Working An Oil Lease

ALDEN ARTHUR KNIPE, IN APPLETON’S BOOKLOVER’S MAGAZINE February 1 1906

Working An Oil Lease

ALDEN ARTHUR KNIPE, IN APPLETON’S BOOKLOVER’S MAGAZINE February 1 1906

IN the dark woods the obvious thought came to me as a positive inspiration. At the end of those jerking ground lines, over which my weary feet had stumbled a score of times, there must be an engine, and with the engine a man who could direct me out of the maze into which I had wandered. And so I found him, “just where he had been for the best part of thirty years,” he told me.

He was sitting in his workshop surrounded by the tools of his trade, sturdy, thickset, and rugged; his white hair, growing a trifle thin on the crown, cropped close to his wellrounded head. He must have been sixty or near it, but the twinkling blue eyes that looked me over from top to toe showed no sign of age, and later when I saw him at work there was no hint that years had weakened in the slightest degree his ability to perform tasks not only difficult but heavy to handle, owing to the strength necessary in all the machinery for pumping oil. His hands were the most characteristic part of him. They were thick, shortfingered hands; capable hands, as one saw at once; hands twisted and tortured like the bits of irön that hung from the walls about the man; but with all their scars, scars that had come in his daily work, there was no feeling of deformity, only a sense of strength and skill and the knowledge that they had been wrought into their present shape by a constant tussle with the tough metal he pounded and twisted into the forms he needed. This was Dave Coleman — “Old Man” Coleman everybody called him — superintendent of as valuable a lease as there is in Pennsylvania.

I came upon Mr. Coleman again early next day “pulling a well,” a task which requires the united efforts of three men and a team of horses. The process consists of hauling out the sucker rods until at last, at the end of a thousand feet, the little brass valves come to the surface.

“What is the matter ?” I asked.

“She’s pumpin’ roilly. That is, the water is mixed with the oil,” he explained. “Likely because the valve leaks and every time she makes an up stroke there’s a little thin stream shoots out of the leak and mixes the oil and water together. It’s all queer down there, you know. There’s gallons and gallons of salt water, and then there’s the gas, too. How they got there or where they came from are questions I haven’t found the answer to these thirty years.”

The old man paused, hauled on a rope, and called to the man with the horses to go ahead. Billy Roach, the pumper, stepped back with a wrench in each hand, and another rod, dripping crude oil, came sliding out of the well. The teamster, balanced on the rope, shouted directions to the tugging horses : “Haw a little! Gee a little! Whoa, back !”

Billy leaned forward, slipping in an elevator to hold the remaining rods from falling back into the well while he wrenched another loose, the horses turned and came back to, the derrick, and Mr. Coleman leaned on the rope to take up the slack. A moment later another rod came up, and again the process was repeated.

“No, you can’t never tell what you’ll find,’’ Mr. Coleman went on. “These wells are as coquettish as women. Why, there’s Number Four over on the other farm. Old Aunt Sally, we used to call her. Why, gee whiz ! I tried every sort of rig you ever heard of to make her pump clean. All the new-fangled valves, and workin’ barrels of all sorts, everything they had in the supply store; but she would pump roilly. Well, gee whiz! one day we lost a valve in her. It looked like a ‘fishin’ job’ all right, and maybe a case of pullin’ the tubin’, but I said to Jimmy Grey, who was workin’ with me at the time, ‘Jim,’ I said, ‘we won’t do nothin’ of the kind. Old Aunt Sally ain’t goin’ to pump nothin’ but roilly oil, I guess, and we’ll just leave that valve there. We can’t get her pumpin’ good, so we’ll fix her so nobody else can either.’ Well, sir, that’s what we did. Left that old valve in the well, pulled up the rods a foot or so, put on another, and, gee whiz! if she didn’t pump the nicest, cleanest oil you ever saw, and we never had to pull her again for seven years! That’s the longest time I ever heard of a well pumpin’ without pullin’. Maybe you think I’m just talkin’, but it’s a fact. She’s a good well yet, Aunt Sally is, pumps her two or three inches in her derrick tank every day, and, let me see—it must have been ’long about the time old Adam Johnson was tendin’ fire over on the Independent.

