The World’s Commerce Has A New Highway

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This was a headline in The Galveston Daily News on August 16, 1914 and gives us our starting point in telling the story of John W. Young, the son of Captain John Young and the brother of Margaret Edythe Young. In a long life he would be as involved in the maritime and political life of Galveston as his father and his grandfather, Maurice Coffey. He missed out on being a Yankee Doodle Dandy by three days having been born on July 1, 1882 but by the time this chapter opens he was a Captain of Company 6 of the Texas Coastal Artillery following in the tradition of his maternal great-grandfather who had served under Magruder defending the Island from federal invasion during the War for Southern Independence. By way of background the reader needs an appreciation of Texas, Galveston and the trans Pacific trade prior to the opening of the canal.

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One of the abiding myths of history is that prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 the only commercial route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was by way of the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa or via Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Ever since Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513 becoming the first European to reach the Pacific from the New World a wide variety of travellers and merchants had followed the same – or similar – routes. Before the building of the Transcontinental Railway the California Gold Rush was populated by fortune hunters – the heartiest could cross the isthmus on the old Las Cruces Trail in a little less than a week – with river boats and steamers operating out of Chages starting in 1853 reducing the trip to about half a day and finally, with the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 the trip could be made in three hours.

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Competing with the Panamanian route was the The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. It is the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, and prior to the opening of the Panama Canal was a major shipping route known  as the Tehuantepec Route. James B. Eads proposed to construct a quadruple track ship-railway and the plan challenged early plans for the Panama Canal. The railway, when completed in 1909 was 191 miles long serving ports with a minimum depth at low water 33 feet and an extensive system of docks and railway tracks at both terminals to afford facilities for heavy cargos. Tehuantepec was a common destination for cargos to and from Galveston throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries but even though it was closer to the United States the failure to build the ship railroad and the economies of scale realized with the Panama Canal made it the game changer in international trade.

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The other thing that the reader needs to be aware of is that the United States Army operated in a very different way prior to the First World War. There were functions – the Army Corps of Engineers would be a good example for Galveston – that answered to a central command ultimately emanating from the Department of War in Washington, D. C., however most of the functions were state units that were effectively under the control of the governors and the president could only raise large bodies of troops by having the governors call out militias under their command and having the troops federalized and placed under Department of War command. Effectively many of the regimental officers, who had been elected by the men who served under them, retained the daily direction of their units and the transition was largely transparent.

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Interestingly our story takes place before the Texas troops were federalized – which would happen in 1916 to fight under Pershing in Mexico and again in 1917 to fight in Europe – and Captain John W. Young was dispatched by Governor William P. Hobby to gain an appreciation of the Canal and of potential eastern trading partners and the impact they would have on Texas trade. Young and Hobby were both friends and political allies with members of the Young family supporting Hobby in Galveston especially among the longshoremen and labor unions and Hobby would also appoint the senior John Young as Commissioner of Pilots for the Galveston bar. The photographs that illustrate these entries are taken from an album kept by John W. Young on a final voyage before the world, and him with it, would enter the century of war.

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An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – And so, farewell to Venezuela

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

When I was a boy and you went to the movies there were trailers for upcoming films, short subjects and cartoons that preceded the feature film and getting there in time to see all of them was part of getting your money’s worth – even if it was much less than a dollar for admission in those days. A common short feature was a travelogue for some far away place with a strange-sounding name and the narrator often signed off with, And so, farewell to…, before the raucous cacophony of a cartoon that promised more violence than any feature film dared. I can not begin to tell you how many such adventures I shared with Bill Leach when I was a boy and in tribute to those happy days I will close out this true life adventure of his using those words as the preamble.

Bill served several years in Venezuela but the diary that I found among his papers covered mainly 1937 – although the accompanying photographs cover 1938 as well. In 1937 he was a graduate engineer with a work history and more than a few other adventures behind him but he was still foot loose and fancy free not yet having met Laureene with whom he would spend the next fifty plus years. It may have been her influence that kept the manuscript closed up in a drawer for the best part of sixty years and even though I knew bits and pieces of the story I left it there for another fifteen until the confluence of the blogosphere and the desire to tell a story to my children and grandchildren caused me to transcribe it and scan the pictures in and publish for friends and family.

