The Canadian petroleum industry can trace its origins to Charles Nelson Tripp who, in 1851, recovered bitumen from surface seeps at a site in Enniskillen Township in present-day Ontario. In 1854 Tripp founded the first Canadian oil company, the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, which he subsequently sold to James Miller Williams. A shallow water well dug by Williams in the area in 1858 hit crude oil at a depth of 51’ and became North America’s first oil well, the Williams No.1 at Oil Springs, Ontario.
Although oil production in the Petrolea region of Ontario continued for several decades, Canadian demand, fuelled by the emergence of motor cars around the beginning of the 20th century, soon outstripped domestic capacity. Supplies of oil from Ohio increased to fill the need and the rapidly developing country became a net oil importer.
In the newly-settled Canadian west, a water well being drilled for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883 flowed natural gas that caused the drilling rig to catch on fire. In 1890 another water well, near Medicine Hat in present-day Alberta, also hit gas and eventually lead to the deliberate drilling of deeper wells and the discovery and development of the Medicine Hat gas sand starting in 1904.
The Rocky Mountain Drilling Company was set up in 1901 by John Lineham in Okotoks and he drilled the first oil exploration well in what was to become Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park in 1902. Although crude oil was recovered from several wells in the area it was not economic and exploration moved to south central Alberta where natural gas was discovered in the Bow Island No 1 well in 1909. Around the same time, a natural gas well was drilled in east Calgary that continued to provide fuel for the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company for nearly 40 years.
The outbreak of World War 1 saw Calgary’s emergence as the commercial centre for petroleum exploration activity in the province, following the discovery of wet gas and oil at Turner Valley in May of 1914. With the natural gas component flared off, the remaining liquid mixture could be used, unrefined, in automobile engines, the characteristic exhaust smell it produced causing it to be termed ‘skunk gas’.
Further drilling in the Turner Valley lead to additional hydrocarbon discoveries. These culminated in 1924 when a well drilled by the Calgary Petroleum Products Company hit oil in Paleozoic limestone. The well, which blew out at 3,870 ft , was the first in what was to become the largest oil field in the British Commonwealth and marked the beginning of several major Alberta discoveries.
The early drillers in Ontario developed the pole-tool method of drilling using rods or poles linked together, with a hardened steel drilling bit fixed to the end. By raising and dropping the ‘drill string’ a hole could be pounded into the ground, even through solid rock. Initially the poles were of ash wood, but soon iron rods were utilized. Around the same time in the United States drillers were evolving the more efficient cable-tool method using a wooden derrick and a drill bit suspended from a cable that could be extended as the well progressed.
The oilfield equipment collection at the Museum of Making is comprised of drilling and associated equipment from Alberta and Montana that reflect the technology used from the early days of exploration in the Western Sedimentary Basin up until the outbreak of the Second World War.