The Town of World Travelers
Petrolia has sent forth its oil-spattered emissaries, to hob-nob with princes and nabobs in odd quarters of the globe
WHICH is the most widely-known community in Canada?
Known, I mean, at least by name, to the greatest number of individuals, to the most varieties of humanity, and to the most widely-scattered lands of the earth?
If you were to ask me that question—if you were to bid me show you the favored community—I would take you—
Not to Ottawa, the capital; not to Quebec, with its historic associations; not to Halifax and St. John, our eastern gateways, nor to Prince Rupert and Vancouver, our gateways on the West; nor to Montreal, beloved of the thirsty Yankee, nor to Toronto, Mecca of the Canadian intellectual—
But to a community of less than 5,000 people, in an isolated corner of southwestern Ontario, linked to the rest of Canada, and to the world in general, by two “dead ends” of railroad.
Over these dead ends of railroad, homeward or outward bound, have passed men whose aggregate mileage of world travel is undoubtedly greater than the aggregate mileage of any other 5,000 residents of any city in Canada.
This little town is lovingly called “home” by hundreds of men who spend there perhaps one month in twelve of their working lives. It boasts among its property owners a larger percentage of men who have actually circumnavigated the globe than any other community in Canada. In a geography lesson in its public school, scarcely any country can be mentioned that some child in attendance has not seen. Its men folks have, in the aggregate, looked upon more different human beings and more varied scenes probably than the residents of any other Canadian community; and have had fixed on them in their journeyings to and fro more awed, admiring or hostile human eyes.
These statements may seem far-fetched. Yet they are literally, actually and indubitably true.
The town is Petrolia, the Canadian oil metropolis, and the headquarters of the Canadian oil-drilling experts who, during the past forty years, have pioneered for oil in all corners of the world.
To Petrolia, travel is mere commonplace; as much a part of the everyday texture of life as eating and sleeping. The return of a Petrolia driller from Persia after a . ourney of 13,000 miles by land and sea, the departure of a Petrolia driller for Burma or Australia or the Argentine, causes no excitement. World travelers come and go every day—in Petrolia.
Petrolia is not the only town in the world dependent on foreign travel for its commercial prosperity. But where other places thrive by reason of the strangers they attract, Petrolia’s prosperity rests on the citizens it sends into exile.
Yet this Petrolia, which has sent so many drillers to the far ends of the earth, itself scarcely hears the sound of the drill from year’s end to year’s end.
The Days of the ’60’s Boom
'"THINGS were not always thus. In the oil boom -*■ days of the GO’s, Petrolia leapt into sudden existence as the metropolis of Canada’s first and greatest oil fields, developed amid the soggy swamps and hardwood forests of the “Lambton bush.” From the first oil discoveries along Black Creek and Bear Creek, the drilling extended far and wide. The '
dozens of shallow wells became hundreds; the hundreds became thousands.
The new art, science or trade of drilling for oil grew up to meet a bewildering demand. It enlisted many raw recruits. Strangers from the United States, youths from nearby farms, alike were taken into the ranks; and alike became experts in the operation of the Canadian pole-tool system.
A word of explanation here. Under the American or “standard” system, the drilling tools are suspended from a cable, paid out as the well goes deeper. Under the Canadian or “pole-tool” system, rods or poles, linked together, are used instead of the cable. In the early Petrolia days, black-ash rods were used. Later, iron rods were substituted. Indeed, the Canadian system seems to be the older of the two; and it :s found especially advantageous for drilling in new fields where the rock formations
are a matter not of definite knowledge, but merely of conjecture.
In this Canadian system hundreds of men became expert. Their sons became, first their helpers, then their successors, in the trade. Wherever in Ontario new oil fields were opened, new recruits were enlisted by the business. But though Oil Springs, Sarnia, Bothwell, Dunnville, Kingsville, Fletcher, and other places have all contributed to the Canadian corps of experts, Petrolia is still the unquestioned metropolis of the pioneers of oil.
