en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 19, Number 6November/December 1968

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Discovery! The Story Of Aramco Then

Chapter 6: The Wildcatters

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: With each year that passed the stage got more crowded. The English financiers and their New Zealand major had come and gone. An American philanthropist, a mining engineer and one of Great Britain's most famous explorers had given their views to an Arab king. An expert from San Francisco and King Ibn Sa'ud's shrewd advisers had hammered out an agreement. Now it was the turn of the geologists, the ten-man team of hard-living, able experts who would decide if and where the Company, soon to be called California Arabian Standard Oil Company, should begin to drill for oil.

They were a colorful crew, these ten, and the work they did reshaped Saudi Arabia forever. On foot, by car and in the gallant Fairchild that Dick Ken had flown down from Cairoand got arrested inthey crossed and re-crossed the vast concession area, amid heat, sand, flies, illness and injury, capturing on paper the features of this featureless land.

Later, in Lebanon they savored the cool air, slept a lot, and ate and drank at a furious pace. One of them, Krug Henry, met a girl named Annette, immediately decided to marry her and did so a few weeks later. The rest worked on the reports that would send them back for a second season in Arabia and bring in otherslike Max Steinekewho would also play important roles in what came later.

The second season was much like the first, except that Lloyd Hamilton came calling, and decided to drive clear across Arabia. En route he visited King Sa'ud, took the first movies ever taken of the desert King, his people and his land. It was a most interesting trip but by then attention had shifted back to the east coast. The wildcatters had arrived at last.

They did not come as settlers, or even as explorers; they were neither the kind that planned to stay nor the kind that evinced much interest in the strange places where they found themselves. One place was much like another; they took change philosophically; they imposed themselves and their own vagrant subculture on whatever spot of earth happened to contain them. They were wildcatters, used to moving on, and when they came wading onto the shores of Saudi Arabia in 1935, they were thanking their stars that they didn't have to stay on Bahrain. Discovery was their business, and they had already done that at Jabal Dukhan. It was all right to get the rig all dirty with the first producer, the one that mattered, but it was another just to drill holes where you already knew you would hit oil.

They took the far corners of the earth without excitement because they had already seen a lot of them. Of that first wildcat crew on Dammam Dome, every man had been knocking around the world for years. Guy (Slim) Williams, the slouchy and laconic tool pusher, had had a China tour; so had Jack Schloesslin, a driller, small, fat, ferociously foul-mouthed, and as soft under the crust as Camembert. Both of them had known Bill Eltiste, a general utility man in transportation, machine shop and garage in Argentina in 1922. When Eltiste pulled out in 1925 to take a leave in the States, he worked about a month at Taft, in the San Joaquin Valley, and then headed out for Maracaibo, Venezuela. After a year there he went on to Colombia, and there ran into Schloesslin, who had meantime been in Ecuador. Slim Williams had by then left South America for Montana. These were the expected and routine jumps.

When Ed Skinner, who was assistant manager at Maracaibo, was transferred to Bahrain as manager in 1931, he took with him as a crew a bunch of these rough and skillful roamers who had already touched on practically all the places where Socal had had foreign operations. This was by and large the same crew that was sent to the mainland later. The al-Hasa concession was test-drilled by men who had been around.

But they did not—quite—bring all their gods with them into Latium. Missing from the al-Hasa wildcat and from the towns around it were the beer parlors, the dance halls, the juke boxes, the slot machines, the movie theaters. Nevertheless they did manage certain things from the beginning: refrigeration, electric fans, bunkhouse radios, ice cream—and a state of mind that even without beer and movies and the company of ladies was startlingly and unmistakably American, and that involved, among other things, optimism, generosity, carelessness, roughness, high productivity, the habit of exaggeration, the knack of improvising, a family relationship to Paul Bunyan. They would have stared in incredulity at anyone who had called them missionaries. Yet if utter faith in a way of life, and an utter conviction that the rest of the world would best be served by adopting it, constitute the essential elements in missionary fervor, these men were missionaries as surely as were Dr. Harrison's Christians over on Bahrain.

