Have you ever spilled processed oil, in particular automobile oil on your clothes? Disconcerting, messy, and very hard to remove, isn’t it? Well imagine walking to work, minding your own business, when suddenly you are sprayed by a fine mist of such oil. Or imagine hanging out your freshly washed clothes to dry in the warm, beautiful sun, going into the house to get a cup of coffee, looking out the kitchen window only to see the wash covered in droplets of ugly black oil. Or imagine going out to your prized automobile to find it spotted with oil. Or perhaps envisage stepping outside after a late lunch to find your newly painted white house dotted with dark oily stains, and your coveted lawn and garden flooded in oil.
Well that is exactly what happened to Prince Albert citizens in the West Flat of our fine city the afternoon of Wednesday, July 9, 1952.
The source of all this affliction was not too hard to uncover as a noxious odour led people by the nose to the culprit – an oil refinery. Yes, Prince Albert once had its own oil refinery.
Following the end of World War Two, Canada pursued renewed peacetime economic activity. Prince Albert joined in that search. New industries were needed and some Prince Albert citizens thought that having a local oil refinery would do much to attract entrepreneurial ventures.
In 1949, the refinery, albeit small, became a reality. It was situated at 700 River Street West with a proud name - Prince Albert Refineries Ltd – a promising beginning, boding good things to come.
But, not all things that came with the refinery proved to be good! Smell was one of them. A strong odour much like that emanating from rotten eggs or rotting cabbage began to permeate the close residential area around the refinery, causing nausea and headaches. Noise pollution was another by product. Engines used in the oil’s processing were extremely loud, and they ran throughout the night. The clamour of those engines combined with the roar of trucks coming to the plant day and night served to make sleep almost impossible to find in nearby bedrooms. People as far away as 15th Street West joined in to protest, complaining it was akin to living near an open sewer, one with not only an extremely foul stench but also unrelenting noise.
Then at 1:30 in the afternoon of July 9, 1952, those many afflictions to the West Flat exploded – yes, literately exploded. An explosion in one section of the plant sent oil soaring over 100 feet into the air – a river breeze did the rest – houses, cars, lawns, laundry, and yes people, were showered and splattered with a fine mist of the refined product – nasty, hard to remove oil!
A major protest arose, and angry, very outspoken citizens, marched on City Council. After a raucous Council meeting, remedies were promised and many tried. But in the end, after several years of continued problems, the refinery finally gave up. It closed in 1959.
The residents of the West Flat, when they could breath without gagging, breathed a big sigh of relief.
A big thanks to the folks at the Historical Museum’s Archives. They provided the research background for this story.
Visit them at 10 River Street right here in Prince Albert, It’s a fascinating place, and the people there are super helpful – in fact their motto is ‘We aim to please.”
If you have an inquiry about our local area’s past, try the archives. They will do their best to assist you, but remember, it just might be the start of something big.
The archives may be reached at (306) 764-2992.