The time came when the Petrolia fields reached their limit of possible development. The army of drillers found themselves idle, or, in the alternative, compelled to seek less attractive employment. For a time it seemed as though the thousands of three-pole pumping derricks that still dot the Lambton landscape were destined to become monuments to a lost art.
The First “Foreign” Crew
TA PINIONS have differed as to the actual identity of '^the first Canadian drillers to work in foreign fields. One tradition had it that George Normandy drilled in Rumania when that country was still the Turkish principality of Wallachia. But the most authentic records indicate that this present year of grace, 1924, marks the golden jubilee of foreign drilling. For it was
in May, 1874, that Petrolia citizens, headed by the town band, marched to the train to give a royal send-off to the first Canadian drilling crew to leave for foreign fields. That crew comprised Joshua Porter, driller; Malcolm Scott, engineer; and William Covert, scaffoldman; and they were bound for far-off Java. These men took with them to the far east a Canadian pole-tool outfit manufactured at Petrolia by George Sanson and Hector MacKenzie.
The results of the Java venture are uncertain. Little is known of the experiences of the pioneers there. After their return, it was not until 1896 that the Java field once more opened to Canadian drillers. But between that year and 1914, a period of eighteen years, a total of 134 Canadian drillers had gone—many of them more than once—to the Dutch East Indies alone; and seven of them found their graves there.
It was not, however, from the Orient that the movement of Canadian drillers to foreign fields received its first great impetus; but from the far-reaching Austrian enterprises of William Henry MacGarvey. In the 80’s, this former Canadian, prospecting for oil in the Carpathian foothills of Galicia, found European methods anything but adequate. The field, he determined, needed proper drilling equipment and intelligent experts. He met the situation by bringing in Petrolia men whose ability he knew and whose loyalty he could trust.
The great MacGarvey organization of later years was recruited largely from Canada; and MacGarvey’s enterprises definitely turned the tide of Canadian experts toward foreign fields.
Since then, Petrolia drillers have gone east, west, south and north, have penetrated jungle, mountain and desert, from Burma and China to Australia and the Argentine, in the romantic search for the world’s liquid gold. They helped drill the Rumanian wells. At Baku and Grozny, in Russia, they tapped and capped huge gushers. A Canadian from Petrolia, in a sweltering tempera ure of 126 degrees, drilled the first producing well in the Persian fields. And at fifty below zero on the banks of the Mackenzie, Canadians, just as ironically cheerful, have hunted bear and moose to wile away the long, dark months of winter waiting.
In Mesopotamia, Petrolia drillers have scarred the surface and gouged the depths of what was once the Garden of Eden. On the shores of the Red Sea they have developed oil fields whose bitumen was used, more than thirty centuries ago, to mummify Tutankhamen. They have worked with helpers of all races—dark-brown, tattooed aborigines of New Guinea; indolent Persians; slant-eyed Chinese coolies; lazy, good-natured, bathloving Burmese; blacks of Trinidad; still barbarous Indians of the Carribbean. White, red, yellow, brown and black, Canadian drillers have cussed them all into some semblance of discipline and usefulness.
Typhoid, yellow fever, fire and flood, wild beasts and venomous reptiles and hostile natives, German submarines and Bolshevist dungeons, all these agencies of peril have menaced them and taken their toll — and still the Canadian driller goes forth, unafraid.
In Petrolia homes to-day where women watch and wait are countless curious souvenirs of far lands. Gaudy ponchos and vicuna robes from Peru, Turkish table covers, hand-carved chairs and plates from Galicia, bright-hued fabrics from Ecuador, curious coins and strange postage stamps from all the lands humanity has ever visited—these are some of the exhibits. One driller brought home a comprehensive collection of Venezuelan parrots, from he gaudy red and green guayamaca, two feet high, to the white-headed babita, no larger than a canary.
