Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2015 12:53 pm
Drilling at Dammam
J. W. “Soak” Hoover /Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA
Editor’s note: This article, from 1963, details the search for oil in the Arabian Desert that led to the first discovery there, at the Dammam #7 well. We would like to thank Saudi Aramco World for providing the story and photos. Current and back issues of the magazine are available at http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com
Thirty years ago the rugged Arabian Desert was a place of hardship and adventure for pioneering American oilmen.
A small monoplane flying thousands of feet above the sand massifs of the eastern Rub’ al-Khali is witness to a dramatic instance of man’s ability to package his environment and take it along. Far below the plane on a sun-baked flat, where survival can be a marginal proposition, a group of white cubes glisten in the fierce light.
Down in the midst of this remote desert bivouac a generator hums. It pumps electrical life into the mobile camp and powers its electronic voice. There trained men work efficiently in air-conditioned comfort carrying on the costly search for oil.
However, even before the exploration field parties of the Arabian American Oil Company had large office, laboratory, dining hall and dormitory trailers to support them, the deserts of Saudi Arabia were being forced to yield their geologic secrets.
Let’s go back 30 years and follow two bearded geologists in Bedouin dress into the desert in December 1933. They head across the sandy steppes in a Ford touring car, knowing that at any moment the washboard terrain may break a spring. They are accompanied by a pickup truck, but that is the limit of their automotive equipment.
The field party with the two geologists includes an interpreter, a cook, a cook’s helper, a houseboy, a mechanic, a mechanic’s helper, a driver, 30 escorts (a warrant of the King’s good will) and four camel drivers.
The transport includes 25 riding camels and a dozen baggage camels each capable of hauling about 400 pounds. The camels carry three large goat hair tents and a silk tent, grass floor matting, collapsible tables, chairs, cots, food, cooking utensils, gasoline stoves and lamps, and gasoline in five-gallon tins.
In the small mountain of baggage are a chronometer, a surveyor’s transit, a sketchboard, three Brunton compasses, drafting equipment, some one-gallon water cans, half a dozen large waterskins, tools, spare motor parts, spare tires and extra front springs.
The geologists carry no radio. Once over the horizon they will be out of contact with headquarters until they return.
Such was the equipment and mode of travel of an overburdened geological field party in the eastern Saudi Arabian desert late in 1933. It was Aramco’s first field season in the unmapped (or mis-mapped) reaches of its newly acquired 300,000-square-mile oil concession.
The first field season started almost the instant the first two American geologists came ashore at Jubail, Saudi Arabia on September 23, 1933. It ended June 7, 1934 when the summer heat made further field work impractical.
That pioneer season in the desert required an unusual group of men. Their responsibility was great, for their company was investing large sums of money against heavy odds. They had to work fast in an unknown terrain; the depression had crippled the major world economies and the United States had gone off the gold standard. Furthermore, they were halfway around the world from home base.
And yet, despite tough obstacles, the doughty exploration team that started with two men and grew to ten did a remarkable job. Guided by Bedouin trackers well-schooled in the desert traverses, the seven geologists on the team charted dunes, jebels (hills) and sand marshes, and by the end of the pioneer season had determined, and marked for drilling, an area where in less than four years the discovery of oil in commercial quantities would confirm their judgment.
Who were these men? And what led them to the shores of the Persian Gulf to search for oil? All but three of the pioneers were petroleum geologists, and they went to the Middle East because a geologist goes wherever the search for oil may take him. Another was an engineer who had already surveyed one nearby Persian Gulf oil field. One was a mechanic and one was a co-pilot-mechanic, both wanting to try what sounded like an interesting venture.
The roster for the first field season began with geologists Robert P. (Bert) Miller and Schuyler B. (Krug) Henry, who had both searched for oil in the jungles of Venezuela. Miller had arrived in the Middle East in April 1932. He had been sent by the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal) to observe the drilling of the company’s first well on Bahrain Island in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. He was also assigned to determine the best site for the second well.
The Bahrain Petroleum Company, a Socal subsidiary, discovered oil on Bahrain in June 1932. Socal then extended its oil exploration in the Persian Gulf area. In May 1933, the company obtained a concession to search for oil, and develop production, in Saudi Arabia. In order to carry this work forward efficiently, Socal assigned the concession to a new subsidiary, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, which in January 1944 was re-named the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco).
Miller had been working in Bahrain for about a year and a half when he drew the assignment to start the geological work on the new Saudi Arabian concession. He knew Arabic and had become skilled in the technical and diplomatic problems of geological exploration in foreign lands.
His partner on the new project, Henry, had been in Bahrain for about a year. Henry, like Miller, had picked up everyday Arabic. Both of them had grown beards and had decided to set foot on the Arabian mainland in desert dress: long shirt, lightweight robe and cloth headdress. The clothing was both functional and politic.
The day they landed, Miller and Henry went to work. Thus, the first field season opened without ceremony.
Four weeks later, J. W. Hoover, another Socal geologist, became the third member of the pioneer party. He came over from Bahrain and landed at al-’Uqair about 100 miles down the coast from Jubail where Miller and Henry had landed. Al-’Uqair was the port for the al-Hasa oasis and had a customs house. At that time about ten people lived there, but in 1922 al-’Uqair had been the scene of a historic meeting at which Great Britain recognized the right of King ‘Abd al-’Aziz to rule the eastern section of Saudi Arabia, an area he had already ruled efficiently for ten years.
