (Address to Oil & Gas Week breakfast)
- Calverley, Dorthea. History is Where You Stand.
- Coutts, Marjorie. The South Peace Region and Dawson Creek. South Peace Historical Society, 1958.
- Galloway, J.D. Peace River Mining Division, in Annual Report of the Minister of Mines for 1923,
- Province of B.C. [in Bowes, Gordon E.]
- Grande Prairie Herald, August 1921.
- Parr, E.R. “The Wildcat that blew up in our faces”. Imperial Oil Review, June 1958.
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