The first one over, besides Slim Williams, was Walt Haenggi, a rig builder and construction man who had already done service to the Bahrain crew by demonstrating what happened if you refused to wear a hat or a ghutra in Arabia. Haenggi was a big, rugged oilfield roughneck, not inclined to baby himself. He scorned all head coverings for some time, until one summer day when the temperature was about 120° he suddenly took off at a dead run across the island. The Bapco manager, Ed Skinner, who had been a fullback at California, pursued him and brought him down, and they put him in the refrigerated food locker for a while to cool his overheated skull. When Haenggi arrived at al-Khobar, he was wearing a hat.

Next came Joe Cartwright, known as Joe Khobar, the camp clerk and paymaster. He had worked in Texas where the paymaster laid a six-shooter on the table to maintain decorum among his clients. The first time Joe Khobar paid off the crew at the Dammam camp—later to be known as the Dhahran camp— there was the six-shooter. He did not last long in Arabia. It was felt that the Arabs would not understand him as the Texans had.

Just after Christmas, 1934, on the same launch that brought Lloyd Hamilton, on the first leg of his trans-Arabian tour, there came Claude Jared, a driller, Floyd Ohliger, a petroleum engineer, and Frank Dang, a Chinese cook, all wading ashore because there were no dock facilities. Jared was the orthodox foreign-department wildcatter. Ohliger was a freckle-nosed and engaging Pennsylvania Dutchman who had wild-catted in Venezuela and done a hitch on a concession in the Magdalena Valley in Colombia after getting his degree in petroleum engineering from Pitt. Subsequently he had been in California, Oklahoma and Texas, and then had gone back to school at Stanford to learn some more physics.

Frank Dang was something more unlikely. After 12 years spent cooking in a Berkeley sorority house, he went back to China on a visit, could not get back into the United States, and ended up cooking for the staff house of Socal in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Later he returned to China and opened a string of movie houses, but had to give it up. So many of Chiang Kai-shek's soldiers insisted on coming in free that they crowded out the paying guests and put Frank out of business. Now, through the Bahrain cook, Chow Lee, also an ex-Venezuelan, he was brought out here to Arabia, as erratic a wanderer as any of them.

They located a camp on the terrace near the higher jabals, dug a water well, took apart two double-walled tents that had been stored in Jubail since the previous fall and made them, into four tents, which they set up near the spotted site for Well No.1.

Until the establishment of the camp, their assault on Arabia had had no seeming of permanence; they had lived as visitors in Arab houses in Jubail and Hofuf, and in the desert they moved around more than the Bedouins. But at al-Khobar they began at once the thing they were notably good at: construction.

The first thing they had to have was a pier, and as soon as they selected a site they called an historic meeting, not thought of as historic at the time, by the fishermen's barastis on the shore. Its purpose was the first mass employment of Saudis as industrial labor. Ohliger enlisted every available dhow and put the crews to gathering the crusty, shell-like stone the Arabs called faroush which low tide exposed along the edge of the Gulf. Within a few weeks there was a long rough finger of stone poking out into the green water, and visiting firemen no longer had to come ashore on the shoulders of crewmen, new employes no longer had to wade ashore, supplies no longer had to be carried on the heads of workmen.

Then there was the problem of housing: Walt Haenggi and a crew started on a bunkhouse up near the site where the first well had been spotted the June before: it was oriented in an east-west direction so as to admit as few as possible of the sun's hottest rays. There was the problem of water: a hand-dug well in the flat below the jabals yielded sweet water of fair quality for drinking; and Eltiste boxed in one of the underwater springs exposed at low tide, and got a greater supply of brackish water than could be used for camp and drilling purposes. There was the job of supply, the job of transportation. Across the stretch of dunes between the al-Khobar camp and the site of the well they dragged lumber, cement, equipment, the old cable rig, moving things by camel or car or laboriously and slowly by Caterpillar tractor.

It is a legend in Arabia now that at some point in these early years Bill Eltiste and Dick Kerr, observing how a camel's big squishy feet spread out to the size of a manhole cover in loose sand, commandeered a cargo camel and hoisted him on an A-frame and weighed him and then sat down with a slide rule and figured out the ratio of foot-surface to body weight, and so devised the low-pressure sand tires that have since revolutionized off-road work in the desert. They were indeed pioneers in off-road transportation, but neither Eltiste nor Kerr admits to weighing any camel.