Oh, a matter of twenty-five or thirty years. Yes, they’re coquettish all right. Here’s this one we’re pullin’. She’s nervous and kind of sulky. Gee whiz! there ain’t a ground line on the lease that gets bcoken as often as this one. She’s a good well, too. Pumps her four barrels regular, but nervous, and the water seems to bother her a heap. You see, you can’t let a well stand without pumpin’ because the salt water gets in and drives out the oil and the first thing you know you’re gettin’ only water and not a very good quality water at that. Then fussin’ with ’em makes ’em nervous, and yet you can’t let ’em pump roilly. Whoa there!" he shouted to the teamster. “Here’s what the shoemaker threw at his wife.’’

This expression he always used when the final rod came out of the hole. Ten minutes saw the difficulties remedied and the process of pulling was reversed.

“And what is a fishing job ?’’ I asked.

“Well,’’ he began, “we have bad luck sometimes; everybody does, I guess. Now and then the rods part in the hole, or a stem breaks off the valve, like it did that time I was tellin’ you about over at Number Four; sometimes'the workin’ barrels get stuck in the hole. Then we have a fishin’ job to get them out. You see, they’re down about a thousand feet inside that two-inch tubin’ so that there isn’t much room to work in, but we’ve got a lot of fishin’ tools that we let down and try to get a friction hold on what we’re after. Most always we get it, but then again we don’t, which means pullin’ the tubin’, and, gee whiz! that’s a job for a hot day !’’

“I’d like to see a fishing job,” I said encouragingly.

“I hope you won’t see one on this lease,” he returned earnestly, and Billy, the pumper, shared his view of the matter.

By the present methods the cost of pumping oil is reduced to a minimum. The gas engine is the vital centre of the lease, and from this point the ground lines run in all directions, transmitting the power, it may be for a mile, to the distant wells scattered throughout the woods. The gas engine receives its fuel from the wells and needs but little attention after it is once started, so that only one man is necessary to care for, say, twenty-five or thirty active wells. This man is called the pumper, and his duties consist in visiting each well once in twenty-four hours and running off the oil from the small derrick tanks to the receiving tanks, which latter are connected with the pipe line. Thus a well which pumps only a quarter of a barrel a day is well worth maintaining, as there is no increased cost, and in these days a four-barrel well is considered a very good one.

The life of the pumper is hardly attractive, and it is not to be wondered at that many of them drink sufficiently to make them quite unreliable. The country in which they are obliged to spend their days is practically deserted, and their little shacks are situated back in the woods far from the traveled roads. The lonesomeness is excessive, their daily round grows monotonous and is relieved only by accidents that materially increase their labor, their wages are small, and altogether the life is an exceedingly hard one; yet they say in the oil regions, “once a pumper always a pumper.”

It was a long time before Billy Roach conquered his inherent suspicion of me sufficiently to say more than “good morning” to my greeting. He was a large, muscular man, prompt in his movements rather than quick, and a tireless worker. Silent, and given to listening, he would sit mutely by while Mr. Coleman and I talked, glancing from one to the other with keen, penetrating black eyes that had in them almost a look of menace. But his chief characteristic, a trait that one recognized in a moment as dominant, was his absolute lack of fear. It was patent in every line of the man. He was probably forty years old, and his life so far had been typical of his class. He had been a “producer” on a small scale, had owned a little lease, had staked the savings of many years on his theories, put down a few wells, and “gone broke.” Then he had come back to pumping again, but his ambition never faltered, and I have no doubt that in the long, solitary evenings, as he sat alone among the trees, he had his dreams of future wealth and prosperity when he should have saved sufficient money for another venture.

