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Alberta's First Natural Gas Discovery
by Micky Gulless

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Image from booklet on Alberta's First Natural Gas Discovery.
From Alberta's First Natural Gas Discovery, a booklet published in 1981 by PanCanadian

This is a story about Alberta's first natural gas discovery and the fun I had finding it. It was my very favorite project of all the things I did during the 24 years I worked at PanCanadian Petroleum (now EnCana Corporation).

This presentation debuted at the Petroleum History Society Luncheon on September 20, 1995 and was repeated at Inter-Can - The Calgary Oil & Gas Show on June 19, 1997.

An anniversary gift for the CPR

Robert W. Campbell initiated this project in 1977. He was Chairman and CEO of PanCanadian, which was 81% owned by Canadian Pacific. The Canadian Pacific Railway's centennial was coming up in 1981, and Mr. Campbell chose this project as PanCanadian's way to commemorate 100 years of incorporation of the CPR.

He asked Bill Webb to find Alberta's first gas well. I worked for Bill Webb in Exploration Administration, and he brought me in on the project.

Location was common knowledge

It was common knowledge in the industry that the CPR discovered gas in a water well at Langevin siding in 1883, and drilled a second well in 1884. But the exact location and other details were unknown.

Bill Webb and I visited the discovery site, about 35 miles west of Medicine Hat, in July 1977. It's legal description, for those who like well locations, is 03-29-015-10-W4.

The site has had three names. Originally it was Langevin Siding. In 1910, when settlers were coming in large numbers and a town arose, it was called Carlstadt. After World War I, around 1915, the name was changed again to Alderson, its current name (but there isn't much there anymore).

1970s highway commemorative sign

This highway point-of-interest sign was erected in the spring of 1971 as a result of an argument between Mr. Justice A. J. Cullen and Mr. R. L. Jardine. Rolly Jardine, a court reporter at Lethbridge, told me that he and Justice Cullen both claimed Alberta's first gas discovery was made at their home town. Justice Cullen was from Bow Island, and Rolly Jardine was from Alderson. As you can see, Mr. Jardine won.

Photo of 1971 highway commemorative sign.

The sign reads:

Province of Alberta - First Discovery of Natural Gas

The first gas well in Alberta was drilled at Alderson, about three kilometres to the southwest. The C.P.R. sunk a well in 1883 seeking water for its transcontinental railway locomotives, but struck natural gas instead, at a depth of 3250 metres. A second well, the following year, again struck gas. By the early 1890s several more wells had been drilled in the Medicine Hat area, producing gas for home and factory. From this small but promising beginning grew Alberta's natural gas industry.

Notice anything odd on this sign?

Canada was changing to metric in the late 1970s, and this sign had been "metricated." Only they goofed. According to the sign, this old well found gas at 3250 metres, or over 10 000 feet! That depth was probably impossible with a cable-tool water-drilling rig. The correct depth is 325 metres or 1155 feet.

Research at The Calgary Herald
Mining and Range Advocate and General Advertiser

These old wells left quite a foot print. There is quite a bit of evidence, especially considering that this was really the wild frontier in 1883. I will show you the actual written records to let the past speak for itself.

One of the first places I went to do research was the Herald, which was conveniently located in their old downtown building. I read microfilmed issues of The Calgary Herald Mining and Range Advocate and General Advertiser from 1883 to 1885. This made me feel woozy as the microfilm scrolled up as you moved through the papers. Luckily they yielded some valuable information.

On December 12, 1883, they reported:

Image of article in newspaper from December 12, 1883.

"PHENOMENON. - At Langevin, 4th siding west of Medicine Hat, a rather singular phenomenon has presented itself. The well-borers have reached a depth of 1,120 feet without finding water, but a gas which rushes out of the tube, which, on taking fire emits a flame sufficient to light up the surrounding country. They still purpose going deeper for the water, but have given up working at night, not considering it safe."

Then in the Herald of January 16, 1884 (note date in left image):

Image of article in newspaper from January 16, 1884.  Enlarged image of article in newspaper from January 16, 1884.