Most of what I have published dealt with his association with Standard Oil in the early days of developing the eastern Venezuelan oil fields. There are tales of the oil patch in the jungle and of the camradie of the cabin and the canteen as well as adventures on the high seas and in the low dives of Caracas and Ciudad Bolivar. What is absent in the narrative but was ever-present in the stories he used to share with me are the tales of the native peoples – the indigenous Indians – who still constitute such a large part of the Venezuelan population. The stories I heard were not of head hunters and poison arrows – although they hung someplace over the horizon in an impenetrable jungle – but rather of kind and generous people living off the land and the river who had no particular need of oil wells but were grateful to have outboard motors for their currials, would gladly use a Ford truck to haul a heavy load and loved the freedom from the night that a generator could provide.

This final entry in this series is largely a photo essay containing pictures taken by Bill that relate part of his story and part of theirs.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Rio Tenoro - one of the many highways for the native peoples

Rio Tenoro – one of the many highways for the native peoples

Looking toward Caroni Falls - Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot - in a currial on the Caroni River

Looking toward Caroni Falls – Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot – in a currial on the Caroni River

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Making Cassava Bread

Making Cassava Bread

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp - on road to water pump station.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp – on road to water pump station.

Village street in Caripito

Village street in Caripito

Native hut.

Native hut.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

The end!

The end!

An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

PROLOGUE: Bill Leach’s first trip to Venezuela was made on a tanker as was his trip home for his vacation but his return to Venezuela was made by a passenger liner of a mail service company which meant it was a relatively new and relatively fast ship. Although many take cruises today the liner experience, like travelling by train, is largely a thing of the past. The accommodations were comfortable, the food was good and the amenities were pleasant. There was not a cruise director nagging at your every waking moment and the ships were by and large filled with people who were actually going someplace and not part of the Geritol for lunch bunch set floating around waiting on God. These were working ships and had the dignity of purpose that goes with the title.

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To comply with its mail contracts, Grace had agreed to build four new ships. These the SANTA ROSA class were ordered from Federal Shipbuilding Co. Kearney, New Jersey and delivered in 1932-1933. They were designed by William Francis Gibbs, who had also drawn plans of Matson’s MALOLO and later to draw those of the AMERICA and the record-breaker UNITED STATES.

These ships had some general resemblance to MALOLO, with her great beam and low stern. their original gross tonnage of 11,200 was later reduced to 9,100 by the cutting of tonnage openings in # 6 shelter deck. Subsequently their tonnage was again changed, all of which reduced tonnage dues and Panama Canal tolls. Their overall length was 508 ft. and beam 72 ft.

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Their power plants were at the time second to none in efficiency. Each of the water tube steam generators with a pressure of 430 lbs. produced 6000 hp. and each ship could make 18-1/2 knots with only three boilers active. The main engines were double reduction turbines. The screws turned inward, and for this reason were very awkward to maneuver. The passenger capacity of the SANTA ROSA class was 209 in first class and about 50 in steerage. Their public rooms were all on the promenade deck, with the dining salon extending two and a half decks in height to a roll back dome. The after dining room bulkhead was adorned with a large oil painting of a Grace clipper. Each cabin, whether single or double was equipped with private bath.

With the new quartet the Grace Line established the first passenger service between New York and Seattle. Calls were made at Havana, Puerto Colombia, Cartagena, Canal Zone, Punta Arenas, La Libertad, San Jose, Mazatlan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Victoria. The first ship the SANTA ROSA sailed November 26, 1932; the last, SANTA ELENA, April 4, 1933. New York Seattle running time was 20 days, including one day in Los Angeles and two in San Francisco. Average speed 18-1/2 knots. Before the New York sailing, each ship called at Philadelphia for cargo only.

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In 1934 the port time in New York was greatly reduced and the call at Philadelphia eliminated. The time saved enabled the ships to make a shuttle run between Seattle and San Francisco. The 20 knot service and the ship’s superior accommodations to anything the Pacific Coast shipping had to offer made this an exceedingly popular run.

