"All's well that ends well," wrote J.W. "Soak" Hoover on April 12, 1934, "but my eyes are tired from looking so much and so far."
The third American geologist to step ashore in eastern Arabia, then called al-Hasa, Soak Hoover is a good example of the "uncommon individuals who were in the right place at the right-time with precisely the right combination of fearlessness, perseverance and optimism," as the dedication page to his album of Arabian photographs states. And, although Hoover, now 80, emphatically denies that the first geologists in Arabia had any sense of history - to him they were ardent and dedicated field men simply setting out to do a job the best way they knew how - his diary, in which he put the above comment, and his photographs present a historically interesting record of the early days of oil exploration in Saudi Arabia. One photograph, for example, recaptures the heroic age of Arabian exploration: the 19th century. It shows the amir of 'Unayzah, 'Abd al-'Aziz 'Abd Allah al-Sulaym, who was the host of the great British traveler Charles Doughty, author of Arabia Deserta, when he visited that town in 1880.
In October, 1933, one month to the day after pioneer geologists "Bert" Miller and "Krug" Henry landed at the small fishing village of Jubail, Soak.Hoover disembarked some 100 miles south (160 kilometers), at al-'Uqair, site of the boundaries conference between 'Abd al-'Aziz and Sir Percy Cox in 1922. With him came the, first three automobiles ever landed on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia.
Hoover's journey to Saudi Arabia had been a long one. He had left New York on the S.S. Rotterdam September 15, gone to Paris, boarded the Simplon Orient Express and traveled to the end of the line,-Mosul, in Iraq. There, he and his companions were met - in Rolls Royce touring cars - and taken to a point where they could pickup the Baghdad railway and make their way to Basra. In Basra, Hoover boarded the S.S. Baroda and sailed to Bahra in via Kuwait and Bushire, a port in southwest Iran, where he marveled at passengers boarding for Bahrain, hooded falcons on their wrists. In his diary, Hoover noted that "The talked the captain and the mate make it seem as though the Gulf is just one big community." This certainly seems true; reading any documentor memoir of the time you see that the same names crop up over and over.
In Bahrain, Hoover collected the three 1932 Ford touring cars that he was to take the al-Hasa. He had heavier springs and biggger tires - the biggest obtainable - put on for desert travel and then, with Walt Haenggi a rig-builder for Socal, set about - adapting a dhow to take the unusual load. "The crew I think they were Persians - couldn't talk to me, and I couldn't talk to them," recalled Hoover in a 1983 interview. "I tried to get them to put the longest timbers across the middle of the boat where it was the widest, but they wanted to start at the bow, cutting off each timber, first one end, then the other. They wasted a lot of lumber and in that part of the world lumber is hard to come by, or so Haenggi informed me. He had a wonderful vocabulary, and he could really tell you things."
In preparing for the crossing, Hoover provisioned himself with a canteen of water and a couple of sandwiches - fortunately, as it turned out. "I didn't know how long it was going to take, and then out in the middle of the water the wind died, and we sat becalmed all night. Every once in a while a child would come up out of the hold and throw things at me and everyone would laugh... I couldn't talk to them and they couldn't talk to Me.... I had no map and didn't know where in the world I was. Finally the wind came up about daylight, and we could see al-'Uqair. Krug Henry and Bert Miller were right there at the customs house and they didn’t even come down to help me! I've often wondered why, but what bothers me more is that I never did ask them why they didn't!"
The day after Hoover's landing at al-'Uqair, he and Henry set up camp, as he said in his diary: Thursday, October 26, 1933: Henry and I built a bathhouse, put up fly for dining salon: Entirely remodeled kitchen tent... I stepped on the cook's egg cache, broke a dozen or so... he buries them in the sand to keep them fresh... also visited and photographed the camel corps... the camp owl returned before bedtime.
