celebrate their province’s centennial
in 2005. While they’re at it, they might want give
the APEGGA professions a collective pat on the back for a
job well done.
BY MIKE BRAITHWAITE
When Alberta officially became a province at noon on Sept.
1, 1905, her engineers and geoscientists were already heavily
into building a new and modern society. They had their work
cut out for them, yet many of the marvels of those early
days have more than stood the test of time.
Settlers by the tens of thousands were pouring into the new
land and creating immense demand – especially in the
new towns and cities – for all the amenities that the
early 20th century had to offer.
Water and sewer lines were begun in Edmonton and Red Deer
in 1903. Calgary’s dated from the 1890s. Streets were
paved, and electricity and telephone services were greatly
expanded. The first large steel and concrete buildings began
The great railway boom was in full swing, leading to spectacular
CPR projects such as the Lethbridge Viaduct, as well as the
Spiral Tunnels on the CPR mainline between Lake Louise and
Field, B.C., which reduced a steep grade from 4.5 to 2.2
These remain the only spiral tunnels in North America. And
the viaduct, at 90 metres, is still the tallest railway bridge
in Canada. Yet both projects date from 1907-09.
Alberta’s primary occupation was farming. However,
there was an abundance of coal in mountain mines of Coleman,
Cadomin, Nordegg and the Crowsnest Pass, and on the Prairies
at Drumheller, Edmonton and Lethbridge.
An abundance of natural gas prompted British novelist Rudyard
Kipling to name Medicine Hat “the city with all Hell
for a basement.”
Alberta Government Telephones was founded in 1907, the result
of Bell Canada’s reluctance to expand into the new
province. The Horseshoe Falls hydroelectric dam of 1910 gave
Calgary cheap power, prompting the CPR to locate its Ogden
Better Roads, Please
The earliest horseless carriages predated the birth of the
province. “Automobilists,” a close fraternity,
organized excursions then lobbied for better roads. In
1921 a provincial highway system under the Department of
Public Works was established.
Public transit began in October of 1909 when Edmonton’s
first streetcar went into service. Calgary’s streetcars
began operating in July of 1909 and Lethbridge, anticipating
major growth, joined the club in 1912.
The University of Alberta completed its first building in
September of 1911. Other buildings soon followed. Engineering
studies began in 1913 in what was then the Faculty of Medicine
and Applied Sciences.
Bacon, Eggs – and Oil
Alberta’s first oil boom occurred at Turner Valley
in 1914, and was launched by a breakfast of ham and eggs
cooked over a natural gas fissure. Although the field itself
was a success, speculation ran rampant and oil “companies” grew
up overnight on paper. It wasn’t long before most of
them went bust without ever drilling a hole.
To make matters worse, Western Canada’s economic bubble
had burst, and optimism was replaced by despair. Unemployment
soared. Ambitious projects were postponed or shelved. It
was a time for relief projects – one of the more notable
being the construction of Calgary’s elegant concrete
arch Centre Street Bridge in 1915.
Still, much was accomplished. Edmonton’s High Level
Bridge and the Provincial Legislature were completed in 1913.
The Bassano Dam, North America’s largest irrigation
project to that time, was completed in 1914, and so was the
reinforced concrete Brooks Aqueduct.
Edmonton’s Hotel Macdonald and Calgary’s Palliser
Hotel both opened in 1915. But from then on, the skylines
of Alberta cities wouldn’t change for more than 30
years. The First World War dominated for the four long years
of 1914-18, and was followed by the Spanish flu pandemic,
severe inflation, serious labour unrest and poor crops.
As conditions finally improved, better roads, radio and rural
phone service did much to overcome isolation. Alberta’s
first radio station, CJCA Edmonton, went on the air on May
1, 1922; Calgary’s CFAC began broadcasting the next
day. By 1927 there were 10 private radio stations in Alberta.
Aviation also became a major presence with intrepid bush
pilots opening up the North from Edmonton’s Blatchford
Field, Canada’s first licensed municipal airport.
Farm families left drought-stricken drylands in the southeast
for expanding irrigation lands in the southwest and moister
areas in Central and Northern Alberta. Industry, notably
ceramics, sustained Medicine Hat.
APEGGA Enters the Scene
Engineering and earth sciences were boosted in 1920 with
the founding of APEGGA, and again in 1921 with the founding
of both the Scientific and Industrial Research Council
(now the Alberta Research Council) and the Alberta Geological
Research council scientists Karl A. Clark and S.M. Blair
built the world’s first oilsands extraction plant in
the basement of the U of A power plant in 1921. A larger
one operated successfully at Edmonton’s Dunvegan railway
yards in 1925. Dr. Clark received a Dominion patent on his
water extraction process in 1929, a process still in use
The first geological map of Alberta was published by Dr.
