june 15 petroleum history

Beginning in 1954 and capable of drilling wells in water up to 40 feet in depth, Mr. Charlie was the first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU). Photos courtesy Murphy Oil Corporation.

The offshore barge drilling platform, Mr. Charlie left New Orlean’s Alexander Shipyard on June 15, 1954, and went to work for Shell Oil Company in a new oilfield in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A reporter from LIFE magazine covered the launch, noting the new “singularly monstrous contraption” could drill “a 12,000-foot hole at a different location every month.”

Mr. Charlie offered an exploration alternative to erecting permanent, pile-supported offshore drilling platforms to be tendered by utility boats. Kerr-McGee had pioneered this approach with the Kermac No. 16 in 1947, but Mr. Charlie could drill in water twice as deep and then move to another site.

mr. charlie

Mr. Charlie’s column-stabilized design revolutionized the offshore industry. Photo courtesy LIFE magazine, September 14, 1954.

The vessel was the “first offshore drilling rig that was fully transportable, submersible and self-sufficient, allowing it to drill more than 200 oil and gas wells along the Gulf Coast between 1954 and 1986,” explains the The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). Previous submersible drilling barges were limited to shallow bayous and estuaries where waters did not exceed 15 feet.

Using ideas that dated back to a 1928 patent by Louis Giliasso and updated in 1952 by John Hayward, the new design came from a young U.S. Navy World War II veteran and marine engineer who had recently joined the offshore industry. Alden “Doc” LaBorde believed a self-sufficient oil rig could be placed on a barge and floated in deeper offshore waters for drilling wells.

However, LaBorde struggled to find companies in Morgan City, Louisiana, willing to risk investing in his concept. Even the company where he worked as a drilling superintendent, Kerr-McKee, a leading offshore innovator in barge drilling, turned him down. Laborde’s boss thought the idea “looked good on paper,” but told him, “there are too many unknowns. You have ocean currents, shifting bottoms, hurricanes and many other factors that just would not allow this idea to work as planned.”

LaBorde’s offshore exploration concept was revolutionary, but all of the major companies involved in the oil and natural gas industry at the time passed on the idea, ASME noted in 2012 in its History and Heritage Landmarks Program. The society has recognized hundreds of sites and collections of historic importance to mechanical engineering.

Fortunately, LaBorde found support from veteran oilman Charles Murphy Jr., owner of an independent oil company from El Dorado, Arkansas. Murphy backed construction of the revolutionary vessel, which would be named after Charles Murphy, Sr. The first customer would be Shell Oil Company.

“Construction on Mr. Charlie began in 1952 at Alexander Shipyards in New Orleans and was completed in late 1953. Mr. Charlie would go on to drill hundreds of wells – a cumulative 2.3 million feet up and down the Gulf Coast for Shell Oil, as well as many other oil companies,” explains ASME.

LaBorde formed the Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company and contracted with Alexander Shipyard to build Mr. Charlie. A barge 220 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 14 feet deep supported the drilling platform. The platform was 60 feet above the barge.

Mr. Charlie rig

The drilling rig design of Alden “Doc” Laborde (left) was recognized as a historical mechanical engineering landmark in 2012 by Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte and ASME Past-President Reginald Vachon. Photo courtesy ASME.

Mr. Charlie was the first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) and a springboard for new offshore technologies for deeper wells.

Described as an “independent island” and nearly totally self-sufficient with a crew of up to 58, Mr. Charlie drilled hundreds of Gulf of Mexico wells for next 32 years before retiring in 1986.

“By the mid-1980s, offshore drilling activity had moved beyond 40 foot depths, rendering Mr. Charlie ineffective for larger projects.” ASME explains. “An effort to preserve Mr. Charlie was led by Morgan City oilmen and former workers on the Mr. Charlie. It now serves as an educational museum and training facility.”

Mr. Charlie lives on as the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.