It was not long before other companies complained that, since Grace ships were subsidized for foreign trade they should not compete in the coastwise business. By the end of 1934 Seattle ceased to be a port of call and the voyage ended in San Francisco. Since three ships could now maintain the service, the SANTA LUCIA was reassigned to the South American run. Late in 1936 Grace acquired the Red D Line and its Caribbean Service, and early in 1937 SANTA ROSA, SANTA PAULA and SANTA ELENA entered that service: New York to Venezuela, Curacao, Colombia, Cristobal and Haiti.

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Vacation time over good old U.S. up to May 5th at which time I was ready to sail again for Venezuela.
May 5th took the Grace liner “Santa Rosa” with a rather good-sized bunch of refinery workers also destined to go to Caripito. Pete Willis was my roommate on this trip.

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Had a relatively good time on the cruise.   Of course I would meet as usual my brown-eyed “Susan”.  Anyway, her name was Anne Watsik and I expect to hear a good deal from her. Also met a Helen Korday who turned out to be a real fine girl – she was on the cruise boat taking a rest cure. Many other passengers were fine, especially the U. S. Naval group that was headed for Cartagena and Barranquilla, Colombia.

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Stopped at the Dutch Island of Curacao and had a fairly good time but what a place.  Many negroes, Englishmen, Arabians, Spaniards, etc. cluttered up the island.  The houses were again the typical loud-colored painted type as at Aarangastaad, Aruba.

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Arrived in La Guaira on the 10th of May and went through the customs.  In the afternoon we left our luggage at the Hotel Miramar, Macuto and then proceeded to enjoy myself by an excursion trip to Caracas. Sure had an unhealthy ride with the taxi driver for he took no regard for caution or the dangerous and curvy hilly climb.
Left La Guaira on the Caripiteno on the 11 th and headed for Guanta, which I reached on the 12 th.  Remained there overnight.  Left Guanta on the 13 th and headed for Caripito, where we arrived at noon on Sunday the 14  th.

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An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – The Long Voyage Home

PROLOGUE: One of the advantages – maybe the only one – of being an expatriate is that after a long absence from home, anyplace from 6 to 18 months generally, you get sent back on a long vacation, 30 to 90 days. Since you are removed from the job site and far enough away to be out of communication it is generally a genuine vacation. After his first tour in Venezuela Bill Leach found himself bound back for the Port of New York for his first leave.

In a few short years things would happen to the ship he travelled on, to ship’s he saw and to places he saw. But this was before the Hindenburg blew up at Lakehurst and during the heyday of American dirigibles, it was before u-Boats would prowl the Gulf of Mexico and U. S. East Coast almost at will and it was before a war that would change everything. His account includes sailing through heavy weather and the way north and the sensitive with literary pretensions will probably want to make much of this as a harbinger of things to come from the storm clouds festering over Europe at the time. If he had any ideas that a war would demand his attention in three short years there is no indication of it here – the storm is simply a storm. In hindsight we have noted some of the things that happened subsequent to his travels out of a sense of poignancy and because we think they help complete the story.

PAUL H. HARWOOD a US single screw steam tanker capable of making 10 knots of 7,193 gross registered tons  was 435 feet long x 56 feet abeam. Purchased by Standard Oil Co. in 1935 she was in service until 1949.

PAUL H. HARWOOD a US single screw steam tanker capable of making 10 knots of
7,193 gross registered tons was 435 feet long x 56 feet abeam. Purchased by
Standard Oil Co. in 1935 she was in service until 1949.

Time is really flying by and vacation time is just around the corner.
Left Mata Negra Camp on March first, rode to the Boca de Aracoa where I was to get on board the Caripiteno and thence to Caripito.  Arrived in Caripito on the 2nd , and made arrangements to get for home.  Sailed 12:30 p.m. from the Caripito Terminal, arrived at Guiria at about 5:30 p.m. and had to wait for the high tide due to the low sand bar at the entrance to the Gulf of Paria.  Sometime during the night we arrived at Guiria.  When morning finally arrived our tanker Paul H. Harwood was being filled with oil.  Left Guiria 12 a.m. and sailed for the island of Aruba where we were to discharge our oil cargo.

