Oil was first reported in this area in 1789 when Sir Alexander Mackenzie noted in his journal that he had seen oil seeping from the banks of the river named for him. The Geological Survey of Canada confirmed these seeps in 1888, but they were not staked until 1915. In 1911, J.K. Cornwall of the Northern Trading Company had hired a Dene trapper, Karkassee, to locate and take samples from the source of an oil slick he had seen on the Mackenzie River. Karkassee found a small pool of oil on the riverbank downstream from Fort Norman. Samples were taken, and analysis in Pittsburgh showed them to be of high quality. In 1914, Cornwall staked a claim at the site, and geologist Dr. T.O. Bosworth staked 3 others.
In 1919, Imperial Oil purchased the Cornwall and Bosworth claims and sent their geologist, Ted Link, north with a party of 8 men, a drilling rig, and an ox. Over the next few months, Link paid locals $10 a day to help the company stake as much ground around the initial claims as possible. The following summer, on August 27, 1920, oil was struck. A small refinery was built, and by 1939 an 840-barrel-per-day refinery was producing enough oil for local needs. To supply fuel for military needs during World War II, it was decided to expand the Norman Wells field, and build a 600-mile-long pipeline from there to a new refinery to be built at Whitehorse. From Whitehorse, a smaller pipeline would be built alongside the new highway, to Ladd Field, the Army Air Corps base at Fairbanks. A total of 67 wells were rilled during the Canol Project.
The Norman Wells field is considered to be the fourth largest, single oil deposit in Canada, and in 1982 a major expansion of the Norman Wells field was undertaken by Imperial Oil. Six artificial islands were built on the Mackenzie River, another 253 wells were drilled, and and 870-km-long pipeline was built to Zama, Alberta, where it connected with the Rainbow Pipeline. In the 1990s and 2000s another 37 wells were drilled. As of 2013 there were about 330 active wells in the Norman Wells field (Ron Babiy, Imperial Oil Resources, 2013).
Production was halted in December 2016 after slope stability concerns at the pipeline's Mackenzie River crossing near Fort Simpson, but after repairs and modifications to the line were made, production resumed in October 2018.
Fort Norman Oil Co. 30 miles below Fort Norman, NWT, 1928.
Photo by Prof. Emrys Jones.