In addition to these "housekeeping" activities, Hoover and Henry started a preliminary investigation of the structure later named the Dammam Dome: Tuesday, October 31, 1933:... measured two sections, one behind camp, one on Travertine Jabal, and we couldn't correlate same. Late in afternoon we found a very pronounced syncline striking out about NW-SE... Sixteen days later, on Sunday, November 16, he noted:.. finished trinet on the fourth sheet and resected a Nummulites point on the west rimrock... took pictures of unconformity at hemispherical bed and more from Midra Shamali...the soldier climbed the jabal and spent his time calling to a hawk...
The geologists did not travel alone. As required by the Saudi Government, each field party was. accompanied by up to 30 escorts, whose function, in part, was to show the local people that the geologists had the king's permission to move and work where they needed to. There were also cooks, mechanics, and, when the parties were on the move, camel drivers and attendants. Typically, a party would contain about two dozen riding camels and a dozen baggage camels, each able to haul some 400 pounds of tents, collapsible tables, chairs, camp beds, ground matting, lamps, cooking gear, spare tires and extra springs for the cars, as well as food for everybody.
As the first season got under way, two more geologists arrived: Art Brown and Tom Koch, and all five went to visit Hofuf, the main town in the al-Hasa oasis, where Allen White, an engineer and the group's first Arabist, would soon establish the venture's first field office. Hofuf was Hoover's first experience with a town in the interior:
"Hofuf was the most interesting town you ever saw in the nighttime, here called. "It's a very old town, and then it still had three walls around it. There were no lights. At night when it was dark, and when somebody asked us to dinner, they'd send a messenger with a couple of kerosene lanterns to guide us. With the walls... and those narrow streets... it was dark as the inside of a cow. We were in a different land."
In November, 1933, a new geologist named Hugh Burchfiel came and was set to work mapping the country west of Jubail, a town which soon came to be seen as a better base of operations than Hofuf. Soon Hoover and Krug Henry joined him there in a walled compound rented from the prominent al-Gosaibi family. Allen White stayed in Hofuf where he acted as the company's liaison with the Saudi government. A typical entry in Hoover's diary for this period reads: Wednesday, January 10, 1934: Jubail... ran an auto traverse from Jubail to some point west and probably south of Qatif on proposed road around for the trucks. Tonight we found cinnamon in all the food; asked the cook to put in apple pie...
Apple pie was unusual. As Hoover says: "Of course we ate mostly from cans in those days, especially in the field camps. Sometimes they sent food out to us by caravan from Jubail, and sometimes it got too ripe, even in cans, along the way. Occasionally a field party might buy a sheep from a passing Bedouin for the going price of about a dollar and a half. Once in a great while we'd shoot a gazelle, or take a hawk and try to catch a hubara, a kind of bustard, or maybe catch a dabb [the large, spiny-tailed lizard whose tail is regarded as a delicacy], but you can't just clean them with a knife. What you do is throw them in the fire, and they swell up and burst, and then you can clean them."
In February, 1934, Hoover and Henry left Jubail to examine the area around al-Hinnah. "Most of the village came out to see us off as Krug and I left Jubail to go back into the desert. We started working on the coast... took what we called the 'mean sea level' and went inland as far as a little town named al-Hinnah. We had two chronometers, I remember, because when we started shooting the stars we wanted to be right on the money... it was my chore to wind one up just at sunset so we'd know the time in London." Wednesday, February 14, 1934: al-Hinnah camp. We visited Jabal Batil... went west crossing a line of sabkhas [salt flats] in bottom of the valley... sabkhas trend N 15° W... took some triangulation shots. Some high dunes here are covered with trees...the people use the roots to clean their teeth...visited the ruins and village of Thaj.