If anybody ever did, it was an engineer with the Egyptian Camel Corps who developed the idea of oversized tires with Dunlop, in England, and got them to manufacture 9.00 x 13's with about 12 pounds pressure for desert work. Miller saw these tires when he was in London in the summer of 1934, and ordered 50 of them for the touring cars, pickups and station wagons. On the way back to Jubail, when he stopped in Alexandria to meet Lenahan, he saw a demonstration of larger tires for trucks arranged by the Dunlop people with the Ford agency. Because he wasn't quite sure they would work on the Arabian sands, he bought only one set and two spares. As soon as he got back in the field he was wishing he had bought dozens.

The fact is that the earliest beginnings of low-pressure tires in Arabia go beyond Eltiste and even Kerr and Miller. The so-called "balloon" tires, as used in the United States, were recommended from the first by Twitchell and Hamilton, who had heard about them from others. The cars that Twitchell brought across from Jiddah in September, 1933, had the biggest tires he could get there, which were 7.50xl6's. Even Kerr's Fairchild had big doughnut balloons. In spite of the attractiveness of the picture of Eltiste and Kerr hoisting a camel on an A-frame, truth compels the statement that it was later, and on heavy equipment, that these two made their notable contribution. They took what the Camel Corps engineer had first comprehended, and applied it to bigger and bigger carriers until by now a rig weighing 400,000 pounds and up goes off across the Arabian desert on rubber.

By February 19, 1935, the collar for Dammam No. 1 was completed—the hard way. Having no dynamite at the time, they broke up the rock by alternately getting it hot with a wood fire and then drenching it with cold water. Haenggi's crew began erecting the derrick, accepting the help of everybody around, including the engineers and geologists. ("What can I do to help around here?" asked Floyd Ohliger, the petroleum engineer. Eltiste handed him a ten-pound hammer and a handful of 60-penny spikes and pointed to some 3x12 planks on the derrick floor. "Nail down a few boards," he said.) By the middle of April the derrick was up and they were rigging up and digging a sump hole. On April 30, 1935, they spudded in Dammam No.1 with the old cable rig, starting a 22½-inch hole.

This was what they had come for. No problems of expense, policy, public relations, cultural adjustment, logistics, or integration of effort concerned them. Those were office problems. No problems of terrain or location troubled them: those were the geologists' lookout. The three American drillers with their crews were here to drill a hole and see what was down there, to keep three shifts going night and day, to meet the hourly problems of teaching the Saudi and Bahraini workmen how not to get hurt, how to respect the machinery, how to do the job. The fact that most of them had only a little Arabic did not bother them. Most of them hadn't had much Spanish either: they gave orders by some combination of gesture, grunt, shouting, and an occasional indispensable word. Slim Williams, confronted by the necessity of communicating the idea "down," and knowing only the word for "up," which was fōk, managed to convey his meaning by raising his voice to three times its usual volume and adding "no God damn it." Thus, "FŌK, NO GOD DAMN IT!" came to be a reasonably clear, if slightly crude, version of "down."

The theory behind drilling oil wells is very simple. You drill a hole in the ground, over a place where you have reason to hope, or guess, or believe there is a humped-up dome in the strata, and try to break through into that dome. If there is any accumulation of hydrocarbons there, as gas or oil or a mixture of the two, the internal pressure will force it up the hole you have drilled, and you have an oil or gas well. It is as simple as that. Only the actual doing is complicated. And with the best geological advice in the world it is terribly easy to guess wrong about what is a half mile or a mile or two miles underground.

This is how the testing of a gamble looks when transcribed as a series of cables sent halfway around the world:

May 7, 1935: To Reginald Stoner from Guy Williams: Well No. 1 ... drilling in hard gray limestone ... 260'.

May 14: Stoner from Williams: Well No. 1 ... 496' ... gray limestone, encountered water 312' ... slight showing tar 385' ... casing set on shoulder 103' ... to straighten hole. All well here.

July 15: Stoner from Williams: Drilled ahead to 1,433' ... gray limestone ... All well here.

August 25: Stoner from Miller: Slight showings of oil and gas at 1,774''. Not important but encouraging.

