Leduc No. 1 moves Alberta economy from agriculture to energy

Alberta became a province in 1905. More than 40 years later it got a new identity.

Although the name remained the same, the economy did not. Moving from above the ground to deep below it, the province?s agricultural economy began to give way to oil after 1947.

The Leduc No. 1 well helped oil become exactly that ? No. 1. The huge oil strike south of Edmonton on Feb. 13, 1947 was one of the largest discoveries in Canadian history. It led to a boom that revolutionized the provincial economy and transformed Alberta politically and socially.

Long before oil started flowing at Leduc, Alberta?s energy resources already showed promise.

In the early 1900s, that promise was fulfilled with the discovery of natural gas deposits at Medicine Hat. This was followed by the discovery of oil and gas at Turner Valley in 1914 ? the largest oilfield in Canada at the time.

In the years following the Turner Valley discovery, there were no significant oil deposits found in the province. While some wondered if there was any other oil in the ground, others were much more optimistic.

By 1946 Imperial Oil had drilled 133 holes in Alberta and Saskatchewan in search of oil ? each one of them dry. With costs rising to around $23 million, reports suggested the company was considering giving up oil exploration in favour of natural gas.

Heated discussions reportedly took place at the company?s head office in Toronto in 1946. Some of the company?s directors were against throwing more money down a dry hole, while others were not ready to throw in the towel. Ultimately, Imperial Oil decided to make one final attempt.

In response to feedback from the company?s geologists, Imperial Oil began looking at central Alberta as the location for this last effort.

Under the supervision of Vern ?Dry Hole? Hunter, who earned the nickname for his work on failed wells, drilling began in a field 15 kilometres west of Leduc on Nov. 20, 1946.

Samples from the drilling were already showing traces of oil by January. The following month ? at a depth of more than 1,500 metres ? a shot of mud and light crude oil burst through the pipe.

With expectations high, invitations were sent out for a celebration on Feb. 13. To meet that deadline, crews were forced to work through the night of Feb. 12 and most of the following day to repair broken equipment.

The well produced 41 barrels in the first hour, followed by 40 in the second. From 1947 to 1974, Leduc No. 1 would produce 317,000 barrels of oil and nine million cubic metres of natural gas.

Three months later, Leduc No. 2 came into production. By the end of the year, 147 more wells were drilled in the surrounding oilfield. Leduc proved to be one of the richest oil deposits in the country.

In Alberta, oil output increased from three million barrels in 1946 to 143 million barrels 10 years later.

Besides the oil industry, the province also benefited from the boom. Leduc enjoyed growth, while Edmonton and Calgary also prospered, with the latter becoming the centre of the oil industry in Alberta.

The impact on the economy was just as significant. About half of the province?s wealth came from agriculture in 1935, but by 1971 that number had decreased to 15 per cent. Making up the difference was resource mining, which grew to 40 per cent. (Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history.

Paul can be reached at backtothepast@sasktel.net)