"We set up a supply camp at al-Hinnah and hired a man to watch it," Hoover went on. "We'd come by every once in a while and we'd play with the guard's nephew. Well, in October 1965, I was at my desk in Houston and the telephone rang and a man started talking in Arabic. 'Do you remember the supply dump at al-Hinnah?' he asked. 'Do you remember my uncle? You told him to send me to school. He told you he couldn't send me to a school run by [foreigners], but later he did send me to school. I'm working for the company in Dhahran now, in the Accounting Department.' His name is Ahmed Abdullah Quraishi. When Mrs Hoover and I made a visit to Dhahran in 1978, he came and visited us. He was a drilling contractor then, a big, broad-shouldered guy. He was in business drilling water wells."
Until the spring of 1934, the geologists had little more than chronometers, surveyor's transits, alidades, Brunton compasses and sketchboards to help them chart an unmapped 371,263 square-mile concession (961,567 square kilometers). Then the famous Fairchild aircraft arrived, and aerial photography greatly simplified the task of mapping. Thursday, April 12, 1934: Hamayir camp. This was a red-letter day for us ... the plane from Jubail was due... I tried to pick up its signals on the radio, but failed. Sighted the Fairchild at 10:00 a. m.... Charles Rocheville brought it in for a slow, pretty landing. Miller Burchfiel and Dick Kerr got out, congratulated us on such a nice landing field... Krug and I took off for a ride after a good lunch... followed up the west side of a west-facing escarpment to al-Safa... southward, passing to the east of al-Habah... then northeast toward camp. The east- and northeast dipping escarpment plays out near al-Safa, but many of the straight ridges east of al-Habah seem to be dipping west-... Krug and I enjoyed the ride very much, and they promised to return on the 20th...
As the first season was drawing to a close, Hoover and Krug Henry were recalled from their camp 150 miles west of Jubail (240 kilometers) - their deepest penetration from the coast. As they prepared to leave for Dammam Camp 2 and finish their detailed examination of the Dammam Dome, Hoover wrote: Wednesday, May 9, 1934: Jubail. Gathered up odds and ends today. 'Ajab Khan and Hiji have been translating an inscription on a sword Rocheville bought in the suq ... made for Shah Abbas by a Persian maker of swords. Tonight I called on Muhammed 'Ali, the amir, as invited... quite a pleasant chat. The amir wondered if any of our towns were as large as Qatif or Hofuf... how much money was in America? Where did all the money go... in this depression?
Hoover describes the work he and Henry did on the structure that ultimately put Casoc - a Socal subsidiary - in the oil business:
We chained a base line out there in the middle where we could see the various little jabals [hills] - Jabal Shamali, Jabal Janubi, Jabal Umm al-Rus. We mapped the rimrock, but for a long time we couldn' t bring our indicator beds up to the middle of the structure because they'd been eroded away. Finally we found a rather prolonged hill out there, and it contoured up just like a big bathtub, and it sank down in the middle where the underlying beds had solutioned out. We found the shark-tooth shale and the member that contained Nummulites - those were our indicator beds - in that part of the structure. We thought this was quite important. Our guide, Khamis ibn Rimthan, helped us build a little rijm, a rock cairn, right up there by Jabal Umm al-Rus. There were three or four little peaks there on the top where the Bedouin used to go and look for what was going on." The date was June 5, 1934 and the spot chosen marked the site of Dammam Well No. 1.
Khamis ibn Rimthan - his first name is more correctly "Khumayyis" - the guide who helped place the cairn, is remembered with great respect and affection by all the pioneer oilmen. One of the "pioneers," himself, Khamis eventually got the supreme accolade: they named an oil field after him: the Rimthan field.
Of the tribe of Ajman, Khamis was originally deputed as guide to the geologists by the amir of al-Hasa. Although he could not read, and was unfamiliar with maps, he knew all the landmarks, and had an uncanny skill at finding his way: "When a storm cloud came over, Khamis could tell us there was a puddle of water hinaak - over there - two and a half hours away, and we'd go fill up our ghirbas, the sheep-hide water bags. He showed us how the Bedouin catch a hawk with a net baited with a kangaroo rat, and then how they train it. And while other guides would try to tell us what they thought we wanted to hear, Khamis would tell us what we needed to know."
