Recollections from the Oil Patch: Winter Well-Sitting in Northern Montana

Title: Recollections from the Oil Patch: Winter Well-Sitting in Northern Montana

Author: Earl G. Griffith

Publication: The Outcrop, January 2000, p. 6-7

It was a beautiful sunny day in November 1949 just over 50 years ago. With me were my wife, Eileen, and our 6-month-old baby boy when I began a 150-mile drive from Lewistown, Montana, to Chinook, where Texaco had begun drilling a well I was to watch. Just halfway to Chinook, however, gray clouds closed in and large, puffy snowflakes blotted out the sun. We stopped for fuel and had the service station attendant install some much-needed new windshield wiper blades. But in doing so he managed to break the driver’s side wiper arm clean off. By the time he had drilled, taped, and jury-rigged a replacement, which sort of worked, it was dark and a lot of snow had accumulated on the road.

Our destination that evening was Havre, a nice city where we hoped to take shelter. During a brief stop to scrape ice off the encrusted windshield, I happened to look in the back seat to find our baby buried in snow that had blown in through leaks around the back door of the old company Ford. The door had supposedly been repaired previously after a roll-over accident. Anyway, after cleaning the snow out of the back seat and getting the baby re-warmed and comfortable on Eileen’s lap, we forged ahead, finally arriving in Havre about midnight.

The next day dawned cold and gray with both Eileen and the baby coughing, sneezing, and mildly feverish. I made a quick drive to the rig only to find everything frozen up and unlikely to become operational for at least a day or two. So I went back to Havre, packed up Eileen and the baby, and made the return drive to Lewistown in search of medical attention for the passengers. After a day in Lewistown, I again made the drive to Chinook and returned to the rig.

The doghouse provided on location by Texaco was a typical cozy bungalow with a small sheepherder’s stove located beside the entry door. This was fine except there was no fuel for the stove. Also, the crew that spotted the doghouse had failed to push any snow or dirt around the edges of the timber substructure so the floor, a thin sheet of masonite, was all that separated the interior from the decidedly below-zero air outside. My first order of business was to locate and purchase some gunnysacks of coal.

The sheepherder’s stove worked well as long as one set an alarm clock to awaken on an hourly basis to fire it up with more coal. I soon learned to place my boots on a bench or table about 3 ft above the floor when retiring to the upper bunk; otherwise they froze to the floor. Housekeeping in the doghouse was simple. I cooked on a small back-pack gasoline stove and rarely went into Chinook for meals. Refrigeration of the antelope steaks I’d brought was no problem – I simply leaned them against the window where they stayed nicely frozen.

Meanwhile the Bettis steamer with which the drilling contractor had farsightedly equipped the rig accidentally set fire to the canvas sheeting surrounding the rig floor. By the time the fire was extinguished with hoses and water, the location was a glare of ice. It wasn’t long before the toolpusher slipped on the ice and broke his collarbone, rendering his arm a useless appendage. A bad omen for sure, but drilling continued.

The temperature was now 40 to 60° below zero and ditch samples as well as cores were frozen solid in minutes of being collected. I have forgotten how long it took to drill and core the 3300-ft hole, but I can never forget the sorry mixed-up mess that the samples were in; unwashed, unlabeled, and unbagged. Most samples were simply a handful of drilling mud with cuttings embedded. The sample catcher slapped a handful of such samples, one after the other, in a ring along the 2 x 4-inch girts that framed the shale shaker, but then forgot where he’d started his system.

The well was a confirmation test of the Northern Ordnance discovery of the Bowes Dome Field. The crew was from Oklahoma and this was their first experience with wintertime in Montana. One day one of the crew started leaving the location. When asked where he was going, he stated he was going to get some warmer clothes, which he claimed he’d left in Oklahoma City. We never saw him again.

By now we were accustomed to driving into the location on top of a hard frozen crust, which would support most vehicles. However, the Schlumberger logging truck took a wrong turn along the way and broke through the icy crust. It was stuck for days. Another problem arose when the local water hauler drove his truck off the road into an invisible snow­-covered and snow-filled barrow pit. He promptly drained his tanker and set out to get the D-8 “Cat” to pull the truck back out. Unfortunately, even the big D-8 couldn’t budge the empty truck.

The water hauler became desperate. He was, of course, buying his truck, and, in order to make payments, he had to have a steady source of income delivering water. Fortunately, Chinook was a small and friendly town. While he was drowning his sorrows in a third cup of coffee at Hiner’s Cafe, and looking pretty glum, a couple local folks inquired as to his problem and volunteered to help. They were with the National Guard and it just happened that they had a couple Sherman tanks at their disposal. Within an hour the Guardsmen had a Sherman warmed up and, by a round-­about route to avoid collapsing some light-weight bridges, got to the stuck tanker truck. It was pulled free in no time. Thank goodness for Guardsmen!

Eventually Texaco relented and shut down drilling for a couple months. It was with great relief that I returned to Lewistown and again got to spend some time with my wife and baby.