Pandemonium broke out in Calgary on May 18, 1914. Here’s why…

Oil brokers and investors at the King George Hotel

It was an enterprising Okotoks farmer's discovery near Turner Valley that led to the birth of Western Canada’s first commercial oilfield. William Stewart Herron recognized the odour bubbling up along the Sheep River from his days working the oilfields of Pennsylvania. He captured the vapour in a couple of gallon stone jugs and sent it away for testing. Sure enough, it was petroleum gas. He gambled and filed land claims on 7,000 acres in the Turner Valley area. The harder part was finding financial backing for drilling so Herron decided to get creative.

He began selling real estate in Calgary—a better location to find investors. Eventually he roused the interest of two men—William Elder and Archibald Wayne Dingman—and they agreed to make the trek to see his discovery. Once they arrived at Sheep River, Herron’s showmanship kicked in. Without a word he set up a small stove over a gas fissure on the creek, lit the gas, and proceeded to fry eggs. That’s all it took; the three men returned to Calgary to found Calgary Petroleum Products Company.

For the next two years, two men, Martin Hovis and Bob Brown, worked exhausting 12-hour shifts, drilling for oil with a primitive cable rig that pounded heavy iron bits through the earth. On May 14, 1914, they hit the jackpot: though they called it oil, it was in fact naptha gas that streamed up out of what would come to be called the “Dingman No. 1 Well”. The Board of Directors quickly made a trip out to the well, and celebrated by refilling their tanks with the “sweet oil” for the trip back.

Dingman No. 1 and No. 2

When news of the Turner Valley discovery spread to Calgary pandemonium broke loose. On May 18, the Calgary Herald headline proclaimed: “Oil excitement is greater than ever in Calgary”. The article described the scene on the streets:

“On every available space in the downtown section, curb traders and agents have set up stands and brokers’ offices spring up like mushrooms, in hotel lobbies, barber shops, cigar stores, drug stores and on the street. It was a common sight this morning to see several men busy nailing up a blackboard on the outside of a small office.  A blackboard is all that is necessary to put one in business as an oil broker.  First comes the inspiration, then the blackboard and then the money.”

Calgary was awash in a speculative flurry, with new oil companies springing up on every corner. About 500 new companies set up shop, but only 50 started drilling, and of that, only a few found oil.

Though the Calgary Stock Exchange was established in 1913, it was still very much the Wild West, and dishonest practices left many investors penniless.

The boom didn’t last long—by winter the “oil” at Dingman No. 1 seemed to be drying up. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Turner Valley area reaped significant quantities of commercial-grade oil, thanks to improved drilling techniques.

Sepia photograph of a bird's eye view of the developing oilfields in Turner Valley

Want to learn more?

Read: The Boom and The Bust 1910-1914, Editor Ted Byfield, Dusters and Gushers: The Canadian Oil and Gas Industry, Editor James D. Hilborn, The Great Canadian Oil Patch, by Earle Gray

Graphic of #tbt150

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