Between 10.16 and 10.17 hours on 7 Jul, 1942, U-67 fired four torpedoes at three ships about 40 miles southwest of Southwest Pass, reported one hit and assumed that one tanker sank at 10.45 hours. The Paul H. Harwood (Master George Rasmussen) was hit by one torpedo while steaming at 12 knots in a small convoy of four ships being escorted by one destroyer. The torpedo struck on the port side abaft amidships at the #6 tank and blew a hole 15 feet by 12 feet into the hull, causing the flooding of tanks #5, #6 and #7. The tanker was stabilized by counterflooding the forward tanks and continued on her course at 10 knots into Southwest Pass to Burwood, Louisiana. She anchored at Pilottown and then proceeded to New Orleans. None of the eight officers, 32 crewmen and 16 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4in, one 3in and four 20mm guns) reported an injury. The tanker arrived for permanent repairs at Galveston, Texas on 16 July and returned to service on 28 September.

Between 10.16 and 10.17 hours on 7 Jul, 1942, U-67 fired four torpedoes at three ships about 40 miles southwest of Southwest Pass, reported one hit and assumed that one tanker sank at 10.45 hours. The Paul H. Harwood (Master George Rasmussen) was hit by one torpedo while steaming at 12 knots in a small convoy of four ships being escorted by one destroyer. The torpedo struck on the port side abaft amidships at the #6 tank and blew a hole 15 feet by 12 feet into the hull, causing the flooding of tanks #5, #6 and #7. The tanker was stabilized by counterflooding the forward tanks and continued on her course at 10 knots into Southwest Pass to Burwood, Louisiana. She anchored at Pilottown and then proceeded to New Orleans. None of the eight officers, 32 crewmen and 16 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4in, one 3in and four 20mm guns) reported an injury. The tanker arrived for permanent repairs at Galveston, Texas on 16 July and returned to service on 28 September.

Going out of Guiria and through Boca de Sierpo the water was choppy and rough.  Finally arrived in Aruba on the 6th and it was rather smoky due to the refineries working at full capacity.  The view of the houses from the harbor was just a flash of brightly colored houses – they certainly do go for loud colors.  The boat was being unloaded on the 6th and 7th and in the meantime, Lenert, LeBlanc, Hewes, McClendon, Willis and I went out to do our shopping.  Bought quite a few interesting articles for folks at home.  Imagine that all will be appreciated. Left Aruba at about 6 p.m. on the 8th and headed directly for the Windward Passage.  Stood by the rail to enjoy the night view of Aruba. The refinery plant lights vent flares and smoke make the night scene of the island rather an interesting one.

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On the 9th we were well in the Caribbean Ocean and I was out at the bow looking into sea as we rode safely, rode above the deep-seated coral beds.  It was around the vicinity of the Island of Haiti (8 a.m) that I saw three octopi, numerous orchid-colored jelly-fish, flying fish, squids, and a giant sea eel. Saw the Island of Cuba about 5 p.m. but it was about twilight and nothing could be seen.  Saw the lights of a number of tankers, freighters and a cruiser. On the 10th at 5 a.m. we were off to the west of Crooked Island.  Saw the usual amount of jelly-fish and flying fish. At 3 p.m. we were off the west coast of the Island of San Salvador, and about 10 p.m. we were about due east of the southern tip of Florida.

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The Italia Società di Navigazione a Vapore was founded in Genoa in 1899 to operate services between Italy and South America. Although registered in Italy, the company was controlled by Hamburg America Line. In 1906 Hamburg America sold their share of the company to Navigazione Generale Italiana and sailings to New York and Philadelphia started in 1908. In 1917 Italia was absorbed into the new company Transoceanica Società Italiana di Navigazione.

March ll th. The sea was rough all day.  We had a heavy wind-blown sea. The waves washed over the lower decks; the wind whistled and lightning snapped quite often.  We did not however get the heavy part of the storm.  At times the waves splashed well over the bow of the tanker. The ship rolled as much as 16 degrees.  Some of the passengers did not feel so good and remained in their rooms.  Periodically the ship’s whistle blasted its warning since visibility was not very good.  The sea was heavy all night. Between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. the sea was at its worst.