Picture of a Driller
TO STAY-AT-HOME folks whose initiation into the oil industry has been confined to a chance visit to some drilling or produeng well, the word “driller” conveys a vague idea of a rough individual in overalls and mud—chiefly mud. He may be oilbespattered into the bargain, and he looks as muscular as he is dirty, and even more capable of swearing a blue streak than he is of drilling a well. Handy in a rough-and-tumble fight
a hard scrapper, â hard worker, a heavy drinker, and a tough character generally—such is the not uncommon idea of the driller. And unlettered and ignorant?—of course.
Now, that picture of the driller is all wrong. To begin with the last count of the indictment—no man is ignorant who knows one thing well. The driller knows his business, intimately; he has to. He has, as a rule, a working knowledge of several languages; and he knows how to handle men in several more. He knows geography; he has worked out his map, not in school, but on the surface of the earth. His work compels him to be a grimy mechanic. Wash that grimy mechanic, put him in evening dress, and you have—in nine cases out of ten—as fine a gentleman as Canada, or England for that matter, could wish. He has to be a thoroughgoing man to qualify as a driller. If by any chance a moral or physical weakling crept into the ranks, the trade would inevitably make a man of him, by sheer necessity of its insistent demand for real manhood; either that, or it would kill him.
Those who know declare that the foreign driller can’t quit. In witness whereof is cited the experience of Duncan McIntyre, one of the finest of the Canadian experts.
In the early years of the war, McIntyre was working in the Burma fields at Yenang Yaung. He was crushed under a two-ton pump. His'left knee, both collar bones, left jaw bone, right shoulder blade, right arm (in two places), practically every rib—in all twenty-two bones —were broken.
An ordinary man would have died on the spot. But it takes more than an ordinary man to make a Canadian driller. McIntyre spent weeks ift hospital, hanging betwixt life and death by the slenderest of threads. At times his pulse almost reached the vanishing point. His temperature fell1 lower than doctors had ever thought possible for a living man.
Yet, after a long siege, the very tedium of which would have killed most men, McIntyre on crutches tottered aboard ship at Rangoon. Thé vessel escaped submarine perils. McIntyre, after travelling 12,000 miles, was sufficiently recuperated to walk ashore at New York with the aid of a cane.
At London a son met him with tidings that the wife and mother, at Sarnia, was dead.
Later, McIntyre quit drilling “for good.” He launched a promising manufacturing enterprise at Sarnia. And ... at last accounts, Duncan McIntyre is in Burma, drilling. The lure of the bit and sinker is too strong.
No one knows better than the driller himself the inevitability of his return, so long as life is in him. The summer of 1922, at Miri, Sarawak, British Borneo, Alf. Brownlee, at a farewell tiffin given him by the drilling colony, declared emphatically that thenceforth he would “stick close to home.” A fellow-driller, writing home at the time, commented ironically: '
“Alf. deludes himself with the thought that he is going home no more to roam; but we think he will hear the call of the East very loudly in about six months and will not be surprised if he persuades his wife that she hears it also. Then some bright morning the Kahang will drop anchor in Miri roads, Alf. will drop into the Helen alongside with his case of B.V.D., bottle of chutney and katty of quinine, the happiest man in Borneo, bumping over the bak on the last lap of his journey back to the little old bungalow on the hill.”
Alf. Brownlee fooled the prophets, however. He stuck to Petrolia for nine or ten months. Then he left for South America on a three-year drilling contract. ^ That is what a Petrolia driller considers “sticking close to home.”
When the Great War broke out, many drillers .volunteered for active service. To such, the military or naval authorities, as the case might be, had just one answer. In effect they said:
Quit your kidding and get back to your job. You’re a lot more use to king and country right where you are. Any driller who goes soldiering ought to be shot at sunrise.”