John A. Allen in 1926. In 1930, Alberta gained control of
its natural resources from the Dominion Government.
The Great Depression was an era of work camps for unemployed
single men, of relief projects, and of another wave of migration
from Alberta’s southeast to Peace River, the towns
and cities, and to other provinces. Notable relief projects
included Calgary’s Glenmore Dam and Reservoir, the
Banff-Jasper Highway (1931) and Banff’s Administration
Centre and Cascade Gardens (1935).
The Dominion Government established the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation
Administration and engineers were soon busy finding ways
to control soil erosion, design catchment basins, and establish
irrigation systems and stock watering dams.
Coal Down, Oil Up
Geoscientists had mixed times: coal mining declined drastically
but a major oil find gave Turner Valley its third and final
The world’s first commercial oilsands plant, Abasands,
went into production near Fort McMurray in September 1936.
Its founder, Max Ball of Denver, used his own extraction
process, which was very similar to Dr. Clark’s. Despite
money and other problems, Abasands was processing 400 tons
a day by 1940.
There was a fire there in 1941, but Ottawa, because of the
demands of the Second World War, kept the project going until
September 1939 arrived, and the world was plunged into war.
It was a busy time: 19 stations for the British Commonwealth
Air Training Plan grew up almost overnight across the province.
Alberta also enjoyed its last major coal boom.
Edmonton was the major construction base for the Alaska Highway,
built by the U.S. Army in 1942 in the face of a possible
Japanese invasion of Alaska. The Canol pipeline from Norman
Wells, N.W.T. to Whitehorse, Yukon, was built at the same
time to supply an oil refinery, made up of components scrounged
from across North America, in Whitehorse.
Alberta Changes Forever
Leduc No. 1, a “do or die” last effort at finding
new oil in Alberta, came in on Feb. 13, 1947, and Alberta’s
economy changed forever. More fields followed: Wizard Lake
in 1951; Atcheson, Bonnie Glen and Westerose in 1952; Pembina,
Canada's largest, in 1953; and Swan Hills in 1959.
The Whitehorse refinery was dismantled, trucked down the Alaska Highway and
reassembled east of Edmonton in what would become Refinery Row. Abasands died,
but a provincially sponsored oilsands plant was set up at Bitumount with active
participation by Dr. Clark.
It proved the feasibility of continuous mining, separation and upgrading of
oil sands, thus laying the foundations for the giant operations to follow.
The growing oil and gas industry brought Alberta increased prosperity, and
a major shift from rural to urban population. In 1951 just over 50 per cent
of Albertans lived in the cities and larger towns. By 1961 the urban share
had grown to almost 70 per cent. The overall population grew from 939,000 in
1951 to 1,332,000 by 1961.
New Professions Created
This provided enormous challenges to engineers and geoscientists.
New highways, office towers, street improvements, water,
sewer and power expansion kept the engineers busy; the hunt
for oil and gas led, in 1960, to professional status for
geologists and geophysicists.
The Department of Highways became a separate ministry in
1951. The first four- lane divided highway, from Airdrie
to Red Deer, was completed in the 1960s.
The St. Mary's Milk River Dam, the largest rolled earth dam
in the world at the time, was completed in 1951, doubling
the size of the irrigation district around Lethbridge.
New towns, developed by the provincial government and the
oil companies, were founded: Devon, Redwater, Drayton Valley,
Swan Hills, High Level and Rainbow Lake.
The first inter-provincial oil pipeline was completed from
Edmonton to Superior, Wis., in the early 1950s. Later it
was extended to Sarnia, Ont. The second, the Trans Mountain,
carried Alberta oil to Vancouver.
The Trans-Canada Pipeline syndicate was formed in 1954 to
move Alberta gas to eastern markets along an all-Canadian
route. Despite a political row that brought down a federal
government in 1957, the 3,700-kilometre line was completed
by October 1958, through the Precambrian Shield, vast stretches
of muskeg and dense forests.
In 1957 Western Minerals of Calgary drilled the first oil
well north of the Arctic Circle, at Eagle Plains, 800 km
More Skills, Please
The growing economy needed highly trained and skilled workers.
That, plus the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation,
led to enormous expansion in education, especially at the
post secondary level. The University of Alberta turned
to high-rise buildings to accommodate its burgeoning enrolment.
The Faculty of Engineering there received a new wing in
The University of Calgary gained full autonomy in 1966, the
year after it had established a Faculty of Engineering. Departments
of Geology and Geophysics would quickly follow at U of C.
The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, now one of
Canada's largest polytechnical schools, opened in October
1962. Calgary's much older Provincial Institute of Technology
and Art was renamed the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
The University of Lethbridge was established in 1967 and
Athabasca University in 1970.
Alberta was developing one of Canada's best educated workforces.
