HERRON, WILLIAM STEWART, farmer, contractor, entrepreneur, and oilman; b. 10 Feb. 1870 in Snowdon Township, Ont., son of William Herron and Eliza Jane McElwaine (McIlwain); m. first sometime before 1895 Martha Ellen (Ella) Pogue, and they had two daughters, as well as a son who died in early childhood; m. secondly 28 Nov. 1904 Edith Isabel Johnson, née Sithes, in Haileybury, Ont., and they had two sons; d. 21 July 1939 in Calgary.
One of nine boys and four girls, William Stewart Herron was raised on a pioneer farm established by his parents in the bush near Gelert, about 45 miles northwest of Peterborough. The land was difficult to work, and when he was old enough to seek employment off the farm, Herron found a job as a cook’s helper. Within a few years he was in business for himself, and by the late 1890s he had established a modestly successful logging, clearing, and road-building enterprise. Around the turn of the century Herron, his wife, Ella, and their children moved north to Bucke Township (Haileybury). Sometime later he won a contract to clear a five-mile right of way for the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway. But once the Haileybury section of the railway was finished, local work was increasingly hard to find. Herron decided to combine a holiday visit to the Pennsylvania oilfields with a search for new ways to employ his equipment. His expedition was also motivated by a growing interest in geology, apparently awakened by the mining boom at Long (Cobalt) Lake in Ontario [see David Fasken*]. While he did not find work in Pennsylvania, the trip established what would become a consuming passion for petroleum geology.
Unable to see any prospect of improvement in his situation, Herron sold his business and the family home in Haileybury and, with his second wife, Edith, and their daughters, joined the movement west to the prairies. In the spring of 1905 they purchased a 960-acre farm near Okotoks (Alta), about 25 miles south of Calgary. Here the entrepreneurial spirit that had marked Herron’s years in Ontario found fertile ground. Barely established on the farm, he quickly translated a neighbour’s need for help in operating a timber lease in the foothills into a business opportunity. He worked out a deal to reorganize and expand production on condition that he earn a bonus of 25 per cent of the returns achieved by the increased output. It was a pattern that would characterize his career in the west. He soon came to a similar agreement with a nearby rancher to break (make harness or saddle ready) some of the cattleman’s several hundred wild-range horses in exchange for receiving one for each three that he broke. With his newly acquired horses, he established a cartage business and won a contract to haul coal to the electric plant in Okotoks.
The coal had to be brought a few miles down Sheep Creek (Sheep River), where the town was located. In the spring of 1911, while waiting for a full load to be made up, Herron decided to examine the gas seepages known to exist farther west on the creek. Once there, he noticed the telltale curve of an anticline (a ridge or fold in the strata sloping down from the crest) on a nearby rocky outcrop and immediately speculated that the gas was a petroleum derivative. Later that spring he returned to collect a sample to send for analysis. The reports from the universities of Pennsylvania and California confirmed his conjecture: that the seepage was petroleum and not swamp gas. Herron now had to obtain the undersurface, or mineral, rights to the area. On 5 Sept. 1911 he made a critical purchase when he bought the farm of homesteader Michael Stoos for $18,000. Within the 720 acres for which he acquired both surface and under rights lay 80 acres surrounding the gas seepages on Sheep Creek. This investment marked the true beginning of the Turner Valley oilfield and the petroleum industry in Alberta.
Herron then moved to secure as much of the nearby acreage as he could. Protracted negotiations with the Calgary real-estate company holding the remaining surface and mineral rights to the section containing the gas seepages were eventually successful. By June 1912, at a cost of $15,000, he finally had in hand what would soon prove to be the most valuable 640 acres in the first Turner Valley oil boom. He could now begin his search for capital to develop the property. Herron was land rich and cash poor, as he would continue to be for most of his career in the oil business. He could only act as promoter, convincing others that there was oil under his land and that, in return for investing money in drilling, they would share in the bonanza that would surely result.
He first approached Archibald Wayne Dingman, an obvious candidate. Dingman, also from Ontario and with experience in the Pennsylvania oilfields, had been involved since 1906 in several natural-gas wells in southern Alberta [see Eugene Marius Antoine Coste] and had established working contacts with Calgary’s entrepreneurial elite. He immediately appreciated the potential of Herron’s geological speculations and supporting mineral titles. Towards the end of July 1912 a syndicate was formed that united Herron’s land, Dingman’s drilling experience, and capital drawn primarily from Calgary lawyer-investors James Alexander Lougheed* and Richard Bedford Bennett*, rancher and brewer Alfred Ernest Cross, and real-estate promoters Thomas John Searle Skinner and Absolum Judson Sayre. Established as the Calgary Petroleum Products Company (CPPC), the new enterprise was the outcome of Herron’s initiative and was the first corporate entity capable of investigating petroleum prospects in the Alberta foothills. But the achievement brought him little satisfaction. He had been compelled to concede majority interest to Dingman and the other investors. He was excluded from any management role, and controversy and eventually litigation arose over lands he transferred to the company.
