The Ranching Era
Several of our pioneer families settled in this area before 1910 and Big Valley soon became the center of rich ranching and farming operations. The natural grass (called “prairie wool”) provided excellent cattle feed. The Imperial Lease, a few miles south east of our village, consisted of thousands of acres of virgin territory and at one time it was the huge Pat Burns Ranch. Much of it still remains as it was when the buffalo roamed. The government has declared a large portion to be an ecological reserve, to preserve its natural flora and fauna. The retreating glaciers left us pockets of some of the richest agricultural soil in the province, along with massive deposits of gravel from the ancient river that ran down this valley.
The Rail Era
The rails were laid through here in 1911 as part of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR). The station was built in 1912. Big Valley soon became a thriving terminal with a big “roundhouse,” rail yards, stockyards, coal-dock, water tower and general railway maintenance and repair facilities.
In 1919, the CNR and Grand Trunk Pacific railways (and several smaller lines) amalgamated to form the new CNR (Canadian National Railway). In 1924, the CNR divided their divisional point facilities between Mirror, Hanna and Drumheller, so the “boom time” of the railroad was over for Big Valley. The remains of the yards and roundhouse are still visible today. A self-guided walking tour of the long-abandoned facilities is available and worthwhile.
In November 1986, Central Western Railway Corp. (later Railink) purchased the portion of CNR track from Ferlow Junction (seven miles south of Camrose) to Munson Junction (about seven miles north of Drumheller). They hauled grain from all the elevators on this line on a regular basis.
They have since sold most of the line to a salvage company and, essentially, the tracks now only exist from Stettler to Big Valley. This remaining portion is owned by the East Central Alberta Heritage Society (ECHAC). Alberta Prairie Steam Tours, a Stettler based group, rents the use of the track from ECHAC for their steam train excursions.
The Coal Era
Coal was discovered by early explorers along the dramatic cut banks of the Red Deer River (about twelve miles west of here). Several small mines were later developed on the outskirts of our village, but the largest of our many mines (Big Valley Colleries) opened in 1912, about one and a half miles north of here. It employed over 100 men and had its own school and hotel. Big Valley coal was all of a softer variety, suitable only for residential heating. The demand for this soft coal remained strong for many years and the mines continued to operate almost up to the time that gas and oil were discovered here in 1950. The last local mine (a strip mine) closed in 1952. It was located about three quarters of a mile north of town, where they produced briquettes (a sample is on display in our museum). Harder coal, used in the steam locomotives, came from Nordegg (Brazeau).
The Oil Boom
It’s not hard to look at Big Valley’s landscape and know that oil exploration played a key role in the community’s history.
Up until the early 1950’s, coal was the commodity mined in the area. In the late 40’s, a blizzard in the Alberta foothills pushed the seismic operations eastward to Stettler. The move resulted in the discovery of oil near the community. More importantly, it spawned extensive oil and gas exploration throughout the County.
That exploration resulted in the Big Valley No. 7 discovery well the following year, located four miles south of the village. This well was completed in September 1950 and produced 974 clean oil daily.
Once developed, the Fenn-Big Valley field covered an area of 78.2 hectares (30.2 square miles). This field produced over 51 million cubic metres (321 million barrels) of oil and over 2.4 billion cubic metres (85 billion cubic feet) of solution gas. Small amounts of oil and gas remain to be produced from this field.
The oil and gas formation lies 1660 metres (5,445 feet) below the surface of the ground. The Nisku formation was created from fossil debris in an ancient ocean over 365 million years ago, during the Devonian period.
The oil that the well struck turned out to be from a formation different from one near Stettler. Within years, the now famous Fenn-Big Valley Field was accounting for 26% of Gulf Canada Resources’ total production of light oil.
Other oil companies soon joined the search. As many as 19 rigs were in operation at one time, bringing with them men and money to pump renewed life into local economics.
The exploration resulted in a major boom for the area. Housing became so tight that granaries were dragged into town to provide homes for workers and their families. Oil production facilities were soon built and, within a few years, pump jacks were a distinctive feature on the hills around Big Valley.
At its peak, the Fenn-Big Valley Field produced 35,000 barrels (5,352 cubic metres) of oil a day for Gulf and similar amounts for Shell and Esso. The original portion of the No. 7 well alone produced 626,000 barrels (95,700 cubic metres) of oil during its lifetime. In January 2002, production of the Fenn-Big Valley Field was 2,093 barrels (320 cubic metres) of oil. Today, many of the pump jacks that dot the Big Valley landscape stand idle – evidence of the waning reserves in the field.
Nonetheless, companies are still exploring in the region and innovative techniques are being used to tap methane gas from coal seams.
An oil pumper on display in Memorial Park stands as a local symbol of the importance of the petroleum industry.