August 30: Stoner from Williams: 1,886' ... blue shale. Casing 1,845'... dense limestone 1,774'-1,800''; and 1,819'-1,883'; shows oil and gas 1,779'-1,801'; and 1,840'-1,883'; flowing by heads ... possibly would make 50 bbls. per day. All well here.

September 6: Stoner from Williams: 1,959' ... casing 1,939' ... dense limestone oil and gas 1,886'-1,906'. Streaks blue reddish brown greenish shale and dense limestone 1,906'-1,959''. Oil and gas 1,948'-1,959' A.P.I. gravity 47 ... hole caved badly ... lowered casing present depth hole cleaned itself ... maximum pressure 530' in four hours ... preparing make flow test. All well here.

September 12: Stoner from Williams: ... 21 hours test at the rate of 98 bbls. in 24 hours and 700 MCF gas rate ... 30 flow pressure ¼-inch bean A.P.I, gravity above 50 ... preparing to drill deeper.

September 18: Stoner from Williams: ... 1,977' deep ... While shut down for changing control head, flowed by heads approximately 6,537 bbls. per day A.P.I. gravity of 50.

That September 18 cable jarred them back home. It could just possibly be true. San Francisco cabled frantically for confirmation of the figure of 6,537 barrels a day, and to Stoner from the Los Angeles office came a telegram suggesting that the figure must be an error because the well was only flowing "by heads" or by surges. "These figures may need checking before jumping out of window," Los Angeles said a little breathlessly.

Williams steadied them with a cable on September 23. The estimated flow was around 100 barrels a day. It would have been an oil well in Pennsylvania, but not out here. And so back to work and back to the cabled reports:

November 27: Stoner from Davies: 2,271' ... 6 5/8" casing 2,238'... alternating sand and shale 2,236'-2,271'; total of 19 feet sand in three members. Unloaded to test. Strong flow of gas ... showing of oil. Gauged 1,800 MCF gas with 680 lbs. back pressure. Unable to gauge further because fitting started cut out. Killing well with mud ...

January 4, 1936: Stoner from Davies: Plugged with cement to 2,372' ... standing.

They hadn't given up on No. 1, but their enthusiasm was dampened. On the same day they plugged it, they started rigging up for No. 2. The parallel with the Bahrain structure was obviously not so precise as they had hoped: the zone that was richly productive on Bahrain was disappointing here. But one of the wells on Bahrain had found oil at a deeper horizon, at 2,832 feet. To go down that deep they needed a rotary drilling rig. Charley Potter brought one over from Bahrain and they went about installing it on No. 1, using the cable rig to start No. 2 on February 8.

In mid-April, a year after they had spudded it in, they had No. 1 down below 3,200 feet, down below the deep productive zone on Bahrain. Through May and June they struggled with sticking drill pipe, cavings, cementings, broken casings, and perforations and acid treatments that had little effect. Their faith in the well was gone, and the excitement stirred up in official Saudi Arab quarters when it blew gas and oil during the tests of the previous August had faded too.

The crew went on tinkering with No. 1 for six months more, then shut it in for nearly a year before they finally completed it as a stand-by gas well in December, 1937. By then no one was paying much attention to it. The attention had long been focused on No. 2, which by May 11, 1936 (after the rotary rig was moved there), was drilled to 2,175 feet, and was giving most encouraging indications. On June 20, during a five-day test, No. 2 flowed an average of 335 barrels of 54° A.P.I, crude a day. One week later, after acid treatment, it produced steadily at the rate of 160 barrels an hour—equivalent to 3,840 barrels a day—until it was shut in because the storage was full. Obviously there were some hydrocarbons down there. Even on the meager showing of No. 1, the San Francisco office had shown strongly bullish tendencies, and No. 2 confirmed the official optimism. On May 22 William H. Berg, then a vice president and director, sent word that if Dammam No. 2 turned out to be a producer, the men in the field should be prepared to drill the al-Alat structure, first recommended by Max Steineke partly because it was the likeliest geological prospect and partly because it was only twenty miles northwest of the Dammam camp and could be serviced from there and supplied from al-Khobar. Inside of six days, on the strength of the developments at No. 2, the al-Alat well was authorized, and early in June the San Francisco office threw the book at Davies and his slim field force by authorizing Dammam Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 to test the extent of the structure there.