He was not easily pushed aside, however. While negotiations with Dingman and his partners were still ongoing, Herron was already taking steps to expand his landholdings along what he determined to be the likely southward bend of the anticline. He began to acquire all the available petroleum and natural-gas rights on federally held lands running south along a seven-mile axis from the Sheep Creek oil seep. He had to act quickly, and word leaked out about the formation of Calgary Petroleum Products just as he was adding the last piece to his 4,320 acres of petroleum leasehold. By September 1912 the first phase of the Turner Valley land rush was under way. Sometime in the early 1910s Herron sold the farm at Okotoks and moved his family to Calgary; he also purchased a small ranch near Springbank, a short distance west of the city.
CPPC started drilling in January 1913, and finally, after frequent delays, the long wait came to a dramatic end on 14 May the following year at the 2,718-foot mark. The pressure released instantly sent oil gushing 15 to 20 feet above the derrick floor. The straw-coloured naphtha that erupted was of such light gravity that it could be pumped directly into the gas tanks of the unsophisticated vehicles of the day. Christened by the press the “Dingman Discovery,” the find was a vindication of Herron’s unswerving convictions and his relentless boosting of the project over the previous three years.
A frenzy of speculation immediately overtook Calgary. Working out of makeshift brokerage offices, promoters hawked the dozens of new oil companies that had sprung up. Better situated than most investors, Herron should have been on his way to becoming an oil baron. He held a 25 per cent interest in the discovery company, and he owned the petroleum rights to several thousand of the most promising acres in the vicinity of the lucky strike. But once again his ambitions were thwarted, this time by events unfolding elsewhere. The onset of World War I in August diverted attention away from oil exploration, and investment capital from outside Alberta dried up. His strategy of surrendering a percentage interest in a specific property in return for cash to initiate a drilling program was only marginally successful, and by 1916 work in what had prematurely been called the Calgary oilfield came to a near halt. Herron was compelled to retire from the city to his ranch until financial conditions improved. He now struggled not to attract capital for development but simply to find money for the rentals on crown lands so that he could hang on to his petroleum leasehold until the war ended and prosperity returned.
Exploration activity remained in the doldrums through 1917. By early the following year the rentals on some of Herron’s leases were as much as three years in arrears, and his situation was desperate. Presenting himself to officials at the federal Department of the Interior as the “Moses” who had “directed public attention to this field,” he argued that he was “justly entitled to special consideration” and pleaded for more time so that he could try to raise the money owed by selling his ranch. Finally, in September 1919, after putting his Calgary residence on the market, Herron managed to make the last of a series of payments that brought his obligations up to date, just as the emergence of outside interest in Turner Valley’s potential revived hopes for its development.
Attention focused mainly on Imperial Oil, a surrogate of the powerful Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. CPPC had been unable to raise enough capital to develop its land fully, and in 1920 its Calgary refinery was destroyed by fire. Recognizing that the most attractive acreage was held by CPPC and knowing that the Calgary company was in a vulnerable position, Imperial began negotiations. The result was the formation of a new entity, the Royalite Oil Company, in which CPPC shareholders retained a 20 per cent interest and Imperial held the rest. Thus it was Royalite that would determine whether Herron’s geological speculations were valid. But exploratory drilling was not Imperial’s first objective, and by 1923 he was again pleading with Ottawa to extend the due dates for his lease payments.
As before, his strategy was to trade land, or preferably an interest in it, for capital. His bargaining position was slightly better now than it had been for some time, and discussions with William Edward McLeod, another pioneer Calgary oilman, concluded with the formation of the McLeod Oil Company. The agreement committed McLeod to drill a 3,500-foot well on Herron’s property in exchange for nine-tenths of any commercial production and the rights to 20 acres. In addition to becoming a minor shareholder, Herron would get his most promising leasehold tested and would retain one-tenth of any production.