Or nearly always. Hoover once asked Khamis to describe a particular jabal just north of the Iraqi border, but this time, for reasons of his own, the guide demurred.
"Khamis, I know you were up there," said Hoover. "But Hoover," he said, covering a smile with his hand, "that was before I became a geologist."
Says Hoover: "Khamis was one of the top hands of all the people I've ever known anywhere. I was lucky to have him with me all three seasons. We became good friends, close friends."
By the middle of June, 1934, there were 10 Americans - seven of them geologists - working in al-Hasa. The geologists had earned a respite from the brutal summer heat, and decided to go to the cool mountains of Lebanon. First, however, they had to develop and print the film taken by Dick Kerr with his aerial camera and locate and name important features - with the help of Khamis and Allen White. At the last minute, Hoover was given the task of guiding two engineers who came to survey harbor and terminal facilities at Ras Tanura: Saturday, June 30, 1934: Ras Tanura. At anchor. By launch to Dammam... and then we made it to Ras Tanura in 1¾ hours... walked across peninsula to find deep water 600 feet from shore [183 meters]... Now the pearling boats are sailing in for the night. Two pearl buyers from Bahrain just came aboard for quinine... boats from all over the Gulf, Kuwait to Qatar, are coming in...
Finally, though, Hoover and his fellow geologists set off for Lebanon, where on August 13, 1934, they attended the wedding of Krug Henry and Annette Rabil - whom Henry met, courted and won within weeks of leaving al-Hasa. Hoover then set off on a tour of Palestine, Cairo and Damascus. On their return to Jubail, the geologists were joined by Max Steineke - who would be the first man to provide a comprehensive view of the stratigraphy and underlying structure of the almost featureless face of what came to be called the Eastern Province. They were soon joined by Floyd Ohliger, the first petroleum engineer to arrive in Saudi Arabia, the man who would "push tools" for the Dammam well, and become "the first boss of the company." But it was the name of Hugh Burchfiel that would figure most prominently in Hoover's diary during the second exploration season.
"I'd known Hugh in West Texas," Hoover says. "He was my partner for the second season. We worked west of that long, narrow sandy body called the Dahna, and we felt that we'd gotten up to some of the older beds." This narrow strip of reddish sand runs down the peninsula from north to south, connecting the Great Nafud desert with the Rub' al-Khali. Although its importance as a barrier to east-west travel has been exaggerated, it is an impressive sight. Hoover and Burchfiel examined the area in April, 1935: Sunday, April 7, 1935. Camped at al-Qaiya wells...found the Dahna to be approximately 44 kilometers wide [27 miles] in a southwesterly direction, our route being about S 47° W most of the time. Immediately on the west side of the Dahna we found limestone outcrops that were fossiliferous, likely Cretaceous. This limestone rises about 1º to the west and for about 18 kilometers [11 miles] makes a very stony rolling plain covered by a thin skiff of sand ...about 3 kilometers [1.8 miles] east of al-Qaiya on the trail, the plain levels a bit and the limestone cobbles become pebbles... Monday, April 8, 1935. Camp al-Khufaisah... about 21 kilometers [13 miles] from al-Qaiya we found ourselves on the edge of a limestone escarpment overlooking Wadi Butayn... have had any number of visitors. One party came to the amir's tent and said, 'Who are these people?' 'Ibn Jiluwi's men,' was the reply. 'What do they want?' 'They are going to Qasim,' answers the amir. 'Is it necessary for them to go to Qasim?' 'Yes,' replied our amir, and there the conversation ended.