When Davies protested that even No. 2 had been pushed too fast, and that they really had no idea of the thickness of the producing strata, and that four new wells at Dammam plus one at al-Alat were beyond the capacities of the crews, San Francisco replied by authorizing Bahrain to cooperate with everything it had, and in July it authorized still another well, Dammam No. 7, designed to be a deep test of the so-called "Arab Zone" which had shown gas, but little oil, on Bahrain.

Authorization of the drilling program also meant authorization to expand the work force and the camp facilities to meet it. This meant replacing the wildcat camp with a permanent one, and a little group of less than two dozen Americans and about two hundred Saudi, Bahraini and Indian work- men with a very much larger force. It meant reserving for company use another plot of land at Dammam camp to match the reservations already made at al-Khobar, Ras Tanura and Dhulaifain, on the Gulf north of Ras Tanura. It meant new workers, most of whom would have to be recruited from abroad with inevitable arguments to prove to the Saudi Arab Government that, as yet, there were no technically skilled Saudis available. It meant better transshipping arrangements between Bahrain and the mainland. It meant water wells at al-Alat and new ones at Dammam camp; the drilling they were already doing utilized 15,000 barrels of fresh water daily, and worked the pumps on the submarine spring around the clock. It meant approval of layouts and plans for a permanent camp, approval of housing plans, building of housing for new personnel, and before that the building of housing for the men who would build the housing. It meant enlargement of al-Khobar pier, the surveying of the Gulf to find better channels for deeper draft ships. It meant laying out and oiling and keeping in repair a road between al-Khobar and the al-Alat wildcat, the last eight miles of it across bad dunes. It meant increasing the size of the camps for Saudi workers and the building of a new one at al-Alat. It meant more bunkhouses, more machine shops, -a bigger power plant, bigger storehouses. And almost every new and bigger thing that expansion meant also created new and bigger problems of adjustment between Arab and American, new and bigger difficulties of negotiation, fresh differences of opinion in the interpretation of the all-important Concession Agreement.

San Francisco, convinced after the June showing of No. 2 that they had an oil field, cabled that it was sending four two-bedroom, air-conditioned, prefabricated bunkhouses to supplement the already-enlarged one that Walt Haenggi had built. Ten days later, riding a big wave of excitement and optimism, Stoner cabled that he was also sending some air-conditioned cottages suitable for family living. He advised Fred Davies to put his mind seriously on the problem of taking care of married personnel.

Davies was perfectly willing. But he as general manager, and Floyd Ohliger as petroleum engineer, and Guy Williams as drilling superintendent, and Max Steineke as chief geologist, and Bill Lenahan as official government representative, and every one in a position of responsibility in Arabia, had plenty of other problems to put his mind on. The wildcatters with their bits probing a half mile down in Arabia's crust had immensely complicated all their lives. This was no longer an adventurous exploring expedition or a picturesque outpost. The Jubail compound was still kept as a geological office, but geological headquarters had already, in October 1935, been consolidated into the Dammam camp when Davies replaced Bert Miller in charge of the whole operation. Some of the fun had gone. The Fairchild, once their pet and darling, was folded up and stuffed in a shed, no longer needed. Its motor, packed in a crate labeled A-l, was shipped off to the United States for rebuilding, the first thing ever exported from the al-Khobar pier. The old concerns—the constant equilibristic job of government relations, the steady exploration of the concession, the drilling of new test wells—would go on, but around them now would grow an increasingly complex net of other needs, other jobs, and other problems; and along the Gulf coast would grow new outposts of industrial civilization, some of them temporary, some permanent.

What had been a frontier was on the boom. But it was on the boom in a way new to their experience. In most parts of the world the discovery of oil or valuable minerals would have drawn in a crowd of fortune hunters, prospectors, floating labor, entertainers, gamblers—plus providers of supplies and services, who would have supplemented the planned expansion by the Company. In Saudi Arabia the conditions of remoteness and the exclusive concession left everything to be done by the Company, and if that gave them the advantage of greater control, it also left them with the responsibility for greater foresight.