Built by Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico, Monfalcone in 1931 for Lloyd Sabaudo, she was a 48,502 gross ton ship, overall length 814.6ft x beam 96.1ft, two funnels, two masts, four screws and a speed of 27 knots. There was accommodation for 360-1st, 375-special, 400-tourist and 922-3rd class passengers. Launched on 28/10/1931, she was transferred to Italia Line (which was an amalgamation of three former independent lines) in January 1932. She was one of the first ships to be fitted with gyro-stabilizers which, it was claimed, maximized her rolling to three degrees. She was sunk in shallow water at Venice by British bombers on 11/9/1943

Built by Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico, Monfalcone in 1931 for Lloyd Sabaudo, she was a 48,502 gross ton ship, overall length 814.6ft x beam 96.1ft, two funnels, two masts, four screws and a speed of 27 knots. There was accommodation for 360-1st, 375-special, 400-tourist and 922-3rd class passengers. Launched on 28/10/1931, she was transferred to Italia Line (which was an amalgamation of three former independent lines) in January 1932. She was one of the first ships to be fitted with gyro-stabilizers which, it was claimed, maximized her rolling to three degrees. She was sunk in shallow water at Venice by British bombers on 11/9/1943

March 12th: The sea was heavy all day, and a cold wind blew from the northwest.  Remained in our cabins all day as the ship rolled as high as 17 1/2 degrees; our ship had to slow down to 3 1/2 knots per hour and we were pitching badly.  About 4 p.m. the CONTE DI SAVOIA liner passed us on the east side and it was literally plowing thru the heavy seas.
March 13th and 14th the sea had quieted down somewhat but the air was rather chilly.

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March 15th: Sighted the Jersey coast, saw the air maneuvers of an Army blimp from Lakehurst.  Gradually pulled into the New York Harbor and thence to Bayonne, N. J. where we remained overnight.

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March 16th: Went thru the customs inspections.  Met Mary and Dell at the pier.  Then went to Hotel Taft where reservations were made for me. Straightened up business, bought a new  Plymouth 2-door De Luxe sedan and headed for Amsterdam.

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An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – Finding Gold in Small Veins

PROLOGUE: When you are working with original source material the veins of gold may be hard to see from time to time. This week’s entry is about the relatively pedestrian pursuits of an American worker in a foreign land on a brief leave from the oil fields. Judging from the last entry he may have had all of the excitement he could enjoy and may have needed a few days off. Our only illustration this week is a picture of a piece quartz with a little gold running through it which reinforces our original point. Bill sent the sample to the School of Mines just as he left his diary for me. I think I came out ahead and hope you enjoy my sharing his story with you.

The are various types of tales of travel. There is the travel of the immigrant who reaches a destination and builds a new life there. The stories of Maurice Coffey and John Young in post Civil War America that are related here may exemplify this type of journey. There are commercial expeditions that have an element of adventure to them as the traveller finds himself in unfamiliar and uncertain territory. The trip to China by Johnny Young in the early days of the twentieth century yet to be related here – is a tale of this sort. There is travel that was meant to complete a liberal education – more tour than adventure although in a time where travel was not accomplished by suspended animation, as it is today – there was certainly something of substance in the coming and going. The Grand Tour of Margaret Edythe Young that is the connecting thread of this blog gives us a glimpse of this.

Finally, we have the story of Bill Leach who travels to Venezuela and all of the strangeness of a foreign culture still half-submerged in a jungle but who did so for the purpose of work. He comes into contact with the native people, with the Hispanic elements that had superimposed themselves on the people and the environment for some four hundred years, with the environment itself that is still untamed after those four centuries but while he is in Venezuela he is not of Venezuela. He is surrounded by his fellow expatriates and the Standard Oil Villages that he lives in are as American – if probably a little tidier – than the towns he has lived in back home.

