The oil sands are today a powerful source of Canadian energy, the capital being Fort McMurray located in northeast Alberta, in the middle of the Athabasca oil sands, surrounded by boreal forest.
Hydrocarbons have been present in Alberta for millions of years. Historians report that the first known reference to the Athabasca oil sands was made in 1715 by Captain Swan, a Cree chief acting as a middleman between the native hunters of the west and the fur factories of Hudson Bay. In 1788 Sir Alexander McKenzie, Canadian fur trader and explorer wrote in his journal that about twenty-four miles from the Fork, are some bitumenous fountains; into which a pole of twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance. Today, some 89 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, on the east bank of the Athabasca River, a clutch of derelict buildings and oil drums dating back to the 1920s stand as a reminder of the first commercial attempts to extract oil from sand. In the 1920s and 1930s, University of Alberta researcher Karl Clark and the Alberta Research Council developed the “hot water method” to separate bitumen from the oil sands. The private entrepreneur R.C. Fitzsimmons built many of the facilities at Bitumount in the 1920s, including a plant that used Clark’s method. Bitumount counts as the first oil sands camp that included cabins, a long-house, a root cellar and latrines. In 1948 ownership was transferred to Alberta’s provincial government, which eventually abandoned it in the 1950s. The mine site, dump site, accommodations and processing sites sit not far from several of today’s oil sands mines. (Source and image: Alberta Oil – Bitumount facility in Fort McMurray in 1926)