How Engineers and Geoscientists Developed a Province

Albertans will 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.

Freelance Writer

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 to rise.

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 per cent.

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 Shops there.

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 Survey.

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 today.

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 boom.

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 1945.

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 from Whitehorse.

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 1965.

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 for them.

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 day.

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 operation.

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 1975.

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 was on.

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 of Yellowknife.

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 Oil Ltd.

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 Level Bridge.

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 longer.

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.

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