“Oh, no, we don’t stop pumpin’ for Sundays or any other days,” began Billy as we sat under the trees and talked against the harsh, erratic bark of the gas engine. “We have to keep at it, or the water would get the best of us. And it’s funny about that, too. You can get just so much oil out of a well every day and no more. Some people keep pumpin’ day and night, while others, like us, shut down for twelve hours. We tried pumpin’ all the time for a week and we didn’t get as much oil as we did workin’ only half time. Of course, everybody’s got their notions about the business. There’s a lot of religious folks thinks the oil and gas are put there by the Creator so that the world will burn up on Judgment Day. Oh, yes, they believe that, same as they believe that old Colonel Drake had spirits to tell him about the oil in the first place. My own notion is that the oil comes from the ocean in some way and I'll tell you why. In the first place there’s the salt water. How does it get there if it don’t come from the ocean? And in the second place there’s the gas! I’ve watched it here and out in Indiana both, and when the tide is high I have to shut off my gas a little in the engine, showin’ that the pressure is heavy; then when the tide is low or failin’ I have to turn her on again. Yes, sir, that’s a fact you can explain any way you like best, but I think the ocean is just naturally pushin’ the oil ahead of it out of the sea.”

For me the real excitement began when they talked of drilling. Somehow I had expected a ceremony to precede this process. One morning Mr. Coleman suggested casually that I go out and locate a well for him. He was busy that morning, he said.

“Locate a well!” I repeated, aghast.

“Well, gee whiz!” he exclaimed. “They’re cornin’ to move the derrick this mornin’, and some one will have to show them where to put it. You can do it all right. You know where Twenty-six is. Well, all you have to do is to draw a line from there parallel to Thirty-three and step off a hundred yards and put down a stake. Anywhere within twenty feet or so will do.”

I positively refused to accept any such responsibility, so Mr. Coleman took me with him into the woods, and together we climbed a derrick forty-five or fifty feet and looked down upon the rolling, tumbling hills.

“It wasn’t really necessary to come up here,” said Mr. Coleman, “but I thought you’d like to see how it was done. Now, over there to your right,” he went on, pointing to the top of another derrick, “over there is Twenty-six. This one is Thirty. Now, a straight line from Twenty-six off to the left and another from here straight ahead will meet about at that dead tree, won’t they?”

“Just about,” I assented.

“Well, that will do, I guess,” he replied and started down the creaking ladder past the floating bits of rag torn from the pumper’s shirt and tied to mark the unsafe rounds. Then we found the dead tree. He cut a stick and drove it into the ground. That was all. A little sliver of wood marked the spot where a thousand dollars was to be sunk into the ground with very uncertain results.

After all, it is perhaps as good a way as any to locate a well, but all producers are by no means so unceremonious. Distances are measured to the fraction of an inch, engineers plot the ground with mathematical accuracy, elaborate maps are drawm, and every possible scrap of information gleaned from surrounding wells is considered, all with the same ludicrously uncertain results. There is no indication of what may be found in any given well until the drilling tools actually penetrate the oil-bearing rock. Whatever other wells in the immediate neighborhood are producing, whatever the general indications of the surrounding country may be, there is nothing like a certainty that any oil at all will be found in a given place. There are, of course, theories and theorists innumerable. Every man in the region has his own pet ideas on the subject, and for every such theory there are countless examples to prove the contention and quite as many to disprove it.

"Wells are usually located at distances of three hundred feet from each other, the idea being that a well will drain that distance in the oil-bearing rock. This is an almost universal practice, although to the uninitiated there is no plausible explanation for it. For example, a man drilled a well and found a dry hole or, as they call it in the west, “a duster.” Then, in accordance with some personal theory as to how the layers of rock ran, he turned his drilling “rig” at right angles and drilled again; with the happy result that he pumped sixty barrels of oil a day, the second hole being hardly fifty feet from the first. Again, a well was drilled on the extreme edge of a certain lease which produced some seventy barrels. Whereupon the owner of the adjoining property, thinking to get a portion of that same oil, bored as close to the other as the necessary derrick space would permit. He found an absolutely dry hole, without a trace of oil, little more than ten feet from where the other well pumped the seventy barrels daily and continued so to pump for many months. These are examples that might be multiplied indefinitely: in point of fact it is doubtful if a keen imagination could invent a possible condition that has not been duplicated by actual experience. How supreme then must have been the faith of Drake, the man who drilled the first well.

