Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Four

Casmalia field California, Associated Oil camp. Santa Maria Historical Society

…and he went off to work. He would be there for forty years. Seventy eight different homes, wife and four children, “Farmer” to Superintendent, a life well lived.

A lot to learn in a short time. Bruce and Marion hauled themselves out of bed dressed, ate and stepped out into the night and waited to catch the solid tire Mack truck that made the rounds at the handoff of each tour. Jumping up on the bed amongst the clutter of hand tools, heavy open end wrenches, the occasional box of Dupont high velocity dynamite, buckets of grease and hanks of heavy manila cable they made themselves as comfortable as they could. As the flatbed struggled up the hills, dropping off the midnight tour men and picking up the day crew the Flying A logo was still stenciled on the side of the open cab, smudged, muddy and with a few dents but still advertising which company you belonged to.

Bruce hopped down from the moving truck, it stopped for no one, always somewhere to go. He climbed the short ladder to the drilling platform and reported to the Tool Pusher, the boss on the rig. In a world of mostly young men from all over the country nicknames and esoteric words to describe the days work were common and almost the first order of business. Bruce may have known a little that he learned from his brother Marion but deciphering this new language was going to take some work. There were, not just the Tool pusher but a tool dresser as well. Called a “Toolie,” his job was to do all the work that kept the drill bits in shape. There is the pipe slinger or derrickman who works up on the “Monkey Board” at the top of the derrick where he stacks pipe as it comes out of the hole or back in as the case may be. These guys are collectively known as Roughnecks. The Roustabout is the tool pushers helper and is expected to feed the boiler, tend the cable as it winds its way down the hole and do any job the “Stud Duck” tells him too. The Worm or Farmer is the low man on the totem pole. He is at the beck and call of all crew members, its the way he is going to eventually learn each of the jobs on the rig if he lasts.

The Farmer, because he doesn’t know “S….t from Shinola” as the old saying goes also fills the role as butt of all jokes. Sent for left-handed wrenches, sky hooks, the key for the vapor lock or the ever handy cable stretcher. Bruce heard them all. Luckily he had a good sense of humor and understood it was all part o the initiation into this new world.

He began his career in what are called “Cable Tool rigs.” The simplest of drilling types, their origins are lost to history. There are records of the Babylonians using simple cable tools to drill for water in Asia Minor 4,000 years ago. Its likely the simple machine pre-dated that by millenia. Simply put, a chisel like bit is raised and lowered from an arm or platform and by repetition pounds its way into the earth creating a well. By 1919 when Bruce went to work in Casmalia the technology had reached its zenith and though the heavy duty rotary rig had been successfully introduced to California fields by Texas wildcatters in 1908, the older technology was much more economical in shallow wells and was still in common use.

Although rotary drilling techniques had been patented as early as 1833, most of these early attempts at rotary drilling consisted of little more than a mule, attached to a drilling device, walking in a circle. It was the success of the efforts of Anthony Lucas and Patillo Higgins in drilling their 1901 Spindletop well in Texas that catapulted rotary drilling to the forefront of drilling. The ability of the rotary rig to drill very deep outstripped the cable tool drilling method when wells began to be drilled over a thousand feet. The rotary drill was also much more effective in types of geologic formations composed of very hard rock.

in December 1908, Howard Hughes Sr patented a roller cutter bit that dramatically improved the rotary drilling process. This allowed wildcatters to go very deep searching for the big payoff. Today the world’s deepest oil well, known as Z-44 Chayvo, goes over 40,000 ft into the ground. It is equal to 32 Empire States buildings stacked end to end.

Bruce would learn how to operate both in his career but in Casmalia the wells weren’t deep. At 1,500 feet or less they were fairly easy to drill through the Diatomaceous sandstone formations below the Casmalia hills and the area surrounding Solomon pass. The low cost Cable Tool drill rigs were suited for this type of formation and in the beginning, the 80 plus rigs on the ground used this technology. There is still one cable tool pump jack operating in the hills, the Careaga 3. Named for the family who owned the land on which it was drilled, it was the first producing well in the field and today, 121 years later it still trickles about 5 barrels a day.

Bruce Cameron Hall, left, Casmalia. 1920. Shannon Family photo.