Almost as soon as “Soak” Hoover stepped ashore at the customs house Miller took him to a group of limestone hills that Miller and Henry had named the Dammam Dome.
Less than three weeks later the fourth and fifth geologists—Art Brown and Tom Koch—landed at al-’Uqair. Thus, the pioneer group had grown to half its ultimate size by November 10th. In another 11 days Hugh Burchfiel arrived to round out the geological team for 1933.
The seventh man ashore was an engineer, Allen White, another Socal foreign veteran. He too had worked in Venezuela and had surveyed the entire Bahrain concession for Socal. White arrived early in December and took charge of the branch office that Miller had set up in Hofuf, the principal village of the al-Hasa oasis. During the early days of oil exploration, White was the Arabic scholar among the Americans. Before he had been on the scene many weeks the roster of pioneers went up to eight: Felix Dreyfus, a mechanic, came over from Bahrain where he had been nursing a burned hand after arriving from the States with Burchfiel.
The handful of geologists bumping around on hardpan, skirting dunes and digging out of the sand had learned one thing by the year’s end: they couldn’t possibly investigate much of the concession, which covered an area larger than the entire state of Texas, without the help of an airplane.
Early in March 1934, the plane arrived. Aboard were geologist-pilot-aerial photographer Richard Kerr and copilot-mechanic Charley Rocheville. The ten-man team was finally complete with less than three months left to go in the first field season. The plane would soon speed up the desert exploration considerably, but some impressive work had already been done.
During their months of service in Bahrain, Miller and Henry had often seen a group of limestone hills across the water on the Arabian mainland. They were anxious to get a close-up look at them. Within a week of their landing in Saudi Arabia, they had already worked their way inland to al-Hinnah and returned to their temporary headquarters at Jubail. They then reconnoitered about 120 miles of coastal desert southward past Tarut Island and the Qatif oasis and on into the tantalizing limestone outcroppings. On September 28th, five days after landing, they were chipping samples from Jebel Dhahran, the most prominent of the hills they had seen from Bahrain.
Two days later Miller and Henry were in Hofuf examining a house that the Gosabis, the merchant family who acted as agents for the oil company, had suggested be used for exploration headquarters. Miller decided to maintain headquarters at Jubail and use the house in Hofuf as a branch office. The geologists moved on quickly and a few days later were back once again at al-Hinnah. They thus closed their first set of traverses.
When “Soak” Hoover arrived at al-’Uqair on October 22nd, he was accompanied by three Ford touring cars. Miller met him and took him immediately to a new camp at Dam-mam Dome. There Hoover and Henry set to work detailing this important structure. Miller left them two of the Fords.
The automotive inventory grew a week later when Art Brown and Tom Koch arrived at al-’Uqair. Two three-quarter-ton trucks came with them, but they soon proved impractical in the desert.
When Burchfiel came ashore on November 22nd, his first assignment was north of Jubail. He set to work to map the country west of the American headquarters. Before the month was out he was joined by Henry and Hoover, who stopped their detail work down at the Dammam Dome and left their survey stakes in place.
By the end of January 1934, they had mapped as far west as al-Lihaba. Work proceeded simultaneously to the south where Koch and Brown were mapping the desert west and north of Hofuf. White had arrived early in December to take charge at Hofuf, and he was busy transferring data from the field parties to the base maps of the reconnaissance.
After Christmas the services of a good mechanic were available with the arrival of Dreyfus. During January and February the field parties made long desert traverses. They suffered their difficulties with few complaints, but they knew for all their effort they were making little headway in their tremendous task. Brown and Koch had set up a camp northwest of Hofuf at ‘Uray’irah, and to the north Henry, Hoover and Burchfiel continued to move west from Jubail deeper into the desert.
When Kerr and Rocheville arrived with the plane in early March, several weeks passed before the Saudi Arab government permitted them to use it for aerial reconnaissance. On March 30th they made their first aerial traverse. Throughout April and May they were able to get in three or four good flying days a week with two geologists aboard to observe and sketch terrain features. In late April they were permitted to start flights into the interior and to use their radio.
At the end of April the plane set Henry and Hoover down in a new base camp 150 miles west of Jubail, the deepest ground penetration yet into the desert. But early in May, Henry and Hoover were called in from the desert and sent back down to the Dammam Dome to finish their detail work. On returning to their old camp they found that the survey stakes had been destroyed, probably by passing Bedouin.
By the end of May it was getting hotter by the day, and the time had come to pull in all the geologists from the desert camps. Time was needed to study results and replenish the pioneer team, some of whom were ill. Charley Rocheville needed hospital care—he was the first “casualty” among the explorer vanguard.
On June 6th Dick Kerr came down from Jubail to the camp at the Dammam Dome to take pictures. The same day, Henry and Hoover completed their detail work on the structure. The next day the branch office at Hofuf closed, and Allen White went up to Jubail. The wings of the plane were folded back, and it was wheeled away for the summer.
When “Krug” Henry and “Soak” Hoover finished their last day’s work at the Dammam Dome, they built a cairn of rocks where they thought it would be best to drill the first oil well in Saudi Arabia.
The visitor who today flies over the air-conditioned trailers of an Aramco field party might well be amazed if he were swept back in time and saw the black tents and touring cars and the tired, bearded men in desert dress who raised the historic rock cairn among the limestone outcroppings.
Ten men had changed the map of Saudi Arabia during the first field season in the desert. None of them could know how great the changes really were.
This article appeared on pages 17-19 of the February 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.