Over our little stick the rig builders erected a derrick, which was no sooner completed that the drillers took possession, steam hissed from the boiler, fifteen hundred feet of Manila cable was reeled on the big bull wheel, and, before I quite realized it, a sixteen-inch bit had begun working up and down, driving an opening wedge into the surface, to prepare a space for the smaller tools that are used when the mountain rock is reached. To me the potentialities were so great that it was hard to believe a new well could be started with no more ado than in digging a kitchen garden or planting a tree.

The wells are drilled by four men, two drillers and two tool dressers, and when the work is once started it goes on, night and day, stopping only for thunderstorms, until it is finished. The work is divided into what are called “towers,” meaning shifts of twelve hours, between midnight and noon. A driller and tool dresser are on duty together, the former having the responsibility. Nominally the tool dresser is a blacksmith whose business it is to keep the steel drilling bits to scale; actually both men share their task, helping each other in their several departments.

These “bits” are the tools that do the actual drilling. They weigh two hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds each, and it is the changing of them when their edges become worn and the pounding of them into shape after they have been heated in the forge that makes the tool dresser’s part so severe. A bit may go through a “tower” without change, or again it may take ten bits to go as many feet. Usually the forge is inside the derrick close to the hole, but sometimes it is necessary to move it outside, as much as a hundred yards, to avoid the possibility of igniting the excessive gas found in some wells. Under these circumstances the tool dresser’s work is enormously increased by the added labor of carrying the bits to and from the forge. Fires do occur unexpectedly, and the men are lucky if they manage to smother them out with sand, blankets, or steam before the entire rig is burned; but after all this is but one of the many accidents containing all the elements of a tragedy that may happen at any moment.

The nearest approach to excitement, and this is by no means exuberant, on the part of the men who are doing the work comes when the bit begins to eat into the first layer of oil-bearing rock, or “sand,” as they call the different strata. Here at last is a chance to give a fairly accurate estimate of what may be expected from the well.

We found the black sand early in the morning. Old Man Coleman, fully as eager as though the well were his, was on hand to represent the owner. Billy Roach, silent and watchful, came with the contractor, so that it was quite a little party the sun looked down upon as it rose pink and splendid about four o’clock. Eagerly all scanned the crushed and broken bits of rock that were brought up by the bailer. It was washed, smelt of, and tasted. On the surface of the drillings black and dirty-looking bubbles formed, and a dark scum floated on the top of the white sand about the derrick. This was the actual oil, black oil, and the gas, which almost invariably accompanies it, could be heard spluttering nine hundred feet below. But it was the green sand, some sixty feet farther down, that was expected to produce not only more oil but oil of a better quality than the black sand does. So, hour after hour, we watched anxiously the slow rise and fall of the cable, testing the drillings almost without comment at each run of the bailer, and piling a specimen of each of the sands into little heaps on the floor of the derrick. At last we reached the green sand. Mr. Coleman and the contractor conferred together in low tones upon the next stage of the proceedings, and the rest of us sat around, a little tired, talking quietly about the prospects. After ten days and nights of uninterrupted drilling, the great walking beam stopped and the superintendent announced that they would “shoot” it. “About twenty quarts,” he added as we dispersed for breakfast.

The shooting of a well consists of exploding more or less nitroglycerin in the green sand, thus making a cavity at the bottom of the well in order to increase the bleeding surface, if I may so describe it. As in all other problems in oil production, there are widely divergent views about “shooting,” running from those who never shoot at all to those who always do. Each advocate has examples to prove his contentions. Thus dry holes are known to have been made splendidly productive by shooting; good wells have been utterly ruined by the same process. One fact seems to have been clearly proved and accepted by the majority. In the black sand the oil is invariably driven away by shooting, while in the green it is usually increased. Here then is a problem: shall the well be shot on the chance of increasing the green oil production and spoiling the black, or is it best to leave well enough alone and get a fair production from both? The answer gives the key to the character of the oil producer. The well is nearly always shot.

The quantity of nitroglycerin used is determined by the hardness of the rock. Forty quarts is a fair shot in Pennsylvania, although not infrequently a hundred quarts or more are used, while in other fields, notably that of West Virginia, much greater quantities are habitually employed.

