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Robert C. Fitzsimmons (1881-1971)


The early days of oilsands discovery in western Canada are littered with the unfulfilled dreams of entrepreneurs who thought they had finally grabbed hold of the brass ring, only to have their dreams dashed by a combination of scarce financing, technical barriers and, in some cases, business associates who were just a little more ruthless.

Robert C. Fitzsimmons, a native of Prince Edward Island who moved west, first to grow wheat in Manitoba, and then to the state of Washington where he became involved in various real estate enterprises, fell into this class of dreamer.

It was while pursuing a real estate deal that Robert travelled to northeastern Alberta, where he noticed an oily substance seeping from the ground—an observance, his grand-niece Linda Clifford wrote in his nomination, that would change his life.

Robert met with George McKee, an investor in Athabasca Oil Limited, which was drilling near Fort McMurray, Alta., and based on those accounts he travelled to the community of Waterways in 1922 and met with representatives of the Alcan Oil Company of New York, which had recently acquired a number of leases. Robert bought about 600 acres of adjacent leases and went to work for Alcan, thinking that once Alcan had proven its commercial operations he would sell his leases to the company for a tidy profit.

Alcan's promoters, however, had other ambitions (some, in fact, were fugitives from justice the last time Robert heard from them in 1924), and Robert decided to strike out on his own, earning federal approval to develop his leases and launching an exploratory drilling program near Bitumount in 1925. He set up a small extraction plant based on Karl Clark's hot water–extraction method, in 1927 established the International Bitumen Company and three years later made the first commercial shipment of bitumen—a modest 207 barrels—to Edmonton.

The plant turned out about 2,000 barrels of bitumen in 1931, but with the deepening Depression, Robert was unable to sell much. In 1937, he built his own refinery to provide specification product to the market—the adjoining extraction plant was expanded to a 300-barrel-a-day capacity the same year— and while the refinery produced more than 50,000 gallons of gasoline and 500 barrels of asphalt in just two months of operations in 1938, lack of financing and unstable markets forced its closure.

Still looking for financing, Robert connected with Montreal financier Lloyd R. Champion, who in 1943 assumed control of International Bitumen Company under a new company, Oil Sands Limited, with Robert originally intended to continue as manager of operations.

But misunderstandings between the two arose and Robert was eventually bought out by Champion in 1944, who then entered negotiations with the Alberta government to finance development of a new plant at Bitumount. Champion was never able to consummate those discussions, his leases were cancelled in 1948 and the Alberta Research Council eventually assumed operation of the Bitumount demonstration plant.

Robert's ideas, his grand-niece wrote, put him squarely in the category of men who were ahead of their times, and although he never lived to see his breakthrough work recognized (he died in Edmonton in 1971), he can still be seen as a forerunner to the work that goes on today.

"He helped propel the industry that is ongoing today and the industry has, in turn, stood on the shoulders of Fitzsimmons and other pioneers like him," she wrote.

The Robert Fitzsimmons Theatre at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray was named in his honour.


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