Absolutely correct Fuel oil for battleships and submarines, petrol for airplanes and tanks, came to be, ultimately, deciding factors in the war. The war feverishly stimulated production in the existing fields, and the development of new fields. It practically brought the present Persian field into existence. There, Canadians, laboring under a tropic sun, drilled well after well, and laid pipe lines to link the field at Ahwaz with the refining port of Mohammerah. Now and then they shouldered rifles and set bayonets, repelling Turkish raids. General Townshend’s expedition, though in a military sense it ended disastrously at Kut-el-Amara, nevertheless removed for the balance of the war the menace to the Persian fields.
It was late in 1916 that Rumania entered the war; and shortly after that Mackensen, crumpling its defences by swift and furious blows, struck unerringly at the great oil fields. It was a strategic victory and one farreaching in its importance to Canadian oil men.
Canada and Rumania
SINCE the days of George Normandy, Canadian experts had been linked almost continuously with the Rumanian development. Of these men, at least one,
Charles Drader, had made a fortune. The city of Ployesti,
at the head of the Prahova valley, some thirty-eight miles north of Bucharest, was the great refining centre, From this point radiated a mighty network of pipe lines, linking the refineries with Buchtenari, Buzen, Campiña, Moneti and other points in the producing fields. In 1914 the Rumanian government had commenced the laying of a huge trunk line from Ployesti 170 miles across country to the Black Sea port of Constanza. Into this huge system, an ever-increasing aggregate of oil wells poured their riches.
Mackensen’s swift onrush changed all this. Even the military disasters were less calamitous than the prospect of this huge field becoming available to the petrolstarved invaders. There was but one alternative— complete destruction. The thing was done, with ruthless efficiency and terrifying swiftness.
For half a century the field hr\d been growing great from small beginnings. Thirty-five years before the first Canadian expert had worked there. Into the tremendous system of wells, pipe lines and refineries had entered the labor of hand and brain of many experts, and the patient toil of thousands of humbler workers. All this work of half a century had to be wiped out.
The huge refineries were dynamited and wrecked; the pipe lines were blown up and broken; the wells were choked with steel and concrete; the drilling outfits were demolished. Canadians who had helped in the great work of development assisted just as efficiently in the ruthless destruction; and the German invaders, in place of the efficient producing organization they coveted, found only a chaos from which, patiently, they had to build anew.
Most of the Canadians in Rumania escaped. But, earlier, the swift thunderclap of war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caught the Canadians in Galicia unprepared. In a way their roots had struck deep into the Austrian soil. MacGarvey himself, Jacob Perkins, the refining expert, J. P. Connolly, with his warm Irish smile and his handclasp like the grip of an octopus— these were only a few who, unable or unwilling to leave behind the work of thirty years, faced the hardships,
the hostility ánd thé heartbreak that war brought. Interned, suspiciously watched or even compelled to work against their native country, MacGarvey, Perkins, Connolly and many others died before the struggle was over.
In 1911, C. E. Wallen, an Oil Springs man, went to Russia as field manager of the North Caucasian Oil Company at Groznyi He took with him his wife and his daughter, Elaine; a son, Charles, was born there. Until the Russian revolution, conditions were relatively happy.
Under the Red Flag
■^Y^ITH the advent of the
revolution, however, the workmen took control of the oil fields. Wallen was forced to remain as manager; but his salary was reduced to a parity with the wages paid his office boy. Armed boys and men, crazed with the lust for destruction, robbery and murder, roamed the streets of Grozny. Red officers looted and killed without restraint. The foreign residents armed to protect their lives; but bit by bit they were stripped of every vestige of property.
To make matters worse, the Tchechens, a Tartar • tribe from the mountains, besieged the town, and ultimately drove out the Bolshevists. It is the same old story of blood and rapine and pillage. They looted the pitiful remnants the Reds left behind; and finished their last raid in one great orgy of destruction by opening the flowing wells and firing them. Wallen’s last glimpse of Grozny—the last he was to see of it ,in life—was of oil wells burning, 14,000 barrels of oil á day ascending in a huge pillar of black smoke.