This deal was no sooner reached than Ottawa again threatened to cancel his remaining leasehold. Perceiving that a second oil boom was imminent, Herron begged for more time as both parties monitored the drilling results of Royalite No.4 and McLeod No.1, the two wells to which his fate was now closely tied. On 14 Oct. 1924 Royalite No.4 blew in with tremendous pressure. Running for safety, its drilling crew watched incredulously as the rising pressure lifted 94 tons of casing and drilling tools to the top of the derrick before they crashed back to the surface. This discovery, with a measured daily flow of 21 million cubic feet of natural gas and 600 barrels of very high-grade naphtha, was what everyone had been waiting for. A few weeks later McLeod No.1 also struck oil, and the second Turner Valley oil boom was launched. Herron’s remarkable perseverance had been vindicated. The Royalite well was located a few hundred yards from the boundary of the leasehold that he had turned over to CPPC, and the successful McLeod well, like the earlier Dingman discovery, was on a site he had selected. Nonetheless, his situation remained precarious. In early November 1925, back living in Calgary, he was informed that he had 30 days to pay the $5,830.16 now due the Department of the Interior. That by 30 November he could come up with only $100 and the promise to pay a further $356 within 4 days demonstrates how vulnerable he was.
But during the 90 days that Herron was given to submit at least another 10 per cent, fortune turned in his favour. On 10 February the second McLeod well struck black oil, and he was able complete the formation of a new company based on his now highly attractive property near the two McLeod wells. In March he turned over the 3,940 acres that remained in his 10 petroleum and natural-gas leases to Okalta Oils Limited, of which he was vice-president and the majority shareholder. The company’s first well struck oil on 9 Nov. 1928 and quickly became the valley’s leading crude producer. For Herron, lauded and sought after by the press, this strike was his greatest moment. His remarkable tenacity had finally been rewarded. Long known among his peers as “Won’t Sell” Herron, he was henceforth accorded the sobriquet less in jest than in admiration. His election as president of the newly formed Oil and Gas Association of Alberta the following year signalled his growing stature among his business associates. Additional successful wells during the 1930s turned Okalta into one of Turner Valley’s most prominent independent producers and confirmed Herron as a respected voice in Calgary’s emerging petroleum industry.
Despite the recognition he received, prosperity remained elusive. Rapidly increasing production from Okalta’s wells coincided with a depression-ravaged economy that brought reduced demand and falling prices. At the same time Herron and his colleagues were confronted with an aggressive energy-conservation campaign launched by the Alberta government under John Edward Brownlee*, which threatened to curtail oil production. Believing that smaller producers would be unfairly penalized, Herron spoke out strongly in opposition. In so doing, he articulated the view common among many self-made men on the frontier: that beyond the basic protection of property rights, human progress and well-being were best advanced with as few restraints and as little government intervention as possible. Keeping Okalta afloat in this environment taxed all of his finely tuned survival skills.
A hands-on manager, William Stewart Herron was accustomed to drive out from Calgary each day to visit the rigs and keep in close touch with operations. It was on such a visit in 1939, while standing on the derrick floor watching his crew change a drill bit, that he collapsed from a stroke. He died at home several weeks later in his 70th year. At 2:00 p.m. on the day of his funeral, as the service in Calgary commenced, all the rigs in the Turner Valley oilfield shut down for three minutes of silence to honour the man described in the Calgary Albertan’s obituary as the “Father of Turner Valley.”
Many of the documents on which this biography is based, held by PAA in the William Stewart Herron fonds (PR 1936) and by LAC in the Central registry files, W. S. Herron, General petroleum file (R216-110-7, file 107408), together with other material, were collected in William Stewart Herron: father of the petroleum industry in Alberta, intro. and ed. D. H. Breen (Calgary, 1984). Other relevant sources can be found at GA in the Stewart Herron fonds (M 6119, M 8160, PA 3267, PB 796, PC 37, NA 4607, NA 4766, RCT 890) and related collections.
AO, RG 80-2-0-8, no.9201; RG 80-2-0-416, no.11407; RG 80-2-0-456, no.16544; RG 80-5-0-362, nos.13837, 13899. Calgary Albertan, 11 Feb. 1926, 25 July 1939. Calgary Herald, 15 May 1914, 15 Jan. 1915, 5 Dec. 1924, 13 March 1926, 17 Nov. 1928, 21 July 1939. Oil and Financial Rev. (Calgary), 26 Oct. 1929. D. H. Breen, Alberta’s petroleum industry and the Conservation Board (Edmonton, 1993). C. C. Ross, “Petroleum and natural gas development in Alberta,” Canadian Instit. of Mining and Metallurgy, Trans. (Montreal), 29 (1926): 317–46. Who’s who in Canada, 1936/37.