Little Big Towns (or Big Little Towns?)
A few months back, we ran a blog post about the establishment of Alberta’s oil and gas industry at Turner Valley and the two major, and still extant, towns that developed to serve that industry – Turner Valley and Black Diamond. These two places were not the only communities that grew so suddenly and substantially with the discovery of oil in the region. In 1936, the Turner Valley Royalties Company struck oil near Longview Hill (known locally as “The Big Hill”). Oil workers again flooded to the region and numerous new communities were established. Two notable communities were given unofficial, and ironically refined, monikers – “Little Chicago” and “Little New York.”
Royalties (aka “Little Chicago”)
About 15 kilometres south of Turner Valley and Black Diamond along Highway 22 is the former community of Royalties. Little remains there today, but it was once a bustling community. Following the discovery of oil at the Turner Valley Royalties No. 1 well, a collection of shops and dwellings quickly grew nearby. In 1937, a post office opened at the town site and, due to the community’s proximity to and association with the nearby oil well, the post office and town site were given the name Royalties, but most of its residents and other locals did not use that name. Most of them called the community “Little Chicago.”
The precise origin of the name “Little Chicago” is not known, but there are a number of theories. One story is that the many American oil workers in the area ironically compared the frenetic activity of the little town site to the bustling mid-west American city. To further complement the comparison, a small slough near the town site became known as “Lake Michigan.” Another, and even more colourful origin story, concerns Rex Warman, the owner of the first store in the community. According to Rex’s wife Florence, her husband was known locally as “Little Al Capone” or “Little Scarface” due to a scar on his upper lip. Although, she also said that some people felt the store’s prices, marked high to cover transportation costs, were extortionist, which may have contributed to her husband’s Capone-esque nickname – Al “Scarface” Capone, being the legendary Chicago mob boss and rum-runner. It is an easy leap for the store location to become known as “Little Chicago.”
According to the local history Tales and Trails, at its height, Royalties consisted of a Hudson’s Bay store, two oil well supply depots, three trucking companies, a machine shop, three lumber yards, two garages, a furniture store, three grocery stores, many boarding houses, restaurants and a dance hall with a theatre. The boom times in Royalties did not last. As drilling tapered off, people and businesses left the community. The post office closed in 1969 and the sole remaining business, a gas station, shut down a short time later. Today, there is really nothing left on the landscape to show the existence of the community.
Longview (aka “Little New York”)
Located about 15 kilometres south of Turner Valley and Black Diamond (and four kilometres south of Royalties) is the village of Longview. Longview predates the discovery of oil and gas in the region, but the community flourished because of the oil. The name Longview came into official use when a post office of that name was opened in July 1908 in Section 25 of Township 18-2-W5. A number of possible origins for the name have been proposed. The most likely origin is that the name came about due to the location of the post office near the “Big Hill” which allowed one to see for a considerable distance, or have a “long view.” Other accounts suggest the community was named for Thomas Long, a schoolteacher who arrived in the area in 1895 and filed for a homestead on the hill.
Historically, the Longview area had been associated with agriculture (ranching and farming); and today it is well known for its connections to Canadian country music (Ian Tyson shout out!). However, following the 1936 oil discovery, a boom town developed in Section 20 of Township 18-2-W5, about eight miles west of the Longview post office. Like Royalties to the north, the town site was quickly flooded with rig workers, their families and a range of associated camp followers. Mud-clogged or dust-chocked streets, depending on the weather, criss-crossed the community and inexpensive and rudimentary shacks were built practically overnight for use as houses, stores, banks and other services. The level of activity was so frantic that Longview became known, probably with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek, as “Little New York.” A local history of Longview suggests that the community’s residents did not want to be upstaged by “Little Chicago” up the road and did them one better by adopting the larger American city as their unofficial namesake.
In 1937, the Longview post office moved from the hill to the town site and the community became Longview, although it continued to be referred to as “Little New York” for many years. Towards the end of the 1940s, oil boom growth had settled and with it, so did the pace of development in the area. Unlike Royalties, which essentially disappeared, Longview continued to exist as a rather sedate little hamlet. On January 1, 1964, Longview, with a population of 206 was officially made a village.
Through history, many resource communities have been given ironic, unusual and occasionally ribald names. Often these names are not the ones that end up being approved by naming authorities for use on official maps. For many of these communities and places, such as Longview and Royalties, the unofficial names continue to be used by those most familiar with the place and its history. The culture and history of a place can be read through the names on its maps, but sometimes, the names not on the maps can tell us much more.
Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator.
Sources and Additional Resources:
In the Light of the Flares: History of Turner Valley Oilfields, (Turner Valley: Sheep River Historical Society, 1979).
Tales and Trails: A History of Longview and Surrounding Area, (Longview: Tales and Trails History Book Society, 1973).