Wallen and his family had been robbed of practically everything but the clothes they wore. He had, however, contrived to secrete a considerable amount of paper roubles. By dint of judicious bribes, they got out of the town. After a tedious journey to the Terek river, the Cossacks turned them back. In March, 1917, a second attempt was successful; but at Petegoiske, beyond the Terek, they were held up for weeks, while Cossacks and Bolsheviki fought for possession of the place.
Ultimately, in lumber wagons under Cossack protection, the fugitives trekked to Bransk on the Caspian. A tugboat carried them across the Caspian to Astrakhan. Astrakhan had been looted and burned by the Reds, who were still in control; but a judicious bribe of 100 roubles—which, in those days, still represented some semblance of real money—secured transportation up the Volga on the last boat of the season.
At Samara this craft ran into the fighting between the Reds and the Czecho-Slovaks. The latter fired on the vessel, carrying away part of the rigging; and the captain prudently hove to. But the Czecho-Slovaks, when they took Samara, treated the fugitives kindly, and helped them on their way.
At Kazan they ran into more fighting. It was impossible, even with the aid of the all-potent rouble, to get out by way of either Moscow or Petrograd.They made their painful way to Vologda, where they found twenty-two refugees from the drilling colony at Baku. British authorities at Vologda got them a railroad car for the seven-day trip to the Murman coast; but could supply them no more than three days’ provisions. Along the route no food could be purchased except the detestable black sunflower bread.
Mrs. Wallen still tells of an incident at Kola, at the end of the journey—an incident that, otherwise petty, came as the climax to their tragic hardships. She saw delicious white bread displayed in a bakery. She tried to buy some. But the baker was a Bolshevist; and, unlike most of his kind, no amount of money could tempt him. He refused to sell his loaves to the Canadians. “And the worst of it was,” commented the narrator, afterward, “that bread was made from British flour supplied to the Bolsheviki.”
Ragged, starved, dejected, the fugitives sailed from Kola. A nest of German subs, beset them; but the escorting destroyers beat these off. They reached InverGordon in July. Nearly five months had been spent in that horrible flight from Grozny.
If drilling has its hardships, it has likewise its compensations. One of these is the ability of the tough and seasoned driller, wise in the ways of the world, to collect a laugh from the tender susceptibilities of the raw recruit.
Continued on page 65
The Town of World Travelers
Continued from page 19
The older man, be it remembered, will ■tand up for his young pal against real
Eerils, every day in the week and every our in the day, and will shed his heart’s blood in the boy’s defence; but he is not averse to enjoying a laugh which involves no harm. That is, no permanent injury.
The natives at Suez, though really harmless, can, at times, put on startling stunts for the benefit of innocent travellers on vessels passing through the canal. The manifest alarm of two young fellows, drillers on their first trip to foreign fields, at these native performances, seem to have suggested possibilities to their older and wiser companions.
The old cargo boat passed through the canal without mishap, and toward nightfall rounded Cape Ammei, in southern Arabia. Throughout the day the veteran drillers speculated audibly on the chance of attack from the Arabian pirates who infested these waters and even at times raided the big liners.
. Darkness fell. The cargo vessel, with its load of growing fears, slowly crept across a smooth sea. The night was black —intensely so.
Suddenly from the darkness over the side emerged a score of dusky savages, «■med with axes, pikes and cutlasses. With horrible yells they rushed at the passengers.
What followed was too confusing for accurate description. Indeed, the veteran drillers, experienced in the ways of pirates, retreated at the first onslaught.
But the youngsters did not run. They were not built that way. In the face of the onrush, one of the boys grabbed a heavy bar of iron and belted a pirate unceremoniously behind the ear. Then he made a rush, not from, but at the assailants; and the pirates ran precipitately. In an mstajit they had vanished over the side.
Nothing of value was missed; and the only casualty was a sailor, who nursed a most prodigious bump, sustained, as he said, m trying to drive off the pirates.