"ACCIDENT. - On Tuesday of last week, an accident occurred at Langevin, fourth siding west of Medicine Hat, by the taking fire of the gas escaping from the bore of the artesian well at that place. The frame building surrounding the engine was in a few moments destroyed, and the men at work were in eminent peril of their lives. A man named Haines, had his leg severely fractured, and another whose name we did not learn, was badly burnt about the face and arms. Dr. Henderson left on Thursday morning to attend the injured men."

I've been told by several historians that historical research often can be very strange - like you find information when you stop looking and move on to another subject. These newspaper clippings are a perfect example. I later discovered that the Glenbow Archives had a microfilm reader-printer, so I went to get copies of these articles. Strangely these two editions of the Herald, were missing from the Glenbow's reels! If I had done the newspaper research at the Glenbow, instead of the Herald, I would have never have found these articles.

The last reference I found was in the Herald of October 29, 1884:

Image of article in newspaper from October 29, 1884.

"LANGEVIN. - The gas from the well is being utilized for fuel. Pipes have been run from the well to the section house, into both cooking and heating stoves, no other fuel being required for either."

Research at Canadian Pacific's Archives

Next, I headed to Canadian Pacific's Archives in Montreal. They were in Windsor Station, which looks a bit like a castle, and the Archives were in this little turret at the top. (I'm not sure if they are still there, as the station was renovated. Update January 2007: They are no longer in the turret, but on the ground floor of the station.) The Archives was furnished with wonderful old furniture, which added to the exciting historical atmosphere. Here's a fine old roll-top desk and bookcase with leaded-glass doors.

Photo of Windsor Station in Montreal with CP Archives in turret.  Photo of old roll-top desk at CP Archives.   Photo of old bookcase with leaded-glass doors at CP ARchives.

I worked at this desk, which they told me belonged to Cornelius Van Horne, with a bust of the man himself supervising me from the desk corner.

Photo of Cornelius Van Horne's desk at CP Archives.   Photo of bust of Cornelius Van Horne at CP Archives.

CP Archives are private. When the public - even distinguished authors like Pierre Burton - wants to do research there, they request subjects which are found and brought to the Archives for the researcher.

I got the keys to the vault! (It paid to be part of the corporate family.)

The vault was in the basement, and at the time they only had the senior executives' papers catalogued.

Luckily, I found a memo dated January 9, 1884, from J. M. Egan, General Superintendent of the Western Division to W.C. Van Horne Esquire, General Manager. It's some sort of regular report and only a bit of it is about our well. But I've transcribed the whole thing, which is very interesting.

Image of memo to Van Horne dated January 9, 1884.

"Dear Sir,

During last week I was out on the line as far west as Silver City (31st siding). The weather was very cold. Thursday morning it registered 55o below zero at Moose Jaw. At Broadview, Regina, and other places where they had thermometers, the mercury froze and broke the glass.

East of Moose Jaw on the Regina Plain there are large quantities of snow and where we put out fences to protect the line, there are drifts from twelve to sixteen feet deep. Up to the present time we have not had a shovel full of snow in the cuts (?) between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. West of the latter point, there were some cuts that were not taken out, and some that were not finished on account of the frost preventing it. Although we put snow fences out to protect those cuts, the snow has drifted into them "level full."

(Here we get to our well.) Prospects for water between Medicine Hat and Moose Jaw are not very encouraging. What machines Mr. Ross had, he is turning over to us. At Langevin where one of the machines is working, the gas that escapes from the pipe caught fire from the stove, and it burned the whole thing down. One of the parties who was working there and was up above at the time, was obliged to jump to the ground breaking his leg, and otherwise injuring him.

Work on the Bridge at Medicine Hat is progressing very slowly on account of the severe cold. The day I was there, all the men were obliged to quit work, and it was with difficulty that a man could walk across the River without freezing.

At Calgary there is great excitement, and the boom is making nearly all the Residents at that point nearly crazy. As I wired you from there, nearly all the building is being done and lots sold East of the Elbow. Mr. McTavish says he will have Section 15 on the market this week, and I suppose that will prevent any further sales in that line. We have commenced the station there. Have informed Mr. Ross that we would build same.

