The Turner Valley Gas Plant was the first in Alberta, the one that started it all, and today is museum you can visit. We join a group of passionate amateur photographers (perhaps some pros too), from the Foothills Camera Club, who’ve arranged a private tour of the complex and invited us to tag along. We get free run of the place, all doors are open and everything accessible, with an on-site guide to answer questions if needed. It’s a photographer and history buff’s dream and we’re given plenty of time to capture it all. It was a long, exhausting and wonderfully satisfying day.
Petroleum was known in the province as early as the 1880s but it was never really exploited on a commercial scale. At least not until until 1914, when the Turner Valley Field was put into production. The first well here, Dingman #1, was located just south of the present complex, right beside the Sheep River. Much of the gas was usable right out of the ground and little or no processing was done to it before it was marketed.
Later, as the makeup of the petroleum coming from the well changed and the needs of the consumer changed, some processing was required. In support of that a small gas plant was built (around 1920), the first one in Alberta as you recall, which was expanded upon, rebuilt and added to over the years. Most of what we see today dates from the 1930s-1950s. The Turner Valley Gas Plant closed in the mid-1980s and was unchanged from the early days, making it at that time a virtual operating museum. Soon after closing it was designated an historic site.
The plant fed by other wells in the area, not just Dingman #1 (Dingman #2 was just to the west). The height of the field was the 1920s-1940s, although it continues to produce to this day and I understand can for some time to come.
The petroleum processed here was a gas-condensate, a gaseous/light liquid mix (no heavy oils).
The Turner Valley complex is divided into various sub-plants, each with a specific function. The oldest extant part is the gasoline processing area which dates from the early 1930s. Its function should be obvious. The next oldest is the scrubbing plant, which is from a few years later. It cleaned the gas, removing nasty sulphur – earlier it was released to the atmosphere but later was captured and converted to a solid and then sold.
The compressor plant is from 1938. Its job was to pump the end product through pipelines (earlier natural ground pressure was enough to do this). Inside are a bank of huge pumping engines, ten in total, which sent the product down the line. The noise of them running must have been deafening.
At the extreme west end of the complex are two “big balls” better known as Horton Spheres. These are from the 1940s and stored various by-products produced at the plant.
Dating from the early 1950s is the propane plant and on the opposite side of the complex, the sulphur plant. Most of the latter is gone. Each extracted their respective product from the gas (whose makeup by the way is very complex).
On the eastern edge of land is the light plant, from the 1920s and the oldest building at the facility. Beside it, and from the 1950s, are some offices, workshops and warehouses.
Connecting everything together is a maze of pipes, heading here and there and everywhere, a huge number of valves at various points, and tanks and other equipment, the exact purpose of which is a mystery to us.
To the northwest is a field that once was home for company workers. Today, a smaller gas processing plant operates right behind the compressor building. At points within the plant the smell of rotten-eggs from a natural gas leak, bubbling up from the ground, near the river, is sometimes a bit overpowering. Yuck! The gas volumes are low and present no danger although they stink like hell. Lots of sulphur in the gas here (meaning by industry standards, it’s sour).
Wandering about the complex, we’re immediately taken aback by the size of everything – and this is a small plant – and the complexity of it all. Processing petroleum products was not simple! Equally amazing is the age of everything. Very little seen could be in any way considered modern. That it lasted to the end in this state is simply amazing. It’s like a time capsule. The machinery I understand, is mostly complete.
We take time to explore every corner of the Turner Valley plant, taking in the huge Cooper-Bessemer pumping engines and imagine the din they’d make, the tall towers on the various plants, tied up with guy-wires against the wind (it blows here a lot), tanks of every shape and size, and lots of other other interesting bits. The gray sky matches the colour of all the machinery almost blending the two together.
All the various buildings, some of them quite dark and gloomy, are stuffed to the gills with machinery of various types. It’s not only interesting from an historical perspective, there is a nice play of light inside from cracks in the walls and roof, pleasing the photographers inside us. We note that many components, tanks in particular, came from a Calgary factory, Dominion Bridge. They bought local. Quite a change from today where it’s all outsourced.
Pausing at times, we remind ourselves we’re standing on a special place. This plant was the FIRST in a province that today is known for its petroleum production. For the industry, all roads (or maybe pipelines), figuratively anyway, lead back to here. Every single oil and gas worker, and that’s a lot, every single company associated with the industry, all the wealth created, owes it to Turner Valley, the pioneering gas plant that spawned an entire industry.
One interesting little element, easily overlooked if one was not looking directly at it, is a Swastika found on valve body. We must remember this symbol meant something positive before the Nazis hijacked it and ruined its meaning. In this case it was used by the valve manufacturer as a company logo of sorts.
Even though we had hours and hours to explore the plant, we feel were barely touched it. We could have spent days there.
Thanks to the Foothills Camera Club and specially member James Tworow for making things happen. We were humbled in their presence and admittedly felt a bit little like square pegs hanging with them, what with our cheapie cameras and rather chaotic and unprofessional shooting styles.
While they’d spend minutes setting up shots, concentrating, taking light readings, repositioning, before finally capturing it all; in contrast we jumped around like monkeys, climbing on things, over things and generally buzzing around like kids jacked up on candy, always shooting freehand in a crazy and haphazard way. I am sure they had a few laughs at expense. As it turned out, the place was so big we rarely bumped into or blocked others and often had the impression we were all alone.
Also a big thanks to the Turner Valley Oilfield Society who hosted the event. Our guide explained the purpose of most of the machinery, but delving into it here is well beyond the scope of this article. The industry and processes behind it are technical and super complex.
The title of this report? We couldn’t resist.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: March, 2015.
Location: Turner Valley, AB.
Article sources: Book: History of Turner Valley Oilfields, Turner Valley gas plant interpretive guide.
Tours of the plant can be arranged, but outside that it’s not publicly accessible.