While there are stories of rebellion, oil well blowouts and men driven to self-destruction by the terror of having been very nearly crushed by a boa constrictor there are also stories of the gang going on holiday to the cities and doing the same things they would have done in Schenectady or Socorro. We sincerely doubt that a life where each page turned reveals some new hazard or accomplishment exists outside of fiction or political biography and while this entry proves our point it is none the less worthwhile  as a picture of the pedestrian events that make up the course of everyday life. Enjoy the rest, take comfort in the fact that your grandfather and great-grandfather was not Frank Buck and that you have no obligation – and should feel no compulsion – to be like him either.

The specimen is identified as coming from the Tumeremo Mine, Bolivar area, Venezuela. The specimen measures: 3.5 x 3 x 1.5 cm. Many thanks to Virgil W. Lueth, Ph.D., New Mexico Tech for the picture

The specimen is identified as coming from the Tumeremo Mine, Bolivar area, Venezuela. The specimen measures: 3.5 x 3 x 1.5 cm. Many thanks to Virgil W. Lueth, Ph.D., New Mexico Tech for the picture

Here it is the 2nd of July and nothing has happened to comment on. Today Harry Himlic, myself and a number of the follows are going to spend the holidays in Caripito.  We are planning to take the Caripiteno from the Boca then stop at Pedernales where we expect to pick some more who are planning to spend the holidays at Caripito. Left the camp at 9 o’clock by auto and then proceeded to the Port of Tabasca where we will take a company launch and proceed to the Boca.
Here we will get aboard the Caripiteno and will head for Pedernales via the Rio Manamo.  Left the Boca at 2 p.m. and got a rather early start.  Rode all day and arrived in Pedernales about 10 p.m. where everyone proceeded to have a good time.  Finally left Pedernales about midnight and arrived at the wharf at Caripito about 8:30 a.m. tired but still looking forward to a good time.
To make a long story short had a pretty good time in Caripito in the way of a dance, show, and a friendly meeting.  Started back for the camp on the 5th, went back to Pedernales and thence back to Temblador.  Had a good trip but must admit that I came back one tired hombre.  Who wouldn’t with such little rest as I had.  Sleeping accommodations were very limited and I had to sleep on a bench. Am now rested and will plan on looking forward to a return trip around the Xmas holidays – and then home,

Rains are coming down oftener and heavier.  The water at the Port of Tabasca is getting higher and higher each day, in fact practically all of our material is under water at that place.  We cannot get, by auto, within 5 miles of where we ordinarily go – and water is still coming up. The Orinoco River is coming up more and more each day and at present is about 37 to 40 feet above the level when I was there in June; it is still rising and can be expected to flood out Ciudad Bolivar.

August 16 and 17, at night, delivered us plenty of rain and everything is a mess in all directions.  Some parts of the road are under water; the savannahs are water-logged, and one is only safe from being stuck only by sticking to the established roads. Tonight the 17th lightning hit a power line and cut off all of the electricity at the new camp.

An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – BLOWOUT!

Bill Leach near the New Mexico well blowout May 10, 1936

Bill Leach near the New Mexico well blowout May 10, 1936

Steve Leach graduated from the New Mexico School of Mines in 1935 as a geologist and promptly went to work in a mine. Within his first year in the mine the shaft started to flood and the miners had to evacuate via ladders – many of them with rotten rungs – through the escape tunnels. Steve Leach promptly parlayed his geology degree into a job at Humble Oil and never went back into another mine. When Bill Leach graduated from the School of Mines his degree was in mining engineering but other than a brief stint of prospecting along the Durango-Silverton rail line – probably just some friends having a post graduation lark that ended with the onset of the first snow – he spent almost his entire career in the petroleum industry.

Gulf Oil New Mexico Blowout, Eunice, New Mexico

Gulf Oil New Mexico Blowout, Eunice, New Mexico

There are those who are politically Green and actually, still in their salad days, very green of judgement who insist on referring to mining and petroleum exploration and production in a derisive manner as extraction industries. I suppose the phrase is supposed to bring the same twinge to the reader that a visit to the dentist to have a tooth pulled would and although listening to those who are Green – especially the green ones – is about as comfortable as a dental extraction the dentist, like the plumber, is a necessary evil. As for mining and drilling for coal or for oil those things are so necessary to the continuation of our civilization that the restrictions that the green Greens propose are tantamount to genocide in their net effect.