There is but little snow at Calgary and it grows lighter until 27th Siding is reached. There it commences again, and at Silver City there is about two feet of snow. At the End of Track I was informed that there was fully five feet. We had twelve cars of freight for Canmore (?) and Silver City from Calgary.

The Mining craze has started at Silver City, and there are at least four hundred (400) persons in that neighborhood now. They appear to be all satisfied with their work so far, and expect to see a large rush of prospectors in there in the Spring. I was endeavoring, as far as possible, to have them bring in what tools and provisions they wanted before Spring opened, as then no doubt we will have trouble on that Line owing to the depth of snow that is there at present. I went down in one of the mines. They were then about 100 feet below the surface of the top of one of the hills about two miles north of Silver City. They are working in a strata of Limestone between layers of quartzite. I am in hopes that there will be a rush in there during the coming spring so that we may be able to realize something by hauling them.

Mr. Ross has had men at work getting out wood and ties.

Yours truly,
James Egan
General Superintendent"

I found this article early in my week's stay at Montreal, but could not find any other useful leads to the old well. So I used the rest of the time snooping into other things, like:

  • the sinking of the Empress of Ireland - a tragedy worse than the Titanic,
  • the Railway's campaign in Romania to encourage settlers (like my great grandparents) to come to Saskatchewan,
  • Chief Crowfoot for whom my elementary school was named,
  • the time the train crashed into the basement at Windsor Station (where I was currently working),
  • old photographs, etc.

It was a wonderful week, and I could hardly believe I was getting paid for it. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet the Chief Archivist, Omer Lavallée, who I had talked to on the phone, as he was ill that week.

Research at the Glenbow Archives

Research at the Glenbow Archives also yielded some interesting information. This little gas discovery had caught the eye of Canada's geological community. Dr. George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada, collected information on the wells at Langevin siding and other wells, and presented a paper to the Royal Society of Canada on May 26, 1886. The paper was called on On Certain Borings in Manitoba and the Northwest Territory. I believe this paper is what kept the Langevin discovery information alive in the industry.

Image of sample description from Dawson's 1886 paper called On Certain Borings in Manitoba and the Northwest Territory.

Dawson provided a great deal of information about the gas discovery, including a sample description, which you are looking at now. He made some prophetic comments on the future of oil and gas from such scant information. Here is some of the section on the wells at Langevin.

"... The wells at this place did not yield any sufficient quantity of good water, though small flows were met with at several levels. They have, however, demonstrated the very important fact that a large supply of natural combustible gas exists in this district, at depths of 900 feet and over, in the sandy layers of the 'Lower Dark shales.' In consequence of the generally horizontal position and widespread uniformity in the character of the rocks, it is probable that a similar supply will be met with over a great area of this part of the Northwest, and that it may become in the near future a factor of economic importance."

Research at PanCanadian and with Alderson residents

Image of 1910 survey plat.  Enlarged portion of 1910 survey plat.

PanCanadian's own files contained this survey plat, dated 1910, which shows the second well. Eventually I discovered why the CPR Western Division had done this survey. In 1909, Eugene Coste discovered gas at Bow Island on what he thought was CPR land. It turned out that it was not CPR land, so the CPR had to trade other lands with the Crown to get possession of the discovery land. So, the CPR Law Department ordered surveys and title searches of every gas well on CPR land.

This was all the contemporary information on the wells that I could find. But I never stopped searching. I even went to Powell River, BC, where Dr. Henderson had ended up. I hoped he had left some record of the accident at the well. I didn't find anything, but a bunch of eager-to-help pensioners who knew where to get beer during a prolonged beer strike. But that's another story ...

Photo of Alderson station around the 1920s.

Bill Webb and I also talked to old-time residents of the area. We never found out any more information about what happened in 1883-1884. But we learned about the later years of the second well, the one that was producing. This photo shows Alderson in the 1920s when the town was thriving.

