August 26, 2011 in the Pipeline News North
Past Practice - Fernie Derrick Restoration
James Watermann - Staff Writer
About one hundred years ago, aspiring oilmen tried their luck
in the environs of Akamina Creek and Sage Creek in the Flathead
River Valley of southeast British Columbia. They didn't discover
any commercial quantities of oil during the period from 1907
to 1930, but the remnants from the rigs they used to drill
23 wells still persist today, now greeting travelers as they
enter the nearby town of Fernie on Highway 3.
It is the last standing wooden oil derrick in B.C.
"Some of the parts came from Oil City over there in Waterton,"
said Alex Millar, who has been involved with the most recent
Fernie Derrick Society initiative to restore the rig, a project
that has been assisted by funding from the oil and gas industry
sponsored Science and Community Environmental Knowledge (SCEK)
Oil City, Alberta, the home to the first producing oil well
in western Canada, is now situated in Waterton Lakes National
Park, just across the Alberta-B.C. border from the Flathead
River Valley region. Exploration in Oil City dates back to
1891. Drilling really began in earnest ten years later, only
to see those wells abandoned in 1906.
"And then [those parts] sort of migrated over when they
were doing the drilling in B.C. in the twenties," Millar
added. "So, what we have there is basically components
from a number of the derricks that were used out on the Flathead."
Millar wasn't involved in the first rebuild of the wooden
derrick in 1984, when a number of components from the old
rigs also found their way to Heritage Park in Calgary.
"At Heritage Park, there's actually an operational wooden
derrick drilling rig that got put together in the eighties
using the metal components that were salvaged from the Flathead,"
said Millar. "The reason the components stayed [in Flathead
Valley] is because they were remote enough that the scrap
metal guys didn't get them in the war. Most of that stuff,
anything on the prairies, any metal, got scrounged up, because
it was easy to get to."
For years, the only people really aware of the existence of
those old parts were backcountry explorers like hunters and
"Shell was doing some exploration," said Millar,
beginning to explain how those parts finally wound up in Fernie.
"And, actually, Shell drilled a lot in this area.
And Chevron was in this area too, trying to find commercial
quantities. And nobody ever did. The wells are sitting around
and they're capped. And I'm assuming they never did [find
commercial quantities of oil], because they never came back."
Shell didn't find oil, but they did find the remains of the
old rigs, and decided to help bring them into Fernie.
"When they put the rig up, I was living here," recalled
Mary Guiliano, who is virtually a lifetime Fernie resident.
"And that was something that the [city] council of the
day decided would be a good thing, because it was donated
to the city. And they thought it would be a good tourist attraction.
So, they put it up, they put a big fence around it, and promptly
"So," she continued, "in the 21 years that
it was sitting there, it was in the midst of tall grasses,
rust - you know, it was total neglect."
The derrick shares a piece of property that includes the building
that houses the local Chamber of Commerce, which had a new
manager - whose office had a window directly facing the rig
- at a time when the site had already suffered those years
"It looked pretty awful," Guiliano admitted, "because
it did have this huge wire fence. You know, that ugly mesh
wire fence. And it had tall grasses. Everything had rusted."
So, the Chamber of Commerce was insisting that the derrick
be torn down, but Guiliano, a city councillor both then and
now, was adamantly opposed to the idea.
"I said, "No! That is a big part of British Columbia
history. And it's not going to go anywhere." she said.
A three-year struggle ensued, culminating in an ultimatum
from the Chamber of Commerce, demanding that the rig finally
"So, I got myself a committee," said Guiliano. "We
formed a society. And after many presentations to council,
we were given the go ahead by council in a motion to take
over the derrick and the rehabilitation of the site. And that's
what we did. I managed to get some funding from a few different
sources. And we tore down the fence. We trimmed bushes. We
moved all kinds of things. We secured the structure."
"We had an engineer check the rig out," added Millar.
"John Turcasso, one of the local engineers, donated his
He donated his services to do an assessment
and make sure that it was structurally sound. And he said
it's in excellent shape."
Millar became involved in preserving the derrick when he heard
the news that some members of the community were eager to
tear it down.
"I was out of Red Deer," he said. "I retired
down here about five years ago. And that was a real neat landmark
when we come into town. So, I got involved."