Throughout 1936 they were always behind, always short of something, always getting something half-built and moving into it and using it as a base to build something else. While San Francisco pondered the plan and map of the permanent camp, sent in by Davies at the end of 1935, and while Bay Area laboratories tested various Arabian building materials to see if anything local would do for construction, Davies and Dreyfus visited the King, then visiting Hofuf, and found him genial, and pleased with the way they were pushing ahead, and not at all upset by what they were then calling the Haenggi affair.

The Haenggi affair had occurred the previous year. Under the pressure of 125° heat and an irritating rash, Walt Haenggi had lost his temper and manhandled one of his Saudi workers. The Saudis had demanded that he be expelled from the country, and the wildcatters, believing him justified had said they would close down the drilling if he were. Eventually, when all the evidence was in, the King believed he was justified too, or at least not guilty of anything serious enough to warrant expulsion. But for a while there was a new reserve in the previously easy relationships.

All through the spring, as the bits ground deeper in both No. 1 and 2, the supporting operations proliferated. The men broadened and lengthened the al-Khobar pier and before it was anything but a horizontal rockslide cars and trucks were scraping their pans across it. Dark roads began to reach out from al-Khobar to Dammam camp, from Dammam camp toward al-Alat, sprayed with the crude from No. 1. In March, Davies negotiated a contract with the Mesopotamia Persia Corporation of Bahrain to bring company freight in by barge or launch or dhow, and immediately the local customs officers, the local government representative, and ultimately Lenahan and the Ministry of Finance in Jiddah were involved in a debate about anchorage fees, liability in case of accident, the proper validation of manifests.

In Jiddah there were quite different signs of growth and strain. Saudi Arabia, which for generations had used the Maria Theresa (thaler) dollar and sometimes the gold sovereign for currency, had, under Ibn Sa'ud, formally outlawed the Maria Theresa dollar and established as its own unit of exchange the silver riyal. There were never enough riyals in circulation, but what had been before Casoc a faint awkwardness now revealed itself as an acute lack. Casoc was interested because it sometimes had trouble making payrolls in the local medium of exchange, always silver because the Saudi Arabs still neither understood nor trusted paper. (Khamis ibn Rimthan, paid once in silver and a rupee note, had kept the silver and thrown the note away.) The Saudi Arab Government, to remedy this shortage, and to stabilize the fluctuating value of the riyal, had placed an order for the coinage of a million riyals early in 1936 and now wanted to coin another million. For backing it needed gold; it suggested that Casoc might lend it £15,000, and after hesitating from March to July, Casoc did so, since by that time the euphoria brought on by the production at Dammam No. 2 was loosening the purse strings in San Francisco.

This was only one of literally dozens of problems and negotiations that kept Bill Lenahan and his new assistant Bill Burleigh busy in Jiddah. Experience had taught them not to deal with local officials on policy questions, so that now any matters involving interpretation of the Concession Agreement or the supplementary Private Agreement were automatically referred to the Jiddah office by Davies or by Ohliger, who on August 1, 1936, was made assistant general manager.

They handed Lenahan all the old (and persistently renewed) debates about customs liabilities and the size of escorts for field parties and about the Company's requests to import foreign labor for specialized jobs that could not yet be handled by Saudis. He acquired likewise such new matters as the police problem brought about by the establishment of a permanent camp. Saudi Arab police assigned to the Dammam and al-Alat camps were local men, and authority did not always sit well on them, even when they thought they knew what this authority was. The precise nature of their jurisdiction within the company reservation, as well as problems of the behavior of policemen, were Lenahan's to solve, though Davies and Ohliger had to deal with specific situations as they arose.

And there was a whole series of Government requests, most of them now channeled through Najib Salha, who, always the bargainer, reopened a lot of agreements the Company had considered settled. Most of them called for additional Company contributions, such as the building of a Government house at al-Khobar pier and provision of transportation for the Saudi Arab Government representative in al-Hasa. After all, the Government argument ran, we would not be having these problems and expenses if you were not here digging for oil. Demands had to be taken up one by one, and parried or allowed as justice and public relations dictated. One thing Lenahan could be sure of; the moment he got one settled there would be another in its place.

