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Portable Cable Tool Drilling Machines
Opening Remarks
Corbett Portable Drilling Rig
Parkersburg Rig
Keystone Driller
Star Drilling Machine
Cyclone Drill
Columbia Driller
Wolfe Rig
Fort Worth Spudder
The Ohio Cleaner
Bolles Rig
Yo-Yo Rig
Combination Rig
Miscellaneous Rigs
Concluding Remarks


Opening Remarks

An abandoned drilling machine is a choice find in the older oilfields.  The author has stumbled across several of them in the deep forest and some were even spotted in open fields while driving country roads.  These are the portable cable tool rigs that came on the scene in the late 1880's and 90's, became plentiful in the first half of the 20th century, and persist unto today.

Deserted drilling rigs, usually of the spudder type, provide a classroom for study even though they are in various stages of degradation.  For different reasons, some were suddenly abandoned in mid-duty at the very site where they were drilling or working over a well.  It is not uncommon to find a rig with the wire cable partly spooled and one end still fastened to tools in the hole.  They were victims of an economic bust where the operator ran out of money and the next tower didn't come to work.

Among the old portable makes that the author has found in the early oilfields are the Wolfe, Star, Cyclone, Bolles, Bucyrus-Erie, Keystone drill, Yo Yo rig, Chicago Pneumatic, Ohio Cleaner, and, of course, home made varieties.  Other makes that were common are the National, Leidecker, and the Columbia Driller (Oil Well Supply).  There are more, some being extremely rare or just were not used in the Appalachian fields (where I am).  Inventions and patents by Downie, father of the Keystone drill, in the 1880's and by H.S. and C.E. Glenn (Butler Co., Pa.) in the early 1890's helped the evolution of the portable cable tool rigs, as did Corbett even earlier (1880) who built a skid-mounted rig to drill 600 feet or more.  Ideas by a few, even a patent by W. Hyde, leading to practical wheel-mounted portable rigs can be traced to the 1860's.

Most self-propelled portable rigs with wheels employed steam as the propelling force and for the drilling, at first.  Some of these rigs had the boiler and steam engine mounted directly on the apparatus.  Others had to be pulled and the prime mover (engine) or at least the boiler were hauled separately to the location.  Horses or tractors, depending on the year and circumstances, were the hauling agents.  Once set up at the site, these relatively small machines would drill the shallow oil wells to depths of 500 to 2500 feet (or even more) and run over 1800 feet of 17-20 lb. casing depending upon the capacity of the model.  Depths of 1000 feet, usually less, handled most oil wells in the early oil belt of Oil Creek and its flanks.  Some of the portable rigs drilled water wells as well as oil wells and were advertised for drilling "artesian" wells, a term which meant simply a "deep" well.

The mast is a necessary and very obvious element of a portable cable tool drilling machine and has remained so throughout the tenure of these machines, even their present-day counterparts.  The mast took the place of the standard derrick which was built by carpenters at the earlier well sites.  Raising the mast is one of the first jobs performed in setting up the rig.  Early portable masts ranged from a gin pole (single pole with spikes for climbing) to the A-frame type which was a ladder narrowing upward.  During transport the mast with its ever-present pulley would fold down over the rest of the rig.

Local inventions, "borrowed" parts, brainstorms that fitted one purpose but not another took place on the lease.  All manner of modifications both subtle and pronounced have altered the appearance of some of these fossil drilling machines and spudders.  A lot of them were eventually run by truck or car engines set up at a distance.  Some were operated by engines using natural gas, deisel, even oil.  These changes, many of which occurred at the well site, reappointed machines that were once operated by steam.  Electric motors even crept into the scene.  Newer models which incorporated the best of the improved technology are becoming old now and the manufacturing plants for some of them have shut down.

Oil Well Supply Co. advertised a gasoline-fueled drilling machine in their 1913 catalog (none were in the 1904 edition).  National Supply Co. was still giving prominence to steam-driven drilling rigs in their 1921 catalog, and gasoline or other power sources were not mentioned for mounted cable tool drilling machines.  However, National Supply in 1921 separately listed a four cylinder, four cycle Clark drilling engine (Olean, N.Y.) which could use gas, gasoline or California distillate.  The ad stated that it was "an ideal power unit not only for drilling but for pulling tools and bailing as well".  Apparently this engine could serve a standard rig, but it is questionable if it could be accommodated on board the portable cable tool rigs pictured by National at that time.  Perhaps it was used in an off-rig position. 

The author has parts of 1928 and 1935 Star bulletins showing gasoline engines mounted on the drilling machines.  At least two models have crawler tracks and the power source is a built-in McCormick-Deering tractor.  An Oil Well Supply Co. catalog of 1935 advertises Star water well drilling machines, truck-mounted and wagon-mounted with a gasoline motor.  It is assumed that gasoline-powered rigs in general began to slightly rise in number in the years just prior to the Great War and that after the war, in the 1920's, the manufacture of steam-powered rigs declined to the eventual domination of gasoline and diesel.


© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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