Technology and the “Conroe Crater”
Disaster in 1933 at a giant oil field near Conroe, Texas, brings together the inventor of a portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling.
Two years earlier, veteran oilman George W. Strake Sr. had made a major discovery eight miles southeast of Conroe in December 1931. His wildcat well would prove historic in many ways.
Although the Conroe well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the giant oil field – the third largest in the United States at the time - soon had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.
The region north of Houston boomed as the Great Depression worsened.
Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs.
The catastrophic fire threatened the entire field’s production. It took the combined efforts of oilfield technology innovators George Failing of Enid, Oklahoma, and H. John Eastman of Long Beach, California, to save the Conroe oilfield.
Only a handful of men in the world have the strange power to make a bit, rotating a mile below ground at the end of a steel drill pipe, snake its way in a curve or around a dog-leg angle, to reach a desired objective. – Popular Science Monthly, May 1934
Editor’s Note – This story resulted from what began as research into oil field pioneers and new technologies. The research led to the quiet town of Conroe, Texas, about 35 miles north of Houston, and the discovery of a prolific but highly unstable formation in 1931. Strake’s discovery opened the giant field.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s senior contributing editor, Kris Wells, expresses his thanks to Gregory Trammel of the Montgomery County Library in Conroe and Jamie Nossram for their assistance. Special thanks to the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid.
Some say that Conroe, Texas’ Crater Lake is bottomless. Others say it is 600 feet deep, but with the twisted remains of the Madeley No. 1 well at its bottom.
A few may even remember the day in January 1933 when the well came roaring in ablaze and cratered, eventually swallowing two nearby drilling rigs. The towering black cloud from the oil fire could be seen from Houston. It burned for months.
Conroe was no stranger to blowouts and rig fires. In 1931, wildcatter George Strake’s South Texas Development Company No. 1 well came in at 4,991 feet, producing millions of cubic feet of natural gas per day and several hundred barrels of oil.
Strake found the oil sands to be gas-charged, shallow, and unstable. Despite these challenges, he continued and spudded a second well 2,000 feet from his first success.
In June of 1932, the Conroe Courier newspaper headline proclaimed, “Strake Well Comes In. Good for 10,000 Barrels Per Day.” Strake had found the discovery well for the 19,000-acre Conroe oilfield, but its geology made drilling and development risky.
Texas lawmakers regulated drilling practices, casing procedures, and well spacing, but as always, the oilfield remained a hazardous place.
By the end of the year, the Conroe oilfield had 60 wells producing over 65,000 of barrels daily, principally from Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil), and the Texas Company (later Texaco, now part of Chevron). A number of independent producers were also operating successful wells.
Some of these wells required water, mud, and cement to be pumped into them for stabilization. Others required relief holes to reduce reservoir gas pressures, but drilling continued unabated.
In January 1933, Standard Oil of Kansas’ Madeley No.1 blew in as a gusher and immediately erupted into flame. All attempts to put out the fire with dynamite blasts and tons of dirt failed. The crater spread into a growing lake of burning oil, and the entire field was threatened.
The nearby rig of James Abercrombie and cousin Dan Harrison collapsed into the growing crater. With its casing shattered, their Alexander No. 1 well unleashed the reservoir’s full fury and millions of barrels of oil began surging into the crater. Good fortune intervened.
Enid, Oklahoma, entrepreneur George Everett Failing and his crew were working near Conroe. They arrived on the scene with their patented, self-contained portable drilling rig.
Failing had begun his company only two years prior when he mated a drilling rig to a 1927 Ford farm truck and a power take-off assembly. The same engine that drove the sturdy truck across the oilfields was used to power its rotary drill.
George Failing’s newly patented portable drilling trucks would revolutionize drilling. He started his company in 1931 when he mated a drilling rig to a truck and a power take-off assembly. One of his drilling trucks would be featured with Native Americans in a parade in his hometown of Enid, Oklahoma.
While a traditional steam powered rotary rig took about a week to set up and drill a 50-foot borehole, Failing could drill ten 50-foot holes in a single day. This capacity to quickly drill multiple relief wells and relieve the enormous gas pressure was critical to extinguishing the Conroe fire.
Working behind walls of Foamite and sheets of asbestos to suppress the flames, Failing drilled nearly a dozen 600-foot relief wells in record time, enabling the firefighters to at last extinguish the inferno.
It cost Failing the hearing in one ear and partial sight in one eye, but the fire was out. It had burned for three months. A grateful Humble Oil Company paid Failing a $25,000 bonus and his success was widely reported, giving his fledgling company a welcome boost.
The George E. Failing Co. (GEFCO) facility in Enid continues to manufacture state-of-the-art drilling rigs and other oilfield equipment used worldwide.
The Fire is Out — But there’s a Lake of Oil
Although Failing was successful and the Conroe fire was out, the growing lake of oil continued to feed off of the sunken Abercrombie and Harrison casing at the rate of over 6,000 barrels each day. Meanwhile, reduced pressure in the field dropped all other wells to less than 100 barrels per day in production.
Humble Oil Company was the largest producer in the field — and was determined to bring the well under control before it drained the field of its lifting power and dissipated the oil pool, completely destroying their investment. After the fire was out, Humble Oil brought in H. John Eastman from Eastman Oil Well Survey Co. of Long Beach, Calif., to stop the flow of oil into the crater.
In October, Humble purchased the “crater well” and the 15 acres surrounding it from J.S. Abercrombie Co. and the Harrison Oil Co. for $300,000. The astute Abercrombie and Harrison retained ownership of all oil the crater produced under the “Law of Capture.”
Since this oil was not charged against the fields “allowable” production, as managed by the Texas Railroad Commission, Abercrombie and Harrison bulldozed berms around the crater and continued to pump oil out at $1.10 per barrel, making a substantial fortune.