We learned a lot from Mr. and Mrs. James Warne of Medicine Hat. They lived at Alderson siding for 10 years from about 1932 to 1942. Mr. Warne was Section Foreman for this part of the track. In 1932, there were two section houses and two bunkhouses on the north side of the track, and the station was on the south side. All these buildings were lit with natural gas, and they had previously been heated with gas as well. The Warnes remember that the gas was processed through a separator to remove the water.

Following a natural gas explosion in 1934 or 1935, the Bridge and Building Department of the CPR removed all the gas connections to the buildings and abandoned the well with a few wheelbarrowsful of cement. As far as is known, this was the first attempt to abandon the producing well after 50 years of production. The Warnes told us the well continued to blow water for some time after this abandonment attempt. It would form a mountain of ice by the tracks in the winter. They showed us a photo of their children playing on this "hill" (the only hill around) with their sled.

To stop the leakage, the Bridge and Building Department added more cement and rammed a sharpened railroad tie into the casing. Mrs. Warne told us the well was rumbling and growling one day when the weather was changing. So Mr. Warne went out to fix it. He smacked the casing hard, which caused the sharpened railroad tie to shoot out of the well like it was shot out of a cannon. It went straight up very high, almost into orbit, then straight back down. Luckily, Mr. Warne was not underneath when the tie returned to earth. By the time the Warnes left in 1942, the well still leaked gas but with little pressure.

Between 1942 and 1954, some further attempts were made to seal off the gas leak with a cement plug placed over the well, probably by the CPR Bridge and Building Department, but I never found any details. In 1954, the well was leaking gas quite badly and fissures had formed as far as 20 feet away from the well. The Alberta Oil and Gas Conservation Board (as the EUB was called then) notified the CPR that the well would have to be cleaned out to its total depth of 1426 feet and reabandoned.

Reabandonment operations took from July 19 to September 30, 1954 - 2 1/2 months! The abandonment was complicated by odd-sized pipes that modern tools did not fit, high gas pressures, and much debris in the hole. The photo shows the well after reabandonment.

Photo of visible second well abandoned in 1954.

Around the time of the reabandonment, references to the discovery well and the producing well being very close together start to appear. A 1969 book, called Oil in Canada West the Early Years by George de Mille, told us that the two wells were drilled just eight feet apart. Bill Webb and I discussed this with John Peake, who was the Petroleum Engineer for the Department of Natural Resources of the CPR at the time of abandonment. He said there was no evidence of two wells at the site, and he thought he only found out about the first well after the reabandonment. I also talked to Frenchie LeRoux who was the tool push during the reabandonment. He said he knew there were two wells at the site, but could not detect the presence of the other. I could NOT find any information to support the statement that the wells were very close together.

We had learned a lot, but we had not found Alberta's first gas well, as Mr. Campbell asked. We knew now that we couldn't find it with more research.

Physical Investigation - geophysics and geology

PanCanadian's Chief Geophysicist, Easton Wren, heard of our plight and had an idea. He suggested high resolution resistivity, a shallow geophysical technique, used in civil engineering for bridge or building construction. It had been used in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt to locate tombs. It was expected to pinpoint near-surface anomalies in the electromagnetic response of the soil, such as the disturbance that would have been caused by drilling.

Photo of crew from R.M.Hardy.

In this photo, a crew from R. M. Hardy and Associates is preparing to run the high resolution resistivity survey around the visible second well on March 15, 1978. The fellow in the middle is Paul Gibson, PanCanadian's Geophysical Field Supervisor. The long white bar was the tool used.

The survey succeeded in removing most of the station grounds from the area of probability. Only two anomalies were found, one near the second visible well, and one in the area where we had been told was the site of the water separator.

Next, we tried a geological idea. The theory was that the clayish soil around second well could be contaminated with metals from the casing, decreasing in concentration with distance. Through a systematic sampling grid, we could identify another occurrence of the pattern.

Photo of crew from Chemical and Geological Labs.

This photo shows staff from Chemical and Geological Laboratories. They're trying to take soil samples near the second well with a rented auger, in October 1978. The auger kept getting stuck in large, fire-charred wooden beams. We figured they must be part of the well cellar, or wooden-derrick debris. The only thing to do now was to dig it up.

