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Blacksmiths in the Oil Patch

cameron tool and supply co in 1915

Cameron Tool and Supply Company, Cameron, WV in 1915.

Master Blacksmith, Verne Monroe (far right), and his crew. The 8" diameter round stock is being heated in the forge prior to forge welding. Source of photo is unknown and was sent to our chapter.


Although hard to tell for sure, it appears that the crew above is preparing to "dress" a spudder bar. In the shallow pay sands of the Appalachian oil & gas basin, the spudder was the prevalent drill. Essentially, the spudder was just a big chisel tool. At up to 40' long, it made quite a dent every time it was hoisted and then dropped. Dressing the bar meant replacing or repairing the bit as it wore out.

The predecessor to this drilling method was the spring pole, first used by the Ruffner brothers to drill a salt brine well at Charleston WV in 1808. The spring pole itself was not a new invention. However, the Ruffner's cased the brine well with hollowed logs to seal subsurface water from draining into the well which further diluted the brine. Salt was a precious commodity in Appalachia. The first salt deposits used by Indians and settlers alike were the natural seeps where deer, elk, and bison went. These natural seeps were called salt licks. As permanent settlements west of the Alleghenies multiplied, the need for a salt supply grew and that led to developments like the Ruffner brine well and saltworks where the brine was evaporated. A half-century later, the chemical industry located plants near these brine wells, most notably at Charleston and at Natrium on the Ohio River.

From about 1890 to 1920, oil well drilling in Appalachia was a booming industry. At one time, Parkersburg (WV) Rig and Reel was a large oil field supply company. An acquaintance named Earl Kirberger told me that when he worked for PR&R that it was the largest supplier of oilfield equipment in the nation. Born in Sistersville about 1895, Earl started work at PR&R when he was 13. His father died and he became the family's breadwinner. He moved to east Texas about 1920 and then to Tulsa having spent his working career selling oil field equipment.

Those drilling rigs of a century ago were a marvel of technology and a testament to ingenuity. To start a well, riggers erected a 50' tall derrick with head pulleys. The derrick was built from angle iron or pipe. According to Cleveland Robinson who worked for Pennzoil, it took the rigging crew seven days to erect the derrick. These men worked long, hard days without much of a break. They would board at a farmer's house or barn while working on a rig and then move on to the next site where they built another derrick. And so on.

The rig was powered by a "one-lung" engine, so-called due to it's single cylinder. It was fueled with natural gas from a nearby well. The piston rod drove a crankshaft that had a momentum flywheel on one end and a large diameter belt pulley at the opposite. The belt drive turned an eccentric which operated a long walking beam. The walking beam is familiar to you as the pumpjack on modern oil wells. The engine also operated a clutch and gearbox for a cable winch. It is not unusual to see these one-lung engines at a fair or festival. Many antique engine collectors have refurbished them and haul them from fair to fair on display trailers.

The spudder was repeatedly raised and dropped until it hit the pay sands. Joints of 8" pipe were lowered to case the well. Inside of the casing was a 2" pipe (tubing) with a piston pump at the bottom. A "sucker rod" stroked this down-the-well pump, pumping the oil up the tubing and into holding tanks or gravity flow pipelines. The natural gas from the well filled the casing. As it was under pressure (sometimes very high pressure), the gas could be, and was, piped anywhere the oil company needed to send it. That is why gas was the fuel of choice for the engines. On the other hand, oil was gravity-flowed to a small tank farm. Some oil was transported by railroad tank cars. Most oil was simply piped to the refinery which might be 50 miles away. As the refinery was usually located on a major river and as the wells were up in the hills and hollows, the pipelines just followed the streambeds and eventually gravity flowed the crude oil to the refinery.

After completion, the drill tools moved to the next well site. The engine, walking beam, and derrick remained and were used thereafter to pump oil. Some of these antique pumps are still in operation today, mostly in remote areas where electric power is not available. Ron Pratt, now retired from Pennzoil, remembers his early days as a well-tender with the company. He rowed a small boat out to an island in the Ohio River and pumped two wells, two to three times a week. It was a daunting task, especially in winter, to hop in a small rowboat with his toolboxes and not even have a life jacket in case the boat swamped!

In the early days of the oil patch, roads weren't much more than dirt paths. Trucks and tractors were too small to carry the heavy loads. So, horse-drawn wagons hauled all of the equipment, steel, cement, pipe, and wire cable from railroad sidings to the well sites. Standard wagons were far too small to carry the long pieces of pipe and angle iron. The articulated wagon was invented to allow long loads to navigate the winding dirt roads.

How bad were the roads? Let me relate the story of Coxey Hutson, a farmer from Sedalia WV who worked part time for Hope Gas Co. He was burned in a flash fire about 1930. Although only seven miles from Salem, it took almost eight hours to make the wagon trip to Salem. He was then put on a train to Clarksburg, some 12 miles east. From the depot, he went by motor ambulance to the hospital, the shortest leg of the trip. All totaled, his trip from the well site to the hospital took twelve hours. Coxey survived but a co-worker did not.

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We forwarded the Cameron photo to OilHistory for their advice. They were courteous enough to send the following reply:

Dear Mr. Allen,

Thank you for your interesting e-mail message.

If the tool in the photo which you enclosed was used in cable tool drilling, I would say that it might be an auger stem, but it is really bigger than any I have ever seen. If it was used in rotary drilling, then it might have been a Kelly, but it doesn't look right for that either. I do not remember having seen that photograph before, but I have a lot of ancient books around here and might run across it.

I certainly welcome your directing your readers to Oil History at http://www.petroleumhistory.org/OilHistory/pages/author.html


The blacksmith was truly a key player in the early days of drilling technology and not only for dressing the bit (a lot of rig hands learned to do that). The small tools and other objects which the blacksmith fashioned at the rig or in his shop were really works of art and highly utilitarian in a specialized way. He was an inventor and some of the smith's designs made at the rig forge found their way into production at the supply houses and appeared in the catalogs.

I am pleased to have your acquaintance via our websites.

Regards,

Sam Pees, Petroleum Geologist

Cameron Tool is now CamForge, a maker of large crane hooks.
http://www.camforge.com/home.html

The ABA toured the plant in 2004 -- see the slideshow.

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