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A Driller’s Life in the 1950’s

by Franklin L Foster, Ph.D.

[I spoke with Grant King shortly after he retired in 1995 as President and CEO of Gibson Petroleum Company Ltd. but our conversation dealt with his early career with Husky Oil. He left school to work in the patch at the age of 16 and over the course of his career he worked just about every job there is in the oil business. In 1952-53, Grant was a driller, before his father-in-law, "Husky Bill" Williams, insisted he move on to other departments at Husky Oil. What follows is a sketch of what it was like to be a driller in the Lloydminster area in the early 1950’s.]

A driller is the captain of a team. The team members usually consisted of two roughnecks, a derrickhand, and, especially in the winter, a boilerman. Usually three such teams were assigned to a well, working under the supervision of a toolpush, but the driller was responsible for what happened on his shift.

Back in ’52, the Cardwell Mobile Hoist derrick was just being introduced but it was small and usually used for service work. Drilling rigs were still skid mounted and had to be assembled and disassembled at every drilling site. At set-up, two of the three crews would be on hand to place all the equipment at the lease site and raise the derrick. The third crew would be sleeping so they could come on a midnight to take their shift.

Once the rig was raised, the guy wires attached, the pumps connected and the engines ready, the well could be spudded in. Approximately 150 feet of twelve inch casing would be cemented in and left to set overnight before the 9 inch bit was attached to the drill collar and routine drilling began. The geologist would have supplied an estimate of where the oil zone would be, usually between 1,800 and 2,000 feet, so there was an average of 95 hours of drilling time before the pay zone was encountered.

Either a GMC or Cat engine supplied the power. Grant found the "Jimmy" engines produced a high whining noise which, after an eight hour shift could leave the driller with a throbbing headache. Cat engines seemed to run at a lower pitch which was easier on the ears and nerves. The driller had to keep a steady hand on the brake while his feet operated the clutch and foot feed. With experience, a driller can tell by the sound and feel of the drilling what is being encountered far below. Sometime the pipe went down quickly, which indicated sand or water, and at other times progress was slow and the pipe string chattered and danced, indicating hard rock formations. About every 20 minutes the driller had to brake and hold while the roughnecks attached a new 30 foot pipe to the drill string. If things were going well, they would have nothing to do until the next pipe needed attaching. What they dreaded most was some problem encountered far down the well which would mean, say, 1,600 feet of pipe having to be raised. Each length had to be uncoupled, taken off the drilling platform and stacked on the ground. [This was in the days before pipe could be stacked vertically on the rig itself.]

When you were near the pay zone, a brush was used to paint red stripes at one foot increments on the kelly so the driller could more precisely follow the descent of the pipe. When the oil zone was struck, the pipe would drop very quickly through, before encountering more resistance below. A good driller could very accurately estimate both the depth and the thickness of the oil zone.

In those days, the well was expected to be perfectly vertical. "Directional drilling" might produce a bore hole which would not accept the casing. At one point a gizmo called a Tautco Tool was invented to test the perpendicularity of the well. A cardboard bullseye was lowered with a needle device which could be fired into the bullseye. When raised, the needle mark told how far off plumb the bore hole was. Inventive drillers soon found that punching a hole in the bullseye in the comfort of the doghouse was a timesaving way of placating the head office personnel who thought of the bullseye as a quality control measure.

The wells Grant drilled were near enough to Lloydminster that he was able to drive out to the wellsite each day. The crew would assemble at a staging yard located near the present Atrium Building in Lloydminster, and four to a cab drive out to the lease. A hard eight hour shift lay ahead but there were lunch breaks. Grant’s sandwiches were always the envy of the rest of the crew as his wife, Billielu was an excellent cook.

Most drilling was done in the fall but occasionally a busy schedule might see some winter drilling. Wooden wind breaks could be constructed to shield the drilling floor and steam pipes run through the enclosure and also into the mud pits to keep both men and mud reasonably mobile. However, at temperatures colder than - 35 degrees metal became brittle and working conditions too dangerous to continue.

All in all, a driller had to have good organizational skills to set up and maintain an effective drill site plus good people skills to be an effective team leader. A conscientious, skilled driller was a great asset to his company in bringing in a well efficiently and safely. Being a driller was also a life-style that appealed to some and was a colourful part of our oil industry heritage.