"We secured any loose ends that needed to be tightened
up," Guiliano continued. "That's where Alex came
in because he has a business and he had all kinds of machinery
and equipment where he was able to dig out posts and remove
bushes and [do] things you didn't want to do by hand. And
a work party was organized a few times. And the whole area
was cleaned up. The committee members tore down some of the
wood platform that was around the derrick and re-did it. Put
up a new railing. Put up new stairs."
The site was originally constructed to appear as though it
was actually an operating oil derrick, which means that it
occupied a considerable amount of space on the property and
elements such as the engine were directly on the ground, allowing
them to rust. So, as part of the restoration, those parts
were moved closer to the rig and placed on new cement pads.
Various other artifacts were also restored. Now the Fernie
Derrick Society is only waiting on racks on which to display
those pieces, which should mark the end of the restoration
process this fall. If they can secure the funding, they would
also like to print brochures.
The exhibit now features signage to inform visitors about
the history of the derrick and is equipped with spotlights
inside the structure so the rig is clearly visible at night.
"We were hoping to have lights put on the perimeter,"
said Guiliano. "Because there's guy wires holding this
on all four sides, we couldn't get the fire department engine
to go close enough to have anybody climb up. And we couldn't
get any electricians who were willing to risk life and limb
to go and do the work. But the spotlights work really well
because they still light it. And then, of course, we put a
flag up on top. So, it's looking pretty nice, pretty neat
"And," she added, "I know that as soon as we
took down that fence and cleaned it up and people were able
to go near it, it instantly became more appealing. And we
have been told by the Chamber of Commerce that many people
stop and read and want to know more. There's a miniature model
of it inside the Chamber that was built at the same time as
this big one was put up."
Guiliano is very grateful that SCEK was willing to contribute
funding to the project, as it likely wouldn't have been completed
without their support.
"It's amazing how construction costs are so high even
for just cement," she said. "You know, just the
basics, right? So, they came through for us. And they actually
said they would support us to the tune of $23,000. And then
I got funding from some oil companies and from some private
donations. And we got a lot of volunteer help. We actually
had BP give us a work party twice. And they probably would
have given us a lot more financial help. I don't know if you're
aware, but down here in Fernie, we have a very strong environmental
group who hated BP with a passion. And BP was a little bit
worried that they would look like they were trying to buy
favouritism from the community. So, they quietly helped us
out by giving us a small amount of funding and sending a work
party, which we really appreciated."
The derrick has become an important local landmark for the
"It's been a real positive thing for the tourism now,"
"It's part of B.C.'s history," he added. "And
it's the only one standing. And the reality is, today, unless
somebody comes along with a big grant or something like that,
probably nobody's going to build another wooden drilling rig
in British Columbia."
"Obviously, most of the oil and gas activity's up in
northern B.C. now," Millar concluded. "But it is
part of our heritage."
Millar remarked that it can also be a good way to show today's
generation of oilmen how the industry first began in western
"In the space of a lifetime," he said, "we've
gone from just pounding holes in the ground with a steam powered
engine to drilling down horizontal and directional. The guys
back then couldn't even imagine."
"The young guys today have a hard time imagining how
the industry got started."
"It is the history of the Flathead," Guiliano echoed.
"And we're not that far from the Flathead."
"And Fernie is surrounded by coal, right?" she continued.
"But coal and oil and gas are not unrelated. I mean,
this is part of our history. And even if although we don't
have oil here in our close vicinity - and we're thankful enough
that we have coal mining - it is still a part of British Columbia
"History is valuable. And I just believe that preserving
history is a way to move forward in the future. Because unless
you know where you came from and what your history is, really,
I don't know if you're able to really move forward and progress
as well as you could."
A couple years ago, the old wooden derrick was central to
the search for eight young snowmobilers who died that winter.
"They had a big search and rescue operation," said
Guiliano. "And it was carried out on the grounds of where
the derrick was and out of the Chamber [of Commerce]. And
people came with all kinds of media. And there was just all
kinds of search and rescue people from all over. And it was
said by all of them that as soon as they were told [to] come
[to] the oil derrick, it was like a beacon for them. It was
so very easy for them to find it."
"That was the headquarters for the search and rescue
operation," she added. "And it just became iconic
for everybody because they knew that's where they could find
the headquarters, that's where they knew where to go.
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