On April 10, Hoover visited the two famous old towns of Buraydah and 'Unayzah. It was in 'Unayzah that he met Doughty's host, 'Abd al' Aziz' Abd Allah al-Sulayim: Wednesday, April 10, 1935. 'Unayzah. We were received by a loveable old man, 'Abd al-'Aziz 'Abd Allah al-Sulayim, who resigned his amirship to his nephew some 11 or 12 years ago... By mistake our amir of soldiers had addressed his letter of our coming to the venerable old uncle, who was proud to have received it. 'I'm asking you to stay,' he said. 'The amir has nothing to do with it. I want you to stay a month...anything in ‘Unayzah is yours.’
"In remote country like that," recalls Hoover, "the only news they got was from people who came to visit. We were asked a lot of things... Where did we come from... What did we see... How many Muslims were there in the United States? Actually, they were all as charming as could be. Before we left, the old uncle showed us through one of his gardens, stopping at each plant or tree and demanding that we give its name in Arabic. The last plant was a strange one, and we gave up. He said, 'I don't know either,' and laughed."
Geologists are by education trained observers, and Hoover's diary is a conglomerate of physical geology, Bedouin custom and the impressions of a field naturalist: Friday, January 25, 1935. Camp Foag. We mapped southwest today, toward Wabra... brought in meat for the hawks. It takes one hubara per day for our four falcons and procuring same is sometimes a chore... Ibn Jiluwi has 250 camels grazing near here now... a high percentage of white camels in the herd... Tuesday, February 19, 1935. Campal-Rahayah. We have gone botanical... most of the area in full bloom... have gathered bulbs of the 'urnun, a large asparagus-like plant which putsout blossoms around a torch-shaped head... another bulb, the rubahla, its blossom quite intricate and lavender in color... any number of strange little wild flowers abound... Sunday, March 10, 1935. Campal-Rahayah... sketched on our aerial photographs, putting in a long day... drove past three Bedouin tents, stopped for coffee, dates and new sheep's butter... their most magnificent gesture is to place their food before you. Also came upon 43 "houses of hair" all in one encampment... Hugh and I chose two nice fat sheep... we're giving them to the soldiers for the 'Id (religious holiday) tomorrow.
In September 1935, Hoover and Max Steineke explored the area around Dammam Camp, now the site of Dhahran. Hoover found that what they said of Steineke - that he almost never stopped driving, never stopped thinking, and could never be bothered with extraneous details - was almost literally true. "Max was an interesting character - seems like so many of those early guys were characters. I worked with him my last year. We started out working on fossils: Wednesday, September 25, 1935: Dammam Camp. Max Steineke and I went out to the deep syncline between jabals Umm ar-Rus and Midra Shamali... spent the whole afternoon gathering fossils... found large pelecypods, medium-sized gastropods, huge conus... in similar lithology to the beds composing the al-Alat structure... Friday, September 27, 1935: Dammam Camp. Today Max and I visited jabals Midra Shamali and Janubi... found the Miocene "Button" (Echinoid) bed and established their elevations...
Later in that season, Hoover and Steineke went north to Khurma Karim, near the border with Iraq. Hoover asked Allen White, who had known Max Steineke in South America, what to pack.
"Soak," he said, "you take one of everything for you, and you take one for Max, and you take one for Max to lose, and you'll come out about right."
By the time Hoover finished his third and final season in Saudi Arabia, the first footsteps in the Arabian oil story had become a foothold. In his last geological report he deduced that the domes of Khurma Karim were only surface features. The first report written by Hoover and Henry recommended the drilling of Dammam Dome. Other geologists encouraged further exploration in central al-Hasa. The al-Alat structure near Abqaiq had already been plane tabled and scheduled for future drilling.
Dammam Well No. 1 had been encouraging, but it was not a commercial producer and ended up as a stand-by gas well. Several more wildcats remained to be drilled - all aimed at the Bahrain zone which here had "shaled out" - before the first deep-test hole turned the frontier into a boom-town.
Soak Hoover went to Saudi Arabia 50 years ago with a job to do. For three years he did that job, then left - richer by a wealth of experience that, as his diaries suggest and as he confirms in person, also stretched his capacity for wonder.