The photo above was taken by an itinerant photographer who traveled around the state taking pictures of people at work. He would set up his tripod and box camera, pose the men and click the shutter. Taking the mens names and addresses he would mail the finished prints to them. He likely charged each person in the photo about .50 cents for a copy. At $2,25 for this photo he could make a pretty decent living in a field where there were upward of 80 wells like Casmalia. It is a minor miracles that the phot has survived over a hundrd years particulary because Bruce and Eileen packed up and moved so often in their lives.

My grandfather is just 24 here with a pregnant wife and two children under four. He has a serious look as well he might. His clothes are filthy with grease oil and dirt as are all the men. You can see the little round tab dangling from his shirt pocket that indicates there is a bag of Bull Durham tobacco in it. He was a life long heavy smoker but in 1919 most cigarettes were still hand rolled and as my father told me wouldn’t stay lit very long unless you worked at it. He said most men used plug tobacco, cutting a generous slice from your RedMan with a clasp knife and chewing that instead. Grandpa was 5’9″ so the young man next to him is a big-un. Half a head taller he must be 6’4′ or more, tall for the time. He looks young but notice that his watch fob hanging just below his belt line is in the shape of a rotary bit which means he likely has been around the rig for a while. Oil companies handed out trinkets like that only to the experienced and likely permanent employees.

Bruce is the only one with a belt. Belt loops were a relatively new invention then and were slowly replacing braces which the big guy wears. Everybody else sports boiler suits to protect their clothes. You could wear them until they simply wore out instead of having your wife do your laundry. Perhaps they are unmarried as most oil field hands were then. Still are for that matter. Unmarried, they would have gone into Orcutt or Santa Maria and had their clothes laundered. The laundries wouldn’t do oil soaked clothes, which had to be soaked in kerosene before scrubbing on a washboard. Not a very pleasant job for the wife.

Grandpa wears engineers boots with his cuffs rolled. Loose cuffs or shirttails hanging can be caught in machinery with disastrous results. It shows that he was a careful man, after all he survived around this kind of machinery for 40 years. He would learn and do every single job in the oil patch at one time or another and never shirked a job no matter how difficult, from the lowest to the highest.

Posed for the camera, the men in it give us all kinds of information if you look closely. First of all its obviously not a cable tool drilling rig but rotary. In the background, behind the man with no hat is the worm gear that is part of the drilling table, the device that spins the bit as it grinds downward. My grandfather is standing with one foot on a sheave block used to multiply the power of the one cylinder steam engine used to operate the rig. On the floor to the right is the big shackle which attaches to the top of the drill string. This is used to steady the pipe as it spins into the hole and to lift the pipe sections when it’s necessary to haul it out. photo page 120.

Rotary crew, Coalinga 1912. Long Beach Public Libraary

The drill floor is cluttered with pipe, buckets of grease, manila rope, pieces of wood from the derrick and engine house; just general clutter but and indication of just how dangerous these places were to work.

The old time rigs were powered with steam boilers, which if not properly cared for could and did explode often scalding or killing the boiler tender who was likely just a roustabout and not a skilled fireman. Rotary tables were chain driven with no guards to protect the man who fell into or on them. Fittings falling from the monkey boards killed men in the days before hard hats. Smoking around live wells in the presence of gas caused explosions and fires. Before the advent of wire cable, manila rope was used for lifting cable and though it was hawser laid and strong it could and did snap under strain. In a filthy dirty environment it was next to impossible to keep it clean and the dirt and rock particles that became embedded in its coils frayed and broke strands until it was dangerous to use. The companies pinched pennies and crews, being mostly young and fearless often used equipment long past the time when it should have been retired.

In 1921, on a rig in Huntington Beach, Jameson Oil Company’s No. 2 had a cable under severe strain snap, whipping like a scythe across the drill floor killing the Toolie and sent the driller to the hospital with leg injuries which ultimately cost the man to lose one. Another roughneck was so un-nerved he was sent to the hospital in Santa Ana. He never returned to work.

On a cold, foggy winters night on Signal Hill where the Anticline Syndicate company was drilling a well the entire drilling crew, going off shift went into the changing room near the end of the tour to change. One of the men struck a match to light the open gas burner in order to dry the dirty suits hanging on the clothes line. The explosion of the trapped gas in the shack seriously injured the entire night crew before they could escape the flames.