A lengthy account of the affair, signed by one of the supposed participants, appeared in the Petrolia paper. The story was copied far and wide. It came to the notice of the heads of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
I can picture those sober Britons debating with mighty ponderosity. Arabian pirates! No such thing had ever been known in their experience. The driller who wrote home was, metaphorically speaking, called on the carpet. He knew nothing of the letter—nothing whatever. His honesty in the matter was palpable. Plainly one of his fellows had written home and forged his name to the story.
As for the Arabian pirates—why, some of the sailors and some of of the older drillers had “made up” to scare the youngsters. It was a good joke, too— or would have been if it hadn’t been for that iron bar, and the awful wallop young Ernie handed out with it, and the painful way in which the jokers barked their shins in their precipitate flight from imminent destruction.
The Driller and the Prince
'\X7HENj in 1915, Petrolia launched y y its drive for the Canadian Patriotic Fund, at the first mass meeting a letter was read from Chauk, Upper Burma. Two Petrolia drillers, W. O. Gillespie and A. E. Gibson, sent $50 each to be used for the benefit of the Canadian soldiers.
Seven years later that same Gillespie was drilling in Tutong, Borneo, when a message came up to the drilling camp in the jungle from the British resident at Brunei. The Prince of Wales qnd the officers of the H. M. S. Renown would be at Brunei on May 19. There would be a reception. Also the European residents 1 were giving a “curry tiffin” to the Prince.
Gillespie and W. W. Joy, the company’s agent at Tutong, accepted with alacrity. But let Gillespie tell it, in chance snatches from a breezy letter home:
"... Up at four o’clock, on the I morning of the 18th; started our carriers on the way, had breakfast, and off at five o’clock, taking a short cut through the hills to the Government track. I had the misfortune to fall into a water hole the first half hour out but it did not make much difference as we had about three hours’ wading and the last hour’s walking the rain just poured down, so we were thoroughly soaked when we reached the river at one o’clock. The resident, Mr. Allen, had kindly sent the Government motor launch to meet us, and in another hour we were in the rest house at Brunei. After a hot bath, change of clothes and something to eat we were fit for anything. We first looked up the club. Just before we reached it, a voice sang out from the hill-top. ‘Boy!’ ‘Yes, sir!’ ‘Give those gentlemen a drink!’ All our misgivings as to our reception disappeared at once. . .
“The morning of the 19th was fine. . . At ten o’clock, the first gun was fired, the signal for everyone to get ready to go to the pier. . . When the Europeans were mustered on the pier to await the arrival of the Prince, the Independent State of Brunei had produced thirteen men, two ladies and three children. The Resident had gone out to meet the Prince, and one gentleman was unable to be present, as he was playing cricket with or against the officers of the H.M.S. Renown at Labuan. The Sultan arrived shortly after the way was closed to the public, dressed in gold silk and robes of state, with his ministers, advisers and guard of honour, and took his seat just in front of where the Prince would land.
“Shortly after twelve o’clock the Prince arrived and landed to the salute of twenty-one guns. The Sultan handed him ashore. After a few minutes with the Sultan, the Resident presented us all, and he shook hands with everyone. He then entered the Royal Chair, with the Sultan, and was carried to the Audience Hall. . .
“There followed the usual address of welcome, reply from the Prince, and official photograph of the great occasion. After which a relapse to informal attire, grateful in that hot climate.
“The Prince dressed in shorts, army shirt open at the neck, looked quite one of the boys, hard as nails and fit for anything, and I believe a long shandy made him feel about right. About 1.30 the Sarawak Oilfields, Limited, motor ship Miri arrived with the officers of the Renown and Cairo who were allowed leave. We were served a splendid curry tiffin in the court house while the Prince with the Resident and his wife went out to the falls, about fifteen minutes walk from the court house, for tiffin.... About four o’clock the Prince and his party left. He went around on his own, shook hands with us all, and remarked that he had had a splendid time.”
And so . . .back to the jungle, the drilling camp, the grimy overalls, and the toil of bit and sinker. A driller may be a mechanic one day; but that doesn’t prevent him hobnobbing the next day with the elite.