History of Turner Valley

It all started in Turner Valley – the birthplace of Alberta’s Oil and Gas Industry. On May 14, 1914 the Dingman Discovery Well blew in changing Alberta’s economic future. For 30 years, the Turner Valley Oilfield was a major supplier of oil and gas and the largest producer in the British Empire! Turner Valley’s early years were marked by three major “booms” that occurred in this once famous oilfield. So significant was Turner Valley’s role in the oil and gas industry that the Federal Government declared the Turner Valley Oilfields Gas Plant a National Historic Site.

The Booms

Dingman Drilling Platform

Dingman #1 Drilling Platform
Photograph NA-554-11
Courtesy of the Glenbow Archives
Calgary, Alberta

On May 14, 1914 Dingman No. 1 well opened spewing natural gas and causing a flurry of investment activity in the Calgary area. Although the speculation from the early discoveries did not pan out for most investors the oilmen persevered. In the spring of 1924 Royalite No. 4 well blew, producing 21 million cubic feet of wet gas and over 600 bbls. of white naphtha per day. That discovery put Turner Valley on the map! The blowout that occurred with Royalite #4 ran wild for weeks before primitive techniques extinguished the flame and eventually controlled the gas.


The Turner Valley Oilfields became the cornerstone of Alberta’s early oil and gas industry and the training ground for the industry as we know it today. Oil from the early wells was a clear naphtha with very low sulphur content, meaning it was possible to use as fuel for automobiles directly from the well without further refinement. Before pipelines were laid connecting the gas supply to Calgary, there wasn’t a large market for the gas that was produced from the wells. It was the oil that was valuable.

Consequently, the gas that was not used at the drilling site for heating homes in the Turner Valley area was allowed to blow free and burn. During this time, the Turner Valley skies were lit both day and night from the glow of the magnificent flares that burned off the gas. Turner Valley Oilfields became the largest oilfield in Canada and for more than ten years produced 200 million cubic feet of gas daily, enough to have supply the daily needs of New York City.

Even when pipelines were eventually laid to Calgary, there was still far more gas than was needed. Excess gas from the Royalite Oil Co. Gas Plant was piped from the plant and discharged into a ravine where it was burned. The area around this great flare became known as Hell’s Half Acre. As stories told, during the Great Depression people would come from all over Canada and the U.S. looking for work in the Turner Valley Oilfields. On cold winter nights these travellers would huddle around the banks of Hell’s Half Acre to keep warm.

The third boom for the Turner Valley Oilfields came on June 16, 1936, with the discovery of crude oil. Oil production grew steadily in Turner Valley until the field peaked in 1942, producing over 10 million barrels of oil to assist the war effort.

Boom Towns

Throughout Turner Valley’s oil producing days came a steady stream of oilfield workers from all over Canada and the U.S. Boom towns popped up throughout the area. As activity shifted to different areas in the Turner Valley oilfields, the workers would move their houses, referred to as “tar paper shacks” to the new location. As a result of this “shack environment,” many boom towns were formed complete with gambling casinos and cat houses! Some of the colourful names attached to these communities were: Whiskey Row, Poverty Flats, Dogtown, Snob Hill, Cuffling Flats, Little New York, Little Chicago, Naptha, and Mercury. By the 1950’s when oil drilling activity moved to the Leduc area, the shacks disappeared.

Turner Valley Gas Plant

Dingman Drilling Platform

Turner Valley Gas Plant
Photograph NA-67-106
Courtesy of the Glenbow Archives
Calgary, Alberta

The Gas Plant constructed in Turner Valley during the 1930’s remained operational until 1985. When abandoned, the Provincial Government acquired the site and began working in cooperation with the Federal Government on the preservation of the Gas Plant as a National Historic Site.

From within the bounds of the Town of Turner Valley is an impressive industrial complex of tanks, pipelines, domed buildings, and scrubbing chimneys. This is the Turner Valley Gas Plant, now a national historic site. It is the only surviving example of its kind in Canada and a pioneering component in one of the most important oil and gas fields in Alberta.

Although the Gas Plant no longer functions, this remarkable collection of structures dating back to 1933, provides a historical study of the early development period in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. It houses a considerable amount of intact oil and gas processing equipment, much of which was state of the art and some of which was truly innovative when it was installed. The Turner Valley Gas Plant boasts Canada’s first high pressure absorption gas extraction plant, first sour gas scrubbing plant (1935, 1941), and first propane plant in Canada (1949-1952). Other technological achievements include being one of Canada’s first two sulphur plants (1952). It also includes remnants of distribution networks which employed both above and below ground pipelines. Such artifacts, largely unchanged, provide an important physical reminder of the complex processes necessary to refine and deliver oil and gas early in this century.

Clean up operations are on-going. For more information, contact Alberta Community Development by clicking here.

Local Historical Society

The Turner Valley Oilfield Society is a registered non profit society formed on June 14, 1978. The Society’s purpose is to promote the gas plant as an interpretative center and to promote awareness of the history of the Oilfields. Check out their website at http://hellshalfacres.