In January of 1922, the crew on the afternoon tour at Union Oil’s Alexander No. 1 in Santa Fe Springs was down to 2,000 feet when mud started to boil out of the casing pipe. The driller screamed at the men to run. The derrick man was up on the monkey board and started to clamber down the ladder but when he had gone part way down and was still forty feet from the ground a powerful column of mud, sand and rock began shooting out of the hole, reaching higher than the crown block at the top of the rig. The derrick man had no choice but to jump for his life. It was his luck that he landed in the sump where the drilling mud pooled. Though shaken, he had the good sense to crawl out, slathered in heavy liquid mud and bolt from the rig. 2.000 feet of drill pipe flew into the air, crashing down all around the rig crushing the two cars the men had driven to work. The wooden derrick collapsed and the drill hole cratered swallowing the entire rig. Within hours all that was left was a vast pool of swirling mud and debris.

A collapsed well, Kern County Westside, 1903, Kern County Oil Museum

The standing casing on the left is all thats left. The coils of cable are from the Bull Wheel which has been incinerated. The standing man adds scale. This was not an uncommon occurrence in Californias early days.

All these accident were part of the sad picture. The casualty rates in California’s oil fields were very high. In the twenties when Bruce and Marion were on the job Californias oil companies produced 100 million barrels of oil, the highest it has ever been, the accident rate rose. Between January 1921 and 1922, 4,109 accidents were reported from just ten of the companies engaged in drilling operations. The majority of companies tried not to report. In this one year 98 men were killed and more than 400 were permanently disabled. 1922 saw thirty four boiler explosions. Almost all took at least one life.

The rotary rigs had no clutch on their chain drives and the chains clattered constantly, sagging and tightening as loads were added or reduced. Falling into the exposed chain could kill. A chain that broke sent pieces flying around the drilling floor like shrapnel from a bomb. They could and did kill.

When the driller was running pipe back into a hole he could brake the pipe string too rapidly and the heat build up in the brake flange rims caused them to fracture losing the pipe string down the hole and sending pieces of cast iron flying. The use of steel didn’t come into use until the mid to late 1920’s.

None of the traveling blocks had guards. When the derrick man needed to turn the blocks, he did it by hand. A moments inattention could throw the hand between the cable and the spinning blocks taking off fingers and whole hands.

Rotary rig, chain drive, 1920. Huntington Library

On top of this the rush to drill brought “Suitcase” men from all over the country. Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming boys took the train, drove a car or just used Shanks mare, hoping to cash in on the California boom. The overabundance of labor caused the oil companies to begin using independent contractors to do the drilling rather than carrying a payroll. The companies provided all material but the contractors did the actual drilling. In the beginning the companies paid by the amount of hole the contractor made. It was essentially piece work. A certain amount paid out at 1,000 feet, another at 2,000. Pressure to keep the money rolling in was intense. It’s no wonder the drilling foreman was known as the “Pusher.” The contractors quickly realized that safety cost and speed paid. All across California, Signal Hill, La Brea, Huntington, Kern’s westside in McKittrick, Reward and Fellows, up in Summerland and Ventura, over in Oildale and Kernville tales quickly spread about crews who could push drilling speeds to the limit. A crew in the Dominguez Hills field set a world record. That crew claimed to have made 3,250 feet in just fifteen days. They averaged 239 feet a day and in one single tour made 280 feet.

At speeds like that, almost no thought was given to safety. Some contractors were man killers. They pushed so hard that hoist drums blew up, drilling lines broke, chains broke or men fell into them. Derrick men who worked with no safety belts fell. The pushers pushed as hard as they could, nearly killing men to make hole as fast as they could. Hiring men was no problem at all, hundreds of “Boomers” were sleeping in cars, rag tents or anywhere they could lie, waiting for a job. The superintendents carried a checkbooks in their pockets.

Old Checkbook Myers, he got the name because he’d fire men off the job, he always carried that checkbook with him, and he’d pay them off on the spot if he didn’t like the way they worked. He’d just expect them to work the way he’d do. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, why he’d pull out the book and fire them right there. Get somebody else. Those guy’s would be waiting around. No problem.

When Bruce went out on the rigs he learned one thing right away. “It don’t cost no more to pay a man off today as it does on Friday.” He never forgot it.

Burning waste oil from the sumps, “Old Maude,” Orcutt, California.c. 1904. Robt. B. Moran

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