Good thing – there was plenty of work and challenge
The oil-and-gas industry looked increasingly to the north,
despite its physical challenges. In 1961-62, the first oil
well was drilled in the Arctic Islands at Winger Harbour
on Melville Island, setting the stage for impressive feats
of 20th century petroleum engineering – including the
building of artificial islands.
The challenges of the North led Bruce Nodwell of Calgary
to form Bruce Nodwell Limited, in 1952, to develop vehicles
capable of carrying heavy equipment over muskeg. In 1956
he built one that could move a 4.5-tonne seismic rig. His
engineer son Jack joined him in 1965 to form Canadian Foremost.
The company became a world leader in such vehicles, and about
80 per cent of its sales are now exported.
Oilsands development finally came into its own when the Great
Canadian Oil Sands consortium (now Suncor) opened in 1967,
producing up to 31,500 barrels of synthetic crude oil per
The Great Boom
Alberta entered the 1970s – little realizing that events
half a world away would soon trigger its greatest ever boom.
In 1973, several Arab countries invaded Israel in what the
West came to know as the Yom Kippur War. Western nations
rallied to Israel's aid. In retaliation, the Arab countries
slapped an embargo on oil exports.
In many parts of North America, gasoline and fuel oil were
in tight supply. Rationing was contemplated. Then in 1976
the OPEC nations demanded much more for their oil. Prices
exceeding $40 US per barrel became reality.
This brought intense interest in Alberta's oilsands and heavy
oil deposits, sources formerly seen as too expensive to be
viable. The second oilsands plant, $2.2-billion Syncrude,
was begun in 1974 by a consortium of oil companies.
In early 1975 it almost failed when Atlantic Richfield withdrew.
That brought the Alberta, Ontario and federal governments
on board. Production of 109,000 barrels of synthetic crude
per day began in 1978.
Both Syncrude and Suncor rank among the top 10 Canadian engineering
achievements of the 20th century.
In 1974, the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority,
a provincial agency, was formed to work with industry partners
on oil recovery. It and UMATAC Industrial Processes of Calgary
came up with Taciuk, a thermal process for oil sands recovery.
In 1978, Dr. Roger Butler, P.Eng., developed a new technique
for recovering heavy oil and bitumen: horizontal wells, one
above the other. Steam injected into the upper well liquefied
the oil, which was recovered via the lower well.
In the Arctic, artificial islands were built as drilling
platforms in the oil-rich Beaufort Sea. The earliest were
made of sand dredged from the sea floor, a time consuming
The answer? The sand-filled Tarsuit Caissons, designed by
Swan Wooster and Dome Petroleum engineers. These "islands" could
be built quickly in the short Arctic summer.
Molikpaq, a mobile caisson towed to a specific location,
then lowered to the sea floor, can drill in up to 40 metres
of water. This engineering expertise was exported to Alaska
and the Soviet Union.
The export of expertise was a new fact of life for Alberta
engineers. Four Canadian companies, including Calgary's Foremost
Industries, helped build the Alyeska Pipeline in Alaska in
Light rail transit began in Edmonton and Calgary. Edmonton's
first leg opened in April 1978, the year of the Commonwealth
Games. It went underground in the downtown core. Calgary
opted for street level.
The Great Bust
The 1980s brought trouble. Ottawa's National Energy Policy
led to an acrimonious debate between the governments of Premier
Peter Lougheed and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the
initials NEP became a symbol of Western alienation.
Then came a dramatic drop in world oil prices as the OPEC cartel began to unravel.
Suddenly there was less need for the development of oilsands or heavy oil,
and many conventional rigs shut down or left the province. By 1982-83 the recession
Syncrude and Suncor persevered. Syncrude invested $1 billion in the 1980s in
capacity and production improvements; its capacity almost doubled to 200,000
barrels per day and its costs were cut almost in half to $15 per barrel.
NOVA Corporation completed a petrochemical and plastics plant at Joffre, near
Red Deer, in 1984. A nearby greenhouse used the plant's surplus heat, to grow
long English cucumbers and other plants and vegetables, year round.
Diversification in both manufacturing and engineering expertise helped save
the day. Companies building oilfield equipment diversified and looked increasingly
to export markets. Engineering expertise continued to find its way into foreign
markets, on the strength of projects in the North: notably the Beaufort's artificial
islands, and techniques developed for working in extreme cold.
It was a boon decade for sports events: Edmonton hosted Universiad 1983 and
Calgary welcomed the world to its 1988 XV Winter Olympics. Both events, like
the Commonwealth Games before them, resulted in a variety of new facilities
and new challenges for engineers.
Era of the Super Elevator
The decade also saw the beginning of the end of a familiar,
even beloved Prairie symbol: the wooden grain elevator.