Problems were what made Jiddah stimulating, actually. The gossip and intrigue of its foreign colony were interesting after a fashion, and Lenahan took periodic trips to Egypt or Europe to refresh himself. But it was the problems that he liked. He was a born negotiator, alert and imaginative, and when necessary immovable, and once in a while furious. Paradoxically, his temper rather endeared him to the King, to whom he sometimes went when he found the ministers intransigeant. "I like Lenahan because I know him," Ibn Sa'ud said once, "and I know him because I have fought with him so many times."

By the beginning of August, 1936, when Ohliger was taking over his new job and they were building the rig for al-Alat No. 1, the Company had made its loan to the Government, had decided not to compete with Longrigg and IPC for a concession for the Saudi-owned Farasan Islands in the Red Sea, and had obtained land reservations for al-Alat and clearances for Dammam wells Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 as well as a 70,000-acre reservation for the permanent camp and its necessary installations. By that same midsummer dividing line, a company engineer named Charles Herring had reported that a submarine pipeline to the Bahrain refinery was perfectly feasible, and in London Roy Lebkicher, Hamilton's assistant, had had several conferences with the British Admiralty about a hydrographic survey of the Gulf with an eye to the marking of channels and the creation of a major port.

Once committed, there was practically no limit to how far the Company might be extended in its effort to develop and market a major oil deposit. It was very willing, even eager, in spite of its uncertain status as a purely commercial stranger in a foreign country. All it needed, actually, was the oil, and that in mid-summer 1936 did not look difficult. In the process of finding it the field was pressing several programs vigorously. A lean and drawling paleontologist, Dick Bramkamp, came out at the end of August and set up an Arabian foraminiferal laboratory so that they would not have the delay and awkwardness of relying on the lab on Bahrain. From October on, Jerry Harriss and Walt Hoag, a pair of geologists who cordially disliked each other and went for days without speaking, were off in the desert west of Jubail sourly mapping an area of nearly 4,000 square miles as a preliminary to geophysical work there. In November the first structure drilling program, with Krug Henry in charge, began a series of holes at al-Alat, Qatif and Dammam. Careful study of the cores from those holes, and their coordination with cores from other districts and with the results of surface geological work, would eventually give them a more positive idea of the continuity, depth, and flexure of strata, and make drilling less of a gamble and more df a science.

This was the beginning of the geologists' fourth season in the field, and the findings had been, on the whole, meager. They had discovered at once what they had seen from a distance: the Dammam Dome. They had by surface investigations and Max Steineke's intuitions detected signs of closure at Abqaiq and Qatif, and the an-Nala area west of Hofuf was known to be regionally high and worth further study. The al-Alat structure had been plane-tabled and was now being test-drilled and structure-drilled. But they still did not know the Miocene stratigraphy clearly enough to see the underground organization of the region, and they did not know clearly its relation to the Eocene. They had a great deal of hunting still to do, and by means more productive than surface geology.

Through 1936 that program went on. The camp spread out across the crusty rock and shallow sand southwest of the jabals and the flock of test wells that San Francisco had ordered went down—all by rotary. As reported by cable on April 15, No. 1 had gone down below 3,200 feet without real result. More alarming, No. 2, after its spectacular test at a rate of 3,840 barrels per day, "went wet," and settled down in the later months of 1936 to a production of 225 barrels a day of oil and 1,965 barrels of water; it was obviously going to need some rehabilitation. And what of wildcats Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6, all hopefully aimed at the Bahrain Zone which had gushed out the June flow of No. 2?

No. 3 was spudded in on July 14 and completed to the Bahrain Zone on November 20. Production was never more than a hundred barrels a day of 28° A.P.I, oil, 15% water. It was never flowed except for use as road oil.

No. 4, spudded in August 20, was suspended in the Bahrain Zone at 2,318 feet on November 18. There was not even a showing on this one: a dry hole, a duster.

No. 5, spudded in September 8, was down to 2,067 feet by the end of the year without producing anything.

No. 6, whose derrick was erected in September, suffered from the overload of rush work and from the sagging of spirits when 3, 4 and 5 went to no purpose and No. 2 dwindled. It sat there, a derrick on a cellar, until after the turn of the year before anything was done with it.

In the meantime, preparations had been made for the first deep test hole. It was called Dammam No. 7, and it was spudded in on December 7. What it would find was, by then, anyone's guess, but they all knew it had better show something. Time was running out.


This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the November/December 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1968 images.