Archaeological Dig

Photo of archaeological crew from John Brumley and Associates.

In this photo, taken on September 27, 1979, an archaeological crew from John Brumley and Associates is just beginning the dig. The man in the maroon jacket near the back of the photo is Bill Webb.

Photo of Robert W. Campbell and Juhn M Taylor talking to John Brumley.

By October 27, 1979, the dig was completed and the well found. Bill Webb and I visited the dig with the two big bosses from PanCanadian. This photo shows archaeologist John Brumley in the pit, discussing the well with Robert Campbell (in the cap), Chairman and CEO, and John Taylor, President of PanCanadian.

Photo of Alberta's first natural gas discovery well.
Here it is - the first well to discover natural gas in Alberta!

It appears that the 1883 discovery well did not leak. Is that possible? I think so. I believe that the discovery well was abandoned by an experienced drilling crew. The second well was abandoned by railway crews that really didn't know what they were doing with a well producing gas and water from multiple zones.

Photo of the discovery well and the archaeolgical pits.

This photo shows the discovery well and the pits dug by the archeologists. You can see the fire-charred beams that we kept augering into, and the debris.

Photo of second well and discovery well.

This photo shows the second well in the foreground and the discovery well in the pit behind. And guess what! The wells are about 8 feet apart. It took all this work to verify a rumor that popped up 60 years after the wells were drilled, and then turned out to be TRUE!

When the dig was finished, the archaeologists lined the pits with plastic, then replaced the soil on top of the plastic. If the area is ever excavated again, it will be very obvious where the soil remains undisturbed.

John Brumley wrote an article on Alberta's First Natural Gas Wellsite for the Alberta Archaeological Review, the Spring 1982 issue.

Commemorating the Discovery

Now that the discovery well was found, we proceeded to make a permanent memorial to commemorate CP's centennial. In September 1980, I wrote a report applying to Alberta Culture to make the site a Provincial Historic Resource. The application was accepted. Some time later, Alberta Culture sent a History Professor to audit me and make sure that our research was valid. Luckily, I passed.

The CP centennial was now close at hand. We had an illustration drawn of drilling the discovery. I gathered all the information that I could find to help with the image. Robert Saunders, PanCanadian's annual report designer, painted the scene. (The original hung on PanCanadian's Executive floor.) We also used the discovery well as the cover art for PanCanadian's 1980 annual report, which was published in early 1981, the centennial year. Robert Saunders also designed the booklet that I wrote called Alberta's First Natural Gas Discovery. There is a copy in the Glenbow Archives.

Illustration of discovery site.  Photo of Alberta's First Natural Gas Discovery booklet.

The next step was to erect a lasting monument at the site - one that required no maintenance and that was bullet-proof since it would be out on the bald prairie. Bill Webb researched other sites commemorating discoveries, many in the States, looking for design ideas. We decided on a cairn, which was designed by D. S. Bathory, Stevenson, Raines & Partners, who also designed the interior of the new PanCanadian Plaza building. The cairn was built by Anglia Steel, and installed by Brooks Oilfield Services in late 1981.


Photo of Bill Webb and the crew installing the commemorative cairn.

This photo shows Bill Webb at the site with the installation crew.


Photo of the commemorative cairn.

Here's the cairn. To keep the public off the railway tracks, the cairn is set back a safe distance from the wells, and the chain link fence keeps youngsters from straying onto the tracks.

Here's a close-up of the cairn inscription.

In the early 1980s, Alberta Culture put up a new point-of-interest sign on the highway using the drawings from PanCanadian's booklet on the wells.

I am really glad that PanCanadian gave me the opportunity to work on this project, which I thoroughly enjoyed. PanCanadian invested a great deal of time, effort, and money to find this well. And I'm glad that they did, preserving the story of these old wells.

I would like to thank PanCanadian for their help with my presentation today. Special thanks to Bonnie Mech for letting me use the files in PanCanadian's Archives, and to Ennio Trevisanut for making these photos from a mixed collection of photos, xeroxes, and copies of microfilm.

Micky Gulless

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