Secrets of

Athabasca

This little light of ours

Athabasca Landing, site to one of the first petroleum wells in Alberta; just south of “The Wonderful Light of Pelican Portage”

Hannah Lawson, Athabasca Advocate

Anyone walking around Athabasca and passing by the town’s historical plaques would be hard-pressed to miss the rich history of the area.

Unless one was to peer deeply into the story of Alberta’s oil sands, though, one detail about the region could be easily overlooked.

While still in its formative years, when it was still listed as part of the Northwest Territories, Athabasca became the location of two of the very first petroleum wells in what is now Alberta. 

During the Canadian government’s early attempts to tap into reported reserves of petroleum in the early 1890s in the west, a well was drilled on the shores of the Athabasca River at the mouth of the Muskeg Creek, across from the Hudson’s Bay Company reserve land at the time, according to the book Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History.

The other was northeast of Athabasca Landing, also on the banks of the river at the Pelican Rapids.

“Most people think the oil industry in western Canada started in the High River, Okotoks, Turner Valley area, because that’s where things really took off,” said Donald Kvill, retired Athabasca University assistant professor of earth sciences.

“But in fact, well before that, they drilled the two wells I’m talking about here, and that’s hardly ever recognized in the literature,” added Kvill, who wrote about the subject in Alberta Beneath Our Feet: The Story of Our Rocks and Fossils.

And a one-vote win in Canada’s House of Commons made it happen.

Athabasca’s natural resources

In the 1975 book Tales of the Tar Sands, Dorothy Dahlgren states that in 1893 “some farsighted, but long-forgotten member of parliament did propose in the House that a paltry seven thousand dollars be allocated for exploratory purposes in this far west. The motion was carried by a hair’s breadth – one single vote.”

The “Geological Survey of Canada: Report of Progress, 1894” states the drilling began at the Athabasca Landing that year.

R.G. McConnell states in the report that he had examined geological conditions along the Athabasca and Peace Rivers in 1890.

“The tar sands evidence and upwelling of petroleum to the surface is unequalled elsewhere in the world,” he wrote.

He said the rock layer that would contain oil at the Athabasca Landing would likely be 1,200 to 1,500 feet below the surface.

Edmonton and area residents took interest in the development of the Athabasca oil field, and the 1894 report stated small investments were being made on the site.

The oil well commissioned by the Geographical Survey of Canada in 1894 on the shore of the Athabasca River near the Athabasca townsite.
The oil well commissioned by the Geographical Survey of Canada in 1894 on the shore of the Athabasca River near the Athabasca townsite. (From Athabasca Landing: An Illustrated History

Natural gas was also discovered at the Athabasca Landing oil well site – which the drillers actually identified as one of the main problems preventing them from reaching the oil sands.

“It’s a problem in that today it would be a resource, and they would be delighted and they’d cap it and they’d sell it, but in those days natural gas was considered to be a nuisance,” Kvill said.

After the Geographical Survey of Canada abandoned the site, private companies capitalized on natural gas wells in the area throughout the early 1900s. Newspaper clippings found in the Athabasca Archives show Athabasca experienced a gas boom from 1912 up until the early 1950s, and area natural gas was utilized within the town for light and heat.

The earliest newspaper clipping the Advocate could locate about the Athabasca well site was in the Edmonton Bulletin on Sept. 10, 1894.

“A flow of natural gas, capable of supplying a town the size of Edmonton, has been struck at Athabasca Landing by the petroleum boring party under the supervision of Dr. Selwyn and direction of the Dominion government,” the article states.

And so, due to the gas snags they hit while aiming for oil at the Athabasca Landing site, the Geographical Survey switched locations to Pelican Portage where tar sands were estimated to be at about 700 feet.

Wonderful Light of Pelican Portage

Drilling in the Pelican Rapids area also failed to produce any petroleum, according to the Geological Survey report, but geologists again struck a supply of natural gas – this time, a massive one.

The Athabasca University’s Athabasca Landing history website states how reports described the gas discovery at a depth of 820 feet.

“The roar of the gas could be heard for three miles or more. Soon it had completely dried the hole, and was blowing a cloud of dust fifty feet into the air,” it states, quoting Thomas Court’s 1973 article “A Search for Oil.”

In his book The Place We Call Home: A History of Fort McMurray As Its People Remember, Irwin Huberman wrote the team abandoned the well after Ottawa told them to do so. They tried to cap the well with a concrete seal before leaving but were unable to contain the well’s “intense force.” They then ignited the gas to prevent the well from further fouling the air.

“And the Wonderful Light of Pelican Portage was born to be a beacon and a boon to lonely explorers, freighters and trappers – a high, beckoning finger of flame which later promised untold, undiscovered riches still hidden underground on the banks of the Athabasca River,” Dahlgren wrote.

The light was not extinguished until 1918, but would on occasion light up again and stay lit for years on end.

In addition to being an object of mythical curiosity, the natural gas of the area was used by locals for heating and agriculture.

In the Sept. 13, 1946 edition of the Athabasca Echo, a description of a 16.5-inch cantaloupe given to the editor of the newspaper was said to have been grown in Pelican Portage utilizing heat from natural gas flare.

“The enthusiastic gardeners of the district turn the flares on the garden at night, keeping frost away, with wonderful results,” the article reads.

It also mentioned watermelons and tomatoes “ripened on the vine” at the beginning of September.

Kurt Georg Naumann, a German trapper, and river guide of the Pelican Portage area, was one of these enthusiastic gardeners. A June 7, 1978 article – which refers to him as Dick – from the Athabasca Echo speaks about a historic trip down the Athabasca River, and mentions Naumann’s horticultural achievements as being famous across the north.

“Dick’s garden is something to behold. It is lighted and heated by several natural gas torches and this allows him to plant early in April and maintain the garden when others all through the area have long been frosted,” the article states.

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