In 1858, James Miller Williams’ Line No. 1 became the first successful oil well in North America. Located in Oil Springs, Ontario, the well sparked an oil drilling frenzy that spread across the country. In the west, attempts to bore for oil occurred in the Lac Dauphin district of Manitoba and near the town of Athabasca, although neither produced.
In 1889, oil seeps known to Aboriginal people in Southern Alberta attracted the attention of pioneer communities. Enthusiastic newspaper reports fuelled a flurry of petroleum claims in the Waterton region. Within five years, the few attempts to sink wells had ended in failure and almost all of the oil claims had lapsed.
Nearly a decade after the initial excitement, William Aldridge found the oil he’d gathered from local seeps useful. Skimming it from sluice boxes and selling it locally as lubricant and medicine, he was the first to utilize the seeps commercially.
In 1897, John Lineham established a mineral claim beside Oil Creek, and formed the Rocky Mountain Development Company. The company hauled heavy equipment on a narrow horse trail over the prairie and through the mountains. Workers erected a "Canadian Pole" rig, made entirely of wood, and powered by a 35 horse-power steam boiler. Drilling progressed slowly due to equipment problems, inexperience and accidents. In 1902, the Lineham Discovery Well No. 1 struck oil at 311 m (1,020 ft), and was said to produce 300 barrels a day.
Although not the first attempt to drill for oil in Western Canada, the Lineham Discovery Well was the first to produce saleable quantities of oil. While encouraging, its success was short-lived. Shortly after, the well casing failed and the drilling tools became lodged in the well. In 1904, with most of the tools and debris cleaned out of the well, the crew installed a pump to feed a small refinery. About 8,000 barrels of oil were extracted before the drill tools jammed in the shaft again.
The showing of the “Discovery Well” generated excitement and attracted entrepreneurs and new companies to the region, eager to share in the wealth of oil anticipated. Approximately 25 new wells were drilled in the area and plans were laid for a prosperous town named Oil City to service all the newcomers. By 1908, drilling was at a standstill, and most wells were abandoned.
Despite a few scattered drilling attempts which stretched until 1939, none proved to be commercially viable. Other significant findings, notably the Dingman No. 1 at Turner Valley in 1914, drew attention and equipment north. The Waterton region proved fruitless as a source of commercial oil and gas until the discovery of the Pincher Creek oil field in 1948.
In 1965, the Discovery Well was declared a site of national historic significance and designated the “First Oil Well in Western Canada.” A monument incorporating the embedded drilling tools was designed specifically for the site and erected in 1968. The monument is located in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, between Cameron Creek and the Akamina Highway.
First Oil Well in Western Canada National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
The Rocky Mountain Development Co., formed in the late 1890s by John Lineham, Allan Patrick and G.K. Leeson commenced drilling operations on this site in 1901 and struck oil at a depth of 1024 feet in 1902. The well failed to maintain its initial flow of 300 barrels per day and by 1904 production had dwindled to almost nothing. Further explorations in the Waterton area proved fruitless but the success, brief as it was, of this well encouraged a widespread search which led to the discovery of the Turner Valley Field in 1914.
In the late 19th century, products distilled from crude oil were valuable primarily for their use as a lubricant, medicine for people and insect repellent for livestock. John Lineham, founder of the Rocky Mountain Development Company was initially interested in oil to treat mange on livestock.
Geologists believe the first oil strikes in Waterton were due to small seepages that migrated to the surface along cracks and fault planes of the Lewis Overthrust. This is a vast sheet of Pre-Cambrian rock too old to produce oil, which stretches above much younger oil-bearing Cretaceous rock.
Dormaar, Dr. Johan and Watt, Robert A., “Oil City: Black Gold in Waterton Park,” Lethbridge Historical Society, Lethbridge, Alberta, 2007