Three inch diameter drill pipe woven through the remains of the derrick by the force of the blowout.

Three inch diameter drill pipe woven through the remains of the derrick by the force of the blowout.

As both Steve and Bill Leach found out in long careers any job that requires real work has more than its fair share of physical danger involved for the workers. For the oil exploration and production business the biggest dangers came from blowouts. Coal and oil are both fuels and are volatile – oil more so than coal.  Mining has its share of disasters caused by gas explosions inside of mines that are relatively shallow compared to oil drilling. Drilling consists of going down thousands of feet through multiple formations any of which may contain gas or oil under greater pressure than the drilling equipment can suppress. When that happens you get a blowout with the ever-present danger of ignition of the released oil or gas which can do anything from burn out the immediate well to a whole production field.

The drillers hit a gas pocket at 2,410 feet and everything blew upward. Kelly, the driller pictured, was on the derrick floor and was lifted 50' above the top of what was a 122' derrick and survived - although deafened.

The drillers hit a gas pocket at 2,410 feet and everything blew upward. Kelly, the driller pictured, was on the derrick floor and was lifted 50′ above the top of what was a 122′ derrick and survived – although deafened.

Bill Leach had seen the results of a blowout while still in New Mexico and in this week’s entry  he will recount has first hand experience in Venezuela. Since the improvements in drilling technique and the introduction of blowout preventers in 1924 – and their constant improvement since – blowouts have become more and more the fault of operator error. Like traffic accidents they continue to decline but also like traffic accidents – which don’t stop the rest of us from driving – they do not stop the necessary business of fueling a world that would very quickly grind to a bankrupt halt if it were run on Green energy.

Blowout at Temblador number 12

Blowout at Temblador number 12

April 19th.  Had a rather exciting day and also a close shave at that. Went to Hato No.6 where they were running casing and had parked the car close to the casing rack and then went on the derrick floor just to see what was going on; remained there for a few minutes and then decided to go over to Hato Gathering Station No. 5 where I had originally planned to go to check upon material that was used in the construction of the station.

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Blowout at Temblador number 31

Well, it is only a stone’s throw south of the well and takes only about a minute to get there.  I had just parked the car and had done about 50 feet and started checking up on the material and had written down only four items and was looking up to see what was to be the next item and as my line of vision was in the direction of the well that I had just left, my eye caught a movement in the derrick; in a split second I heard a sort of a rolling noise, and before one could even think the derrick and all of the drill pipe in the derrick started coming down.  It was funny to see about twenty men running off the derrick floor in the direction of the boilers. Luckily no one was hurt; they were more scared than hurt.  When that derrick came down it came down with a bang. Before long the whole camp was there.

Maturin number 1 well after blowout and fire. Glare of fire visible over 60 miles away. Well cratered about 225' across and 30 feet deep.

Maturin number 1 well after blowout and fire. Glare of fire visible over 60 miles away. Well cratered about 225′ across and 30 feet deep.

I went over to see the damage and you could imagine my feelings when I saw where that derrick fell.  It fell just where I had the car parked. It scraped the back end of a Ford truck that was also parked there. It was a good think that I did not sit in the car where I had it parked.  Such things happen so quickly that one does not have time to collect his senses and react fast enough to get out of the way.

Quiriquire number 128. Remains of derrick aftet well blowout.

Quiriquire number 128. Remains of derrick after well blowout.

In falling almost everything was practically pushed into the ground. The Crown Block dug itself about two feet into the ground and would have gone deeper if the pipe rack had not acted as sort of a cushion. All of the 3000 feet of drill pipe was ruined as was the derrick and the remainder of the equipment.  For me the excitement was a little too close for comfort and after this when I make up my mind to go anywhere I’ll always do so without any hesitation at all.

