21 Historical Photos of the Oil Industry in Canada

21 historical photos of Canada's oil industry-01

Once upon a time in 1858, James Miller Williams, a carriage maker from Hamilton, Ontario, embarked on a quest drilling for water only to unearth a treasure far greater – a substance known as “black gold.” His surprise oil discovery marked North America’s first well, about a year before it was discovered in the United States. Consequently, the area of the discovery was eventually renamed Oil Springs.

Williams went on to found The Canadian Oil Company, which led to the construction of petroleum producing, refining and marketing facilities – the first integrated oil company not just in Canada, but on the continent.

The story of a simple carriage maker drilling for water who went on to discover what would become the world’s most precious resource is just one of many incredible stories of how Canada’s oil industry came to be [1].

Below are several historical photos of the oil industry in Canada, accompanied by a short description to entice and enthrall your imagination. Also see:

Canadian Oil History in Photos

Chipewyan-in-a-canoe+copy national archives of canada

1715 - The first written recording of the oil sands dates back to 1715 by a Hudson's Bay employee. Local First Nations communities would boil the oil sands to extract the bitumen, which was used to waterproof canoes. (Note: photo has no date)

Image Source: National Archives of Canada [3]

geological survey alberta government 1884

1884 – George Dawson’s Geological Survey of Canada surveying party. Dawson and his company explored and surveyed large swaths of Western Canada for the International Boundary Commission and the Geological Survey. In 1874, he reported the likely presence of oil and natural gas reserves in the foothills of what would become the Province of Alberta. [2]

Image Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-037956 [2]

oil petrolia ontario first well in north america

1886 - Oil gushing from a well near Petrolia, Ontario; a well in this area was the first in Canada (and possibly North America) to successfully hit oil.

Image Source: Robert Bell/Library and Archives Canada/C-030224 [2]

oil wells 1 and 2 turner valley

1914 – Oil wells Dingman No.1 and No. 2, Turner Valley, Alberta. After No.1 struck wet gas, Calgary Petroleum Products drilled a second well to maximize the petroleum reserve deep under the surface. [2]

Image Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P1304 [2]

oil wells oil city waterton

1921 – Oil wells at Oil City, Waterton region. The Waterton wells never achieved their originally predicted potential; thus, the Waterton lakes oil reserve proved to be a disappointment. [2]

Image Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1400-39 [2]

oil flowing british petroleum 3

1925 – Oil flowing from British Petroleum No. 3, Wainwright Oil Field in July of 1925. [2]

Image Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A10793 [2]

turner valley gas plant

1925 – Turner Valley Gas Plant, Alberta. [2]

Image Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-711-39 [2]

o+Dr+Karl+Clark glenbow museum

1929 – Dr. Karl Clark. Several years earlier, in 1921, he and the province started testing various bitumen extraction methods at the University of Alberta. Utilizing Ells’ research, Clark showed that bitumen could be gravity separated from the sand by mixing it with hot water and caustic soda, the latter acting as a water-softening agent. This process became known as the Clark Hot Water Separation Process, which enabled the commercial development of the resource and remains the primary method of bitumen extraction in mined oil sands operations. [3]

Image Source: Glenbow Museum [3]


1930 – Experimental road paving. Nearly a few decades before, engineer Sydney Ells began nearly three decades of extensive research on how to develop the oil sands. He found that bitumen could be extracted from the oil sands using hot water and used as a substitute for tar to pave roads. [3]

Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta [3]

historical photo oil rig in Alberta, Canada

1938 - Roughnecks adding a joint of pipe inside the derrick at a Royalite well in southern Alberta’s Turner Valley oil field.

Image Source: Glenbow Archives, 6d-2-16 [1]

historical photo of pipeline construction in Alberta, Canada

1947 - Workers lay pipeline from Leduc oil field to the railhead at Nisku, Alberta, near Edmonton in Leduc County. [1]

Image Source: Glenbow Archives, 14a-4310  [1]


1950 – Bitumount, the first privately funded commercial oil sands plant. Established in 1929, it was built on the current-day Fort Hills lease. The facility produced several thousand barrels of asphalt every year through the 1930s, used to pave roads and seal roofs. Due to financial strife, the project was sold in 1942 and taken over by the Government of Alberta in 1948. [3]

Image Source: Glenbow Archives [3]

oil sands quarry at bitumount - alberta archives

1950 – The oil sands mining quarry at the Bitumount facility. [2]

Image Source: University of Alberta Archives, 91-137-071 [2]

TMX original pipeline

1952 – Construction of the original Trans Mountain Pipeline commences

Image Source: Trans Mountain

Coat-and-wrap crew bogged down in muskeg east of Yellowhead Pass, Alberta.

1952 – Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline continues. Coat-and-wrap crew bogged down in swamp (also known as muskeg) east of Yellowhead Pass, Alberta.

Image Source: Trans Mountain

Lining up and welding at Windy Point in Jasper National Park.

1952 – Trans Mountain construction activities. Lining up and welding at Windy Point in Jasper National Park.

Image Source: Trans Mountain

Final tie-in of pipe sections at foot of cliff at Iago, Coquihalla Canyon.

1953 – Construction of the original Trans Mountain Pipeline gets closer to the coast. Final tie-in of pipe sections at foot of cliff at Iago, Coquihalla Canyon.

Image Source: Trans Mountain

Burnaby Terminal near Vancouver, with Burrard Inlet, Vancouver Harbour, in the distance.

1953 – Construction of the Burnaby Westridge Marine Terminal is well underway

Image Source: Trans Mountain

Westridge Marine Terminal, Trans Mountain, History of Oil in Canada

1953 – Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, where oil from the Trans Mountain pipeline is loaded onto ocean-bound tankers for export.

Image Source: Trans Mountain

sulphur plant turner valley

1953 – The sulphur plant at the Turner Valley Gas Plant. [2]

Image Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P2905 [2]

history of oil in Canada

1979 – Mildred Lake, the second commercial oil sands mine and bitumen upgrader built in the Fort McMurray area. Funding from Alberta, Ontario and Ottawa helped Syncrude’s Mildred Lake begin production in 1978. For the next 20 years, not much would happen in oil sands mining. [3]

Image Source: Canadian Press [3]

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1. Canadian Society for Chemical Technology. (n.d.). Drilling into Canada's petroleum history. Canadian Chemical News. Retrieved from https://www.cheminst.ca/magazine/article/drilling-into-canadas-petroleum-history/. Date Accessed: October 2023.

2. Government of Alberta. (n.d.). Oil in Canada: Exploitation and Entrepreneurs. Alberta Online Encyclopedia: Energy and Heritage. Retrieved from http://history.alberta.ca/energyheritage/oil/early-industrialization-and-exploration-1776-1920/oil-in-canada-exploitation-and-entrepreneurs/default.aspx. Date Accessed: October 2023.

3. Oil Sands Magazine. (2022, March 29). History of the Canadian Oil Sands. Retrieved from https://www.oilsandsmagazine.com/news/2022/3/29/history-of-the-canadian-oil-sands. Date Accessed: October 2023.