The Buffalo Sloping Bin elevator, designed for the Alberta
Wheat Pool by Nick Driedger, P.Eng., of Edmonton, and another
super elevator, the multi-silo Triple 8, made of slip form
concrete, soon began dotting the Prairies.
The recession eased as the decade progressed, despite low
oil prices. By its end Alberta was once again prosperous.
Alberta engineers were prominent in the design and construction
of the Confederation Bridge, which gave Prince Edward Island
its long-awaited fixed link to mainland Canada. At 13.5 km
in length and budgeted at $840 million, it was the most significant
megaproject in Canada in the first half of the decade.
Straits Crossing Inc. of Calgary successfully bid on the
bridge. The go-ahead to build was signed on Oct. 7, 1993,
the final span was put into place in late 1996, and the bridge
opened in July 1997.
The ‘Ice’ Below and the Growth of Petrochemicals
Alberta geologists' 1992 discoveries of "ice under the
ice" (high quality white diamonds under tiny blue lakes
in the Northwest Territories), led to the opening of Ekati,
Canada's first diamond mine, in October 1998, 350 km north
Low commodity prices dogged the early 1990s, leading to layoffs
and downsizing in the oilpatch. Things began to improve by
1993 when it was realized Alberta's conventional crude stocks
were running low. Thus, major petrochemical and oil upgrading
plants were built or expanded.
The $1.6 billion Bi-Provincial Upgrader at Lloydminster,
Sask., opened in November, 1992 to process heavy oil and
bitumen from around Lloydminster and Cold Lake. It produces
46,000 barrels of synthetic crude, 400 tons of coke and 240
tons of sulphur per day.
Five Alberta and Saskatchewan engineering firms were involved
in its design and construction. The federal, Alberta and
Saskatchewan governments invested in it, along with Husky
Environmental concerns became more pronounced, bringing about
new engineering challenges. Shell Canada spent $1 billion
at its sour gas plant at Caroline to clean up two trillion
cubic feet of natural gas. Alberta Pacific Forest Industries
Inc. (Al-Pac) invested $1.3 billion to build the world's
first elemental chlorine-free pulp mill (1993) near Athabasca.
Suncor and Syncrude continued investing in their oilsands
plants. Highway 63 was rerouted over a berm 63 metres high
and six km long, so Syncrude could get two more years of
life out of its East Mine. Suncor planned, in 1998, to more
than double its output of 85,000 barrels per day; a bridge
was built across the Athabasca River, giving the firm access
to its Steepbank Mine.
In 1994 Dow Chemical Canada Inc. opened a polyethylene and
ethylene plant near Fort Saskatchewan. In 1998 it was expanded
to more than double its ethylene output to 2.4 billion pounds
per year. A very high Alberta engineering and manufacturing
content was employed in this expansion.
Bridge building in Alberta led to two innovative designs.
Edmonton's Dudley Menzies LRT Bridge, opened in August 1992,
was the first in Canada to use precast segmental box girders.
It accommodates LRT lines on its top deck and a pedestrian
and bicycle deck underneath. (Dudley Menzies, P.Eng., was
Edmonton's city engineer from 1945 to 1971.)
Calgary's Stony Creek Trail-Bow River Bridge won an award
from the Institution of Structural Engineers, London, England,
as Canada's first incrementally launched concrete bridge.
During the decade, the Trans Canada Highway 1 and the Yellowhead
(No. 16) were twinned through most of the province. and freeway
expansions took place in both Calgary and Edmonton.
Three important historical landmarks were restored and refurbished
in 1995: the Provincial Legislature and the High Level Bridge
in Edmonton, and the Louise (Hillhurst) Bridge in Calgary.
The University of Alberta engineering students' hybrid car,
winner of an international competition, reopened the High
NOVA Chemicals and Union Carbide Canada Inc. spent $1.1 billion
expanding their Joffre ethylene, polyethylene and cogeneration
plants. The Alliance Pipeline, from northeastern British
Columbia to Chicago, was built in segments to meet its October
2000 deadline, at a cost of $5 billion, making it the largest
pipeline project ever built in North America.
Since then, oil prices have again soared, frequently equalling
or exceeding the $40 per barrel mark. This has led to increased
interest in heavy oil and oilsands, especially in view of
forecasts that conventional oil reserves may not last much
Alberta’s second century begins with wind power starting
to make its mark, particularly in Southern Alberta, amid
a host of challenges and debate prompted by the Kyoto Accord
on greenhouse gases. The APEGGA professions, no doubt, will
continue to be at the forefront as another 100 years unfolds.
For the last decade, Edmonton freelancer Mike
Braithwaite has been supplying The PEGG with stories
- most of them with
an historical bent. His primary sources for the information
in this article are his own extensive files and the Provincial
Archives. Next month, Mr. Brathwaite's attention turns to
Edmonton's first 100 years.