In an effort to choke off the unrestricted flow of oil into the crater, Humble Oil brought in H. (Harlan) John Eastman from Eastman Oil Well Survey Company of Long Beach, Calif. The growing dimensions of the oil-filled lake meant that the relief well would have to be spudded 400-feet distant and the borehole deviated deep underground to reach the crater’s source.
“Whip stocks” were tapered wedges in a borehole that forced a drill bit sideways into a new direction and Eastman was a “whip-stocking expert.” ALthough today he is recognized as the father of directional drilling and surveying, in 1933 his techniques were new — and put to the test in Conroe.
Drilling of the relief well began on November 12, 1933. At 1,400 feet, Eastman began his efforts to redirect the borehole. The Conroe Courier kept careful track of the relief well, reporting its progress: December 8, “Killer Well Now Drilling At 2,760 Feet.” December 29, “Conroe Relief Hole Drilling Now At 4,870.”
On January 7, 1934, Eastman’s directional drilling successfully reached its target. Four steam-powered pumps began forcing thousands of tons of water into the well under 1,400 psi pressure. After two days, the erupting oil flow was finally staunched.
By January 19, 1934, the newspaper reported, “Conroe Crater Becoming Just Another Well.” It was a year since the Madeley No. 1 had first roared onto the scene. The newspaper’s postscript noted that the crater, “will exist only as the most expensive memory of the Conroe field.”
More than just expensive memories remain from those early days of men making oil history. Wildcatter George Strake’s oil fortune continued to grow, making him a wealthy man. He gave much of his fortune to the Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston and to educational institutions and civic organizations and charities.
H. John Eastman’s contributions to the industry continue today in oilfields around the world with INTEQ, a business unit of Baker Hughes, Inc. that “…delivers advanced drilling technologies and services for efficiency and precise well placement.”
George E. Failing’s philanthropy earned him a place in Oklahoma’s heart. His company remains in Enid, “…a world leader in the design and manufacture of a complete line of portable drilling rigs.”
James Abercrombie and Don Harrison’s good fortune with the “crater well” and other ventures led them to prominence as Houston civic leaders.
Today, the Abercrombie Foundation helps fund Texas Children’s Hospital, an internationally recognized pediatric hospital located in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. A brief oral history interview with James Abercrombie is posted at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center website.
Popular Science Monthly, May 1934
Slanted Oil Wells Work New Marvels
“Slanted oil wells are the latest sensation of the oil industry,” begins the May 1934 Popular Science Monthly article. “Drilled by experts who use special tools and secret methods to send the bit burrowing into the ground at strange angles, they are finding amazing new applications.”
The article continues: “Brilliant work by a specialist in the new science of directional drilling has just saved a whole oil field from ruin. A spectacular wild well was spouting oil, gas, and water with volcanic fury from a huge crater more than a hundred feet across. Alexander No. 1, thundering giant of the Conroe field in Texas, was out of control. Before oil men could get to the runaway well, they saw the whole derrick, with its Christmas tree of pipe fittings and valves, vanish into a cauldron of mud, water, and oil.”
Noting that H. John Eastman brought his new directional drilling technology to the crisis in Conroe, Popular Science reported: “With the aid of simple geometry, Eastman sketched a plan. He would sink a straight hole part way, then drift sidewise in an arc, intersecting the oil formation close to the wild well.”
After successfully using a “whip stock” to deflect the drilling direction, “Into the hole went a single-shot surveying instrument of Eastman’s own invention. As it hit bottom, a miniature camera within the instrument clicked, photographing the position of compass needle and a spirit-level bubble.
“Again Eastman caused the bit to swerve like a living thing, plunging straight down to 5,135 feet. Here, at last, it struck the oil formation. Thousands of gallons of water could be pumped into the borehole. Within a few hours, the flood of oil ceased spouting from the crater. Eastman’s relief well had done its work.”
George W. Strake Sr. — Houston Legends Award
Friends and family of George W. Strake Sr. gathered November 23, 2010, to honor his life and achievements.
The “Houston Legends” luncheon at the Houston Petroleum Club, sponsored by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, included his son George Strake Jr. — and a speech from Charles Chase Untermeyer, former United States Ambassador to Qatar.
“We gather this afternoon to honor a man who left us in 1969 but whose spirit fills the energy industry and the life of Houston to this day, George W. Strake Sr,” Untermeyer noted.
“If this is a familiar Houston tale, George Strake’s life was a standout among other leaders of his time in the oil industry, as chronicled in Bryan Burrough’s excellent book, published in 2009, The Big Rich, which declares that ‘the most prominent philanthropist among Texas oilmen was probably George Strake, who gave millions to the Catholic Church and was generally recognized as the most decorated American layman.’ Mr. Strake liked to say that he was born ‘practically an orphan,’ since his father died when he was one and his mother when he was eight.”
Untermeyer also acknowledged the oilman’s place in U.S. petroleum heritage, especially for discovering “the great Conroe oilfield, which by the time of Mr. Strake’s death had produced upwards of half a billion barrels.”
Untermeyer concluded with remarks taken directly from a 1953 speech from Strake himself:
I dedicated my venture in Conroe to the honor and glory of God, and as I was not ashamed of it then, I am not ashamed of it now…On August 31 (1931), I spudded in the now-famous well, and on December 31, (four) months later, had its oil flowing into tanks and its gas burning a mighty torch to high heaven in thanksgiving to God to whom I had dedicated my lone wolf venture.
How foolish I would be to say that George Strake alone discovered the great Conroe oil field, because you know by this, my confession, that I had a great partner. I hope [that partner] Divine Providence stays with me and never lets me commit the sin of pride in thinking I am a great man, when standing alone.
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