Vern "Dry Hole” Hunter, wiping the sweat from his eyes, looked at yet another dry well. "Okay, that's enough,” he told his crew. "Pack it up.” It was the 133rd dry hole Imperial Oil had drilled in its search for oil in Saskatchewan. Hunter was the tool push on many of those jobs, earning him his nickname. Giving up on Saskatchewan, Imperial sent Hunter to Leduc, Alta., south of Edmonton, based on geologists' discovery of a subterranean anomaly. On November 26, 1946 Hunter set up the Wilson #2 drilling rig on Mike Turta's farm. On February 13, 1947 the rig brought in the Leduc #1 well. Hunter's gusher signalled the beginning of Alberta's post-war oil boom, but the strike nearly didn't happen.

The Turner Valley oilfield southwest of Calgary was depleting at a rate of 10 per cent annually. Imperial Oil would make one final attempt at finding oil in Alberta with a line of wildcat sites. It had already spent $23 million ($195 million in today's dollars) drilling dust in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The area around Leduc is atop a Devonian reef, a seabed 350 million years ago, and so a promising site. Hunter was not optimistic. He had so little confidence that the well would come in that he put the rig's access road right through Turta's yard. Turta wasn't optimistic either-he was just glad of the company.

Leduc Oil Strike
Imperial Oil Leduc #1 Well, Leduc oil fields, the day the well blew on 13 February 1947 (courtesy PAA).

All through the bitterly cold winter, Hunter and his crew drilled through the earth, reaching a depth of 1,544 m. Working on the rig in the Alberta winter was tough. One young rig hand, after an eight-hour night shift at the top of the derrick found he couldn't move his leg when it came time to climb down. A button on the trap door of his fleece-lined drawers had come undone; in the wind and -35o temperature, his buttocks had frozen. His crewmates were heartily amused.

Life in the oil patch was difficult for the roughnecks and their families. They normally worked seven days a week, for months on end, moving from site to site as dry holes were abandoned and new attempts made to strike oil. Common décor among the oil families was portable orange crates, draped with fabric for a homey look. They frequently wintered in makeshift housing, often uninsulated washhouses or woodsheds. People were suspicious of the nomadic group. The crew that brought in Leduc #1 could not get service in the town's hotel and restaurant.

In February, after 10 weeks of drilling in the cold, the crew had had enough. They were ready to give up and cap the well. Hunter ordered them to drill down just another metre or so. And then, finally, there it was! Primal ooze, the black goo that made Jed a millionaire! Though it didn't make Turta a millionaire - the province owned the mineral rights to his land-the strike transformed Edmonton into the oil capital of Canada.

A celebration and official bringing in of the well were planned for 10:00 am on February 13. The night before the ceremony, some equipment failed. Though they worked all night, the crew couldn't make the repairs on time. Nearly 500 people-government officials, farmers and reporters-stood shivering on the wind-blown prairie, waiting. And waiting.

Finally, around 4:00 pm, the pipe coughed up some mud and water, then, with a roar, the well came in, spurting oil into the sump pit. Hunter later wrote that you "could hear it like a train approaching when you put your ear to the pipe.” They switched it to the flare line, and one of the roughnecks lit the fire. The ignition puffed out "the most beautiful smoke ring you ever saw,” followed by a column of flame.

Leduc #1 was followed by Leduc #2. It too was slow to come in. The crew struck oil at 1,657 m in a bigger Devonian reef, one of the largest in Canada. The oil strike at Leduc #1 forever changed Alberta and made significant changes to Canada. Our country has become the world's tenth-largest oil producing nation, and, at 1.5 million barrels per day, one of the top three suppliers of oil to the US, the world's largest consumer. The strike ultimately shifted the balance of power between East and West and between Ottawa and the provinces, changing the political climate, and altered the way we conduct international business. When Leduc #1 was capped in 1984, it had produced over 240 million barrels of oil.