Searching for Black Gold beneath the Red Rocks

Today Governors Island appears as a flat pancake of land barely surfacing from the waters of Hillsborough Bay. Its modest height is slightly supplemented by a small grove of spruce slowly being killed off by nesting blue herons and cormorants.  However twice in the first half of the twentieth century the skyline was broken by towers apparently reaching for the sky but which in reality were reaching far beneath the Island. They were hunting for oil at Governors Island.

Governors Island. Google Earth

Governors Island. Google Earth. The 1925-1927 well was located in the North-West part of the Island near the shore. Note the reef running from SW to NE.

Prince Edward Island is blessed with many resources but abundant minerals are not among them. The sandstone strata dates from the late Carboniferous and the Permian eras but contains few surprises. Some writers speculated that the formations which contained coal seams in Nova Scotia continued under the Strait but although coal traces had been found in some deep wells it was not exploitable. The exposed rock of Governors Island, although still sandstone, was much older than rock underlying other parts of the Island and the visible formations showed that the Island and its reef running east and west was near the top of a fold in the rock layers called an anticline. Such a fold had been shown elsewhere to be likely to trap oil seeping up through more permeable rock below.

In 1920 Hugh MacKay, a geologist from Oklahoma, then the centre of the U.S. oil industry, obtained a charter from the provincial government to prospect for oil and gas across the whole of Prince Edward Island and after further work in 1924 persuaded the firm of Henry L. Doherty & Co. that Governors Island represented the most promising site for drilling. Henry Doherty was the founder of the Cities Service Corporation which had moved from control of utilities across the USA to major involvement in oil operations. Armed with an oil rights agreement from the Province the Company began moving drilling equipment to Governors Island in the fall of 1925.

Snapshot of the 1920s rig on Governors Island. Duchemin album PARO accession # 3860.96.79

Snapshot of the 1920s rig on Governors Island. Duchemin album PARO accession # 3860.96.79

With the newspapers following the progress of the construction the official start to the boring was a big event for the Province. On 1 December 1925 sixty dignitaries including Premier James Stewart, Chief Justice John Mathieson, other judges, R.H. Jenkins M.P., and the American Consul A.M. Gonsales  were ferried on three motor launches to the Island to join the thirty men working on the rig.  Besides representatives of the press the party also had a “moving picture machine” recording the event. The Guardian gave a detailed account of the machinery which had been erected on the Island, joining the several buildings of the Judson lobster factory. Most obvious was the eighty-four foot tower standing on a twenty-one foot square which held the mechanism for raising and lowering the drill stem and the pipe sections which would be added as the drill bit ate into the rock beneath. The whole operation was driven by a steam-powered walking beam engine

The camp included the “dog house” next to the drilling floor and, further away, living quarters for the camp. the latter had the luxury of a radio and gramophone for those off duty. The Island held few other diversions, especially in winter when communication with the mainland was cut off by drifting ice and ice boats had to be used.  Beyond the worker’s quarters was the engine house which was expected to burn about a thousand tons of coal over the winter.

Guardian 11 December 1925

Guardian 11 December 1925

After the visitors had risen from a hearty lunch which included speeches from all and sundry, the ceremonial crowning of  the Doherty company Field Manager R.M. Stuntz as “King of Governors Island”, and the turning on of the steam by the Premier, the real work began and the launches with the lunchees returned to Charlottetown.

Things did not always go smoothly on the Island. In May 1926 it was reported that as the drill reached the 1300 foot mark the drill column broke and three months were spent recovering the bit.  After 1507 feet the first well was abandoned and another started. Drilling continued through 1926 but was halted at 4200 feet when the team ran out of pipe casings and they had to wait until more could be shipped and brought across the Hillsborough Bridge and then across the ice by double horse teams early in 1927.

In August 1927 a less geological activity on Governors Island was uncovered by a raid by officers of the Customs Preventative Service when a Sunday raid resulted in the seizure of thirteen gallons of mash and a still in a house adjoining the lobster factory. The Guardian took pains to clarify that the seizure was in no way connected with the oil drilling operations (no matter what the rumours said).

Sometime after August 1927 the drilling ground to a halt. The drill had reached 5965 feet, more than a mile beneath Governors Island, but no quantity of oil had been found. They might have gone further but the limits of the drilling equipment had been reached. If there was oil there it was deeper down.  The rig was disassembled and moved elsewhere.

It was to be sixteen years before the drillers returned.

[To be continued]

4 thoughts on “Searching for Black Gold beneath the Red Rocks

  1. Pingback: Red rocks – Black Gold pt. 2 | Sailstrait

  2. John Calder

    Excellent account of these days in the 20s and 40s. PEI was a real hot bed of exploration!

  3. Pingback: Marooned but not alone on Governor’s Island | Sailstrait

  4. Pingback: Cast away on Governor’s Island in the winter of 1820 | Sailstrait

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