Tag Archives: Cities Service

Red rocks – Black Gold pt. 2


Governors Island rig seen from the deck of the service launch 1944. PARO photo #3466.78.95.7

[The search for oil at Governors Island …continued from previous posting]

Hugh MacKay, the Oklahoma-based geologist who first led the Cities Service corporation to the rocks beneath Governors Island believed in the existence of oil at that location. In 1936 he renewed his 10-year prospecting rights stating “We got just a few smells of oil when we drilled in 1926 but there is little doubt that petroleum wells exist somewhere beneath Northumberland Strait. We know that marine rock formations favouring the presence of oil lie beneath Prince Edward Island coast from geological studies, but 10 years ago we did not know how far down they lay”.

The outbreak of World War II forced a greater emphasis on oil resources closer to the North America markets. Cities Service had done more seismic testing on the Island in 1941 and 1942 and they decided to have another look at Governors Island. They were joined as partners by the Socony Vacuum Oil Company in the exploration. They formed a new corporation, the Island Development Company, and in 1943 the companies took the decision to drill a deep well to test the oil bearing potential of the anticline.

Scow Foundation Mersey which was used in building the oil rig and cribs

Scow Foundation Mersey which was used in building the oil rig and cribs

The new well site was to be at the crest of the anticline, some 7200 feet south-west of the 1926 well. This placed the wellsite off-shore on the Governors reef in a low tide depth of sixteen feet of water and necessitated the construction of a rock-filled log crib with concrete foundations for the drilling rig. At the outset it was acknowledged that the well might have to go down more than two miles. The conditions to be faced were, up to that time, unique in the history of drilling with difficult conditions of open water, ice, tide and wave action to be faced.


PARO accession # 2608/8a

The crib and base for the rig was constructed by the Foundation Maritimes Company and Loffland Brothers of Tulsa were contracted to do the drilling.  Cores of bedrock were obtained by boring through the ice in February 1943 and construction of the crib took from May till September 1943. The cribs were built up to a height of 22 feet at the Railway Wharf and then towed to location where they were filled with rock and sunk in place. Eight more feet were added to the height once on site.  There were three sections of crib, the largest of which was the footing for the derrick and was 56 feet square. The total deck area of the platform was 9000 square feet and used 11 miles of logs held together by 7 miles of bolts and spikes. A waterline ran from Governors Island to the well site and a telephone cable ran underwater from the rig to Seatrout Point.


Looking up the derrick 1944. PARO photo #3466.78.95.5

The derrick itself was erected by Loffland Bros. in late 1943. It reached 146 feet above the concrete and 179 feet above the rock of the reef with a weight of 38 tons. The draw-works which hoisted and lowered the drill pipe in the hole had a load capacity of 300 tons.  Power for the drilling rig was supplied by two eight-cylinder diesel engines, each with 350 horsepower.  An additional 100 horsepower diesel and a oil-fired steam boiler supplied further power for general purpose pumping and heating.  14,000 feet of drill-pipe weighing 126 tons was racked on the pipe crib.  The rig required a total of 20 fully loaded railway freight cars to move the equipment from Louisiana and Texas the 2,550 miles to Charlottetown. The equipment also included a 40 ton steel service vessel called the Socony used to carry supplies to the well site, and a motor launch called the Elizabeth. [This may have been the cruiser later owned by Commodore Morris]. In addition a 44 foot scow was constructed in Charlottetown to hold tanks and pipe.

The official start of drilling took place on 11 October 1943 and included the same ceremonial activities as the first well seventeen years earlier. This time it was Lieutenant Governor B.W. LePage who turned the wheels but as in 1925 the drill platform was littered with provincial and civic worthies and local business leaders.


Pumping machinery. PARO photo #3466.78.95.6

By mid December the drill bit had reached 3,500 feet but as winter set in a number of problems developed. The waterline running from Governors Island to the drilling platform had frozen up forcing the use of salt water in the drilling operations which was unsatisfactory. As well the boats carrying crews the seven miles to Charlottetown were encountering lolly ice which made travel difficult. Early in 1944 a “capes” ice boat was pressed into service to get men to the rig and as more of the bay froze a small half-track vehicle with skis on the front was used. However, the colder weather also revealed a greater problem. Drift ice moved by the wind and tide was causing damage to the cribs and drilling was temporarily discontinued. In addition a fire had damaged one of the electric motors which could not be replaced until navigation opened up.  Although in March ice remained in place between Tea Hill and Governors Island the mile from the Island to the rig was broken up and difficult to cross. Drilling did not start again until the navigation season re-opened in April and the Socony once more resumed her trips. A generator burn-out in August halted drilling at 7,878 feet until the unit could be trucked to Montreal and repaired.

In July 1945 the well had reached a depth of 13,000 feet, more than twice the depth on the 1927 attempt but problems were encountered as the drill passed through a layer of gypsum which threatened to set like plaster of Paris and the hole had become “sticky.”   By August the 14,000 foot mark had been passed with the bit moving quickly through a salt layer several hundred feet thick which allowed an increase of 350 feet in one week alone. Earlier  company officials had said that they would stop at 14,000 feet but they continued in order to obtain a rock sample from the layer below the salt. Finally early in September the drill was stopped at 14,696 feet. It was a dry hole.

At the time the Governors Island hole was the deepest ever drilled in the British Empire. A Texas well had reached over 16,000 feet but it was drilled on land and so the 1945 Island well was likely the deepest off-shore well drilled anywhere in the world up to that date. The uniqueness was heightened by the fact that the drilling platform was located in tidal and ice conditions.

Dismantling and removal of the rig took most of the month of September 1945 and the equipment was moved to the next site. Left behind was an artificial island 60 by 150 feet which was already battered by two winters of ice and tides.  In 1946 the Province paid a dollar for what was left.Tthe remains included a quantity of sheet steel piling which it was hoped could be used as a retaining sea wall across three of the City’s crumbling wharves and backfilled to create a new waterfront. Dismantling had to wait for ice to thicken enough to bear the weight of salvage machinery. Minister of Public Works George Barbour stated that the province hoped to salvage 50,000 feet of large dimension timber, most of which was douglas fir. The wood was to be used for construction and reinforcement of Island bridges. Another of the province’s dollars purchased the scow used at the operation.


Chart showing the rig site in relation to Governors Island. The oil island was located at the edge of deeper water about 1/2 mile from the end of the exposed reef. [click on image for a larger view]

What the salvagers left behind the ice and tides took care of and soon nothing remained above the surface of the water. Today the site appears as a hazard on navigation charts and is marked by a yellow can buoy.  I first visited the spot on an extraordinarily calm day some fifty years ago while out in my family’s aluminum skiff. Knowing nothing of the story I was drawn to the buoy by curiosity and gazing down through the flat waters was amazed to see that the bottom was littered with timbers and pilings and what appeared to be steel pipe. Clearly something big had once sat on this spot!

Postscript: In 1971 I was working in the Pembina Oil Field offices of Cities Service Canada in Alberta. With little to do at lunch time I often thumbed through Oilweek Magazine which carried a regular old photo contest. One week the photo was of a Cities Service rig on Prince Edward island. I contacted Bill Mooney who was then president of the Canadian operations and he dug out the old file on the rig and sent it to the PEI archives. The file is now accession 2608 and includes background geological information, sample well logs, photos and newspaper clippings. Some of that material has been used in this blog entry

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]