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George Mercer Dawson


George Mercer Dawson played a role in every important oil and gas discovery in western and northern Canada prior to the First World War.


Born in Nova Scotia in 1849, Dawson was trained at the Royal School of Mines in London. As a geologist for the British North American Boundary Commission and assistant director and then director of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), he championed investment in exploring for fossil fuels across the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.


From 1873 to 1901, Dawson's hunt for resources took him into Alberta, B.C., the North and along the Mackenzie Valley and into the Pacific Coast. His work included reconnoitering for gold, coal petroleum and other natural resources. He was also the commanding figure within the Geological Survey department for hydrocarbon exploration. Dawson instructed his scout, Oxford-educated Kootenai Brown, to search for oil seeps by asking natives to taste a mixture of kerosene and molasses, and then to take him to places where naturally occurring materials tasting like that could be found. The Stoney Indians led Brown to oil seeps on Cameron Creek near Pincher Creek.


Dawson developed a geological explanation for the oil, and he encouraged both the GSC and businesspeople to develop the oil. In 1901, wildcatters drilled the discovery well at Oil City, Alberta's first oil well.


Dawson studied the surface geology of the Sheep Creek near Okotoks. Bill Herron used Dawson's report when he mapped the fairway of the Turner Valley field and pinpointed the location of the Dingman No. 1 discovery well.


In 1896, Dawson presented a paper to the Royal Society of Canada looking at the accidental discovery of gas by Canadian Pacific water-well drillers in 1893. Dawson predicted the occurrence of recoverable shallow gas deposits in a blanket of shale he said would be found across the region. His paper and enthusiasm encouraged Eugene Coste to drill the Bow Island discovery well in 1909.


In 1888, Dawson reported to the government that the Athabasca bitumen deposits and the Devonian oil seeps at Norman Wells were indicative "of the most extensive petroleum field in North America, if not the world."


Shortly after, Dawson committed the GSC to oilsands research and development. He oversaw the drilling of three wells on the Athabasca River in the 1890s that resulted in the discovery of the massive Pelican Rapids gas field.


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