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Count Alfred von Hammerstein (1870–1941)


In an era of Canadian history that was rife with colourful characters—many bordering on the scoundrel level—Count Alfred von Hammerstein was arguably one of the most colourful.


Arriving in the Athabasca region in 1897—detoured from his origin­al goal of reaching the Klondike—von Hammerstein was one of the first to explore the oilsands, believing that the source of the bitumen must be a pool of "free oil" lying beneath the
sand formation.


Soon after his arrival, he undertook, on his own initiative, a trip to Ottawa where he delivered a report to a Senate committee in which he presented, in somewhat of an exaggeration, a glowing report of the mineral wealth to be found in the Athabasca region, including oilsands, coal, salt, copper, limestone and gold. A central theme of his report was the usefulness of the oilsands to produce asphalt.


Von Hammerstein began his serious quest for this source oil in 1903, ferrying drilling equipment, supplies and men to operate his wells down the Athabasca River—an 80-mile trip with significant rapids. On one trip, both his crew members drowned; on another, a shooting accident left him wounded in the leg, forcing him to travel alone to Edmonton for medical attention.


To finance his exploration efforts, von Hammerstein formed the Athabasca Petroleum Syndicate in 1906 and spent more than $50,000—a considerable sum in those days—to drill several wells in a number of locations north of Fort McMurray. He discovered gas—although there was little need for it—and he claimed also to have discovered oil. He was able to convince government inspectors that he had found oil in "paying" quantities—a boast that allowed him to secure drilling rights on a fee simple basis, while those coming behind him had to lease their lands.


Von Hammerstein was also the first to suggest a pipeline be built to a refinery in Edmonton, a project that would have cost $1.5 million—pipeline and refinery included.


For most of the 40 years or so he spent in the area, von Hammerstein was an elusive figure. He rarely spoke with the media, suggesting that any knowledge of the oilsands that he might have gained was actually the property of his syndicate. He travelled extensively and was, at one point, reported in the Edmonton Daily Capital newspaper as having been killed "while engaged in promoting a revolution" in Paraguay. Subsequent editions carried objections from von Hammerstein himself that reports of his death had been "greatly exaggerated."


Nothing much ever became of von Hammerstein's "discoveries," if in fact there ever were any oil discoveries, and his first efforts to cash in on his lands failed miserably. In the 1930s, he offered the lands to both Imperial Oil Ltd. and Royal Dutch Shell plc, first at $250,000 and later at a "Depression discount" of $110,000, but neither company took him up on the offer.


Eventually, executors of the von Hammerstein estate sold the 11,000 acres to Sun Oil Company of Philadelphia, but a court case ensued and the properties went instead to Territory Oil Company. In 1995, the freehold lands were acquired by Suncor Energy Inc.


"It was Hammerstein's positive can-do attitude in the face of many adversities that showed the way for the explorers who followed him," wrote Joyce Hunt in her letter nominating von Hammerstein. "The Count was truly a pioneer who paved the way for future players attempting to find ways to extract the riches contained in the oilsands."


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