When the “shooter” came to our well I was, naturally enough, deeply interested in the new figure, who walked and rode, with death beside him, for sixty-five dollars a month. He arrived in a little waggon made especially for the purpose. This wagon is easily recognizable and is given a wide berth by the cautious farmers when they meet it on the road, for upon a double set of springs rests a square body under the lid of which are a dozen or so padded compartments each holding an eight-quart can of nitroglycerin. The “shooter” was a dapper little chap dressed in a ready-made suit of mixed stuff, and quite young. He guided his horses rather carelessly over the rough rock-strewn path through the woods, bumping and jolting over stumps and ground lines with seeming indifference until he reached the clearing. Mr. Coleman waited for him at a safe distance, and after a word or two about the quantity of nitroglycerin he wanted used, withdrew and took his place on a stone some rods away, where, presently, the others joined him.

I understood well enough what this desertion of the derrick meant. The men made no bones about their fear of nitroglycerin; so I was alone when the shooter, one arm about a number of little tin tubes not unlike small rain spouts, and a large square can in the other hand, stepped in. He placed the can carefully on the floor and, with an extremely melancholy smile and a remark about the weather, set to work joining the tin tubes together. With me curiosity struggled against a vague fear of something I knew little of, and curiosity conquered, so that I stayed to see the operation of pouring the glycerin into the tubes and of lowering them into the hole. While he worked I asked questions. How and why he became a shooter? Wasn’t he afraid and didn’t he wish there was a safer business he could get into? He answered, in an even, unmodulated voice, that he “just growed into it; had worked with shooters when he was a kid, finally got a job all alone, and had been at it ever since. Yes, he was afraid, just as afraid as he was the first time he did it, but he was careful, too—and there wasn’t much danger when a man was careful. No, he didn’t expect to give it up. It was a good job, the work was easy, he wasn’t strong, and there’s the woman and the kids to care for.” In that last sentence was the gist of it all. “The woman and the kids” and the man worked over a volcano while the wife waited for the news that would surely come one day telling her of the end.

The glycerin in the well is exploded with dynamite which is dropped in with a lighted time fuse attached. As we talked, everything had been prepared for this final step.

“Well, she’s all ready,” said the shooter, holding the stick of dynamite in one hand and a match in the other—but, just as I started out, a shout came to us from one of the watchers outside the derrick.

“Look out in there; she’s pretty gassy!"

I think my shooter turned a shade paler than was his wont as he arose suddenly from his kneeling position over the hole.

“I guess maybe I’d better light this outside,” he announced casually. Instantly I realized the significance of this remark. Had he struck that match—and he was within an ace of doing it—the gas would have ignited, exploding the dynamite in his hands and the nitroglycerin in the well, and there would have been little left of either of us. I departed hastily, the shooter’s words still in my ears, “the woman and the kids.”

I joined the group who had been waiting at a safe distance and watched from there. The shooter dropped his torpedo and hurried away. Then we waited for what seemed to me a long, long time. It was my first experience and I hardly knew what to expect, but I had time to think of all I had heard on the subject, and still nothing happened. I began to believe that the fuse had gone out or that something was wrong and that it would have to be all done over again—and still nothing happened. Finally an indescribable sensation, a vibration, a something indefinite which I felt rather than heard, took place under my feet, and then Jimmy Berry exclaimed, “There she goes!”

Again I waited and after a seemingly endless period I became conscious of a hissing sound that grew in volume and intensity until finally the oil and water in the hole rushed out, shooting in a straight column up and up and breaking into a cloudy, nebulus top fifteen feet above the derrick. It looked like a beautiful luminous fountain whose plumed crest flamed against the sky as the oil reflected a hundred rainbow colors from the rays of the brilliant sun. For an instant it stood there, glowing and radiant, then, as suddenly as it had come, fell like rain, and the shooting was over.

For a few moments we all watched the derrick in silence. Then began the never-failing discussion of shooters and their tragic deaths. The ultimate death of the shooter is certain.

One, to me, unexpected circumstance seems worth noting. During my stay of some months in the oil fields of Pennsylvania I came into contact with all classes of oil men from the independent producer to the humble pumper, but of that “commercial octopus whose sinuous and far-reaching tentacles stretch forth to strangle men, women, and children in the oil fields,” I heard nothing but praise.