When Imperial Oil Well #1 began gushing vast quantities of crude oil in February, 1947, Alberta officially entered the “oil age,” and soon became Canada’s leading producer. In short order, other important discoveries were made at Redwater, Devon, Valleyview and Swan Hills. In the meantime, the Leduc field was expanded, with other oil companies making significant strikes. One of these was the Atlanta Oil Company, headed by Frank MacMahon. On 16 August 1947, he signed a lease option for NW23 TP50 R26 W4 for $175,000. The owners of this farm were all members of the Rebus family, with the actual title to the land then in dispute. Also in dispute was a claim by Imperial Oil that it in fact already held a lease option for this quarter. MacMahon was able to work a deal with Imperial, while getting the Rebus family members to agree to his option.
On 15 January 1948, drilling proved successful, as oil gushed out of the ground to a height of 150 feet. It was pressured by an estimated 15 million cubic feet per day flow. Such extensive pressure was not easy to control however. On 21 March, efforts to clear a stuck pipe resulted in the fracturing of the surrounding area, and natural gas and oil began to escape over a wide radius. Fearful of a fire, the government put up roadblocks in the district, while the construction workers worked frantically to control the surge of oil and gas. Reportedly, redwood fibre, mud, and even feathers were used to stop the gush, without success. As the oil and gas spread, the entire Leduc field was shut down. On 15 May, operation of the errant well was taken over by the provincial Oil & Gas Conservation Board, which contracted Imperial Oil to try to cap the well and begin cleanup operations. The main activity involved pumping water down a nearby well directed towards the shaft of Atlantic #3. In the meantime, planes were warned away from the area, and there were even rumours that water supply could be affected as far away as Edmonton.
By June, most of the escaping fluid was seen to be oil. On 7 June, this was estimated to be 11,097 barrels daily. That which was gathering in various surface sumps then began to be piped away from the area. By 19 July, production from the well was estimated to have dropped to 7,772 barrels per day. Then, on 6 September, a spark from somewhere ignited a fire, and the greatest oil well disaster in Alberta’s history began. The event caused a sensation heard around the world. As flames licked a hundred feet into the air, smoke billows could be seen for over a hundred miles, while the atmosphere around most of Alberta was darkened. News reporters came from all over North America, and the story was featured on television and on the Movietone News in theatres.
To combat the blaze, the noted oil well firefighter, Myron Kinley of Texas, was brought in. After trying several tactics that failed, he determined that two directional wells should be dug to kill the flow from the bottom, and this eventually worked. By November, the spectacular fire was over, and massive cleaning up operations were underway. The story was not over, however, for many parties had a legal claim, including the Rebuses, whose lives were disrupted by the hordes of sight-seers. Other oil companies also put in claims for damages. Indeed, the government passed a special act to deal with compensation due from the Atlantic #3 disaster. The out-of-control well also brought regulatory changes to the oil industry, such as minimum surface casting and control training standards.
The historical significance of the Atlantic #3 Well Site lies in its representation of the greatest oil well disaster in Alberta’s history, at least from the point of view of its magnitude and the international sensation it caused (there were no deaths associated with it). Visual images (still and moving) shown right at the sight will give the public a lasting impression of what took place. In 2007, the well-site was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.
Written by: David Leonard, Historian
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Atlantic No. 3 Wild Well Site, near Devon. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Atlantic No. 3 Wild Well Site.