… me if I had lingered in my car even for a few minutes.  The crown block dug a hole almost 3 feet into the ground. This excitement was a little too close for comfort so I just remained in camp the rest of the day. Had a rather busy and exciting day on August 2.  Got up at 1:30 a.m. to go to H.G. Sta 5 where we had a fire. An oil and gas separator diaphragm stem was broken in a secondary valve and by-passed all the oil but to the vent line where oil was burning and spraying in all directions. Keep pretty busy closing in all wells flowing into the station until early morning. After the fire was out we started flowing the wells again but had to blow all the oil out of the vent line.  The station with all its equipment certainly was a mess.  Continued working 22 hours this day and was glad when I finally went to bed.

An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – Celebrating at the Backside of Beyond

PROLOGUE: In my travels chasing after the big iron boats I have celebrated Christmas at a Waffle House in the Carolinas, on board an Italian tanker lightering crude oil off Sabine Pass and with an old classmate, his bride, their infant and a Chilean naval officer at a Chinese restaurant in Baltimore. Birthdays have been spent at a Hooters in Savannah, on an asphalt tanker in the Great Lakes and on chemical tankers in Texas City. I mention only the occasions that come readily to mind – there have been dozens of others including family occasions of every description. It was something I learned from my father that came with the territory – the old joke about HESS OIL used to be that the name was an acronym for holidays, evenings, Saturdays and Sundays – and although you counted it a victory when you were home for anything the other events you wrote off as part of making a living.

upriomanamo

Not every missed occasion was a time for gloom and doom and quite often the people you are with – who may well be far from home also – join in making the time good fun for all. I get this impression from Bill Leach’s account of what must have been his 31st birthday. There may not have been cake and party hats, there probably weren’t any presents – these things are of dwindling importance as the years go by – but there was comradeship and well-wishing from friends happy to mark the day. Enjoy his birthday – I am sure he did!

highwater

April 3rd and here it is my birthday again.  Mr. and Mrs. Gray, Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton, Don Bancroft, George Johnson, C. Mireau, and myself rode to the Port of Tabasca from where we took the motor launch and rode down the Rio Uracoa and thence toward the Rio Manamo.  Most of the ride found us under a consistent light shower and after riding downstream for a number of miles we decided to return. After finding a decent place to stop the launch we partook in some of the groceries that we brought along with us. motorcurrialHad a great time feeding the scraps of our meal to the fish that abound by the thousands.   Some of them may have been the “Caripi” which is the flesh-eating type but no one had a piece of his or her hand chewed at.

caribefish
After finishing the meal we proceeded up the rio and then branched off into one of the canos and with our trusty guns started to take pot shots at the alligators and birds that came in our path.  By this time the skies had cleared considerably and the rest of the day was fine.  I acquired a mighty fine sunburn since I did not wear any hat. The banks of the canos were covered with sunning alligators, and the trees and the savannahs were decked with monkeys and birds respectively.

currialles
Peon huts were spread here and there along the shores of the canos and the naked kids were romping around and not paying much attention to the fool Americanos who were riding in the boat. The guns we brought along were constantly used at the alligators and it was fun to see them waddle into the waters after a shot had struck home or close to home.

twixtamador
On the long grassy savannahs were thousands upon thousands of galzas, flamingoes, guacharacas, and a variety of kingfishers, countless of other birds, horses, cattle, goats and hogs.  It reminded me of the usual scene around Times Square when some important event comes along.

rivermarket
After riding some distance upstream we returned to the wharf at the loading platform and proceeded to have our native coffee.  We were then invited to visit the Frank Seamans a Norwegian Tanker which had come for a load of oil for Aruba.  Had a bottle of Amsterdam beer which tasted mighty fine after the long boat ride. After visiting a short while we decided to return to Temblador for we had a long ride before us.

tankersurinam
The week of April 13 through 19 was what one in this country would call a “PAN GRANDE” or a “JUAN BIMBA”, in other words it was a snap as far as work is concerned. We had holidays on the 14, 15, and the 19th. Did plenty of riding around just to get away from the camp; rode over the vast savannahs down to the old port, to the new camp, and in the general direction of EL SALTO.  Some of the fellows went southward to the Orinoco, across the river to San Felice and thence to the Caroni Falls.  I did not plan on taking the trip until I received my camera and there is no telling just when it will arrive.

uracaostreet