A group of us were reminiscing in a very informal way about the exploratory gas and oil well at Commotion Creek, B.C. in the year 1941. It got wide publicity at the Coast as “Pattullo’s Folly”, because of the “waste of money sinking a hole in the ground in the far-off Peace River country”. Whether it was a “folly” or not is questionable, but it did provide some valuable information, as we shall see. It was recently called “a scandal” in the local news media. Mr. Jack Hannam was working at the project, and Mr. Homer Stevenson was employed there operating the steam boilers. The following is more or less verbatim from the taped interview.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I am not quite sure who started this enterprise. Was it the government or the local people or Imperial oil? I have had intimations that all three were concerned.
MRS. STEVENSON: I always understood that we were faced with was, and the possibility of our oil supply being cut off, and that the B.C. government decided to take a flyer in oil exploration.
JACK HANNAM: I think it was a fact that the government were interested in oil exploration, and seeing that the area had been opened up for exploration just previously, they decided to sink some money into a well. The site, I believe, was chosen by T.V. Williams, a geologist representing the government. He had done many years of surface geology in the area, and I have a notion that Mr. Stelke (a recent geology graduate) was there on behalf of Imperial Oil. They had leases in here.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I have a note about 1916 T.V. Williams was exploring. Is that correct?
JACK HANNAM: I would think that it would be in the 20’s and 30’s that he did quite a bit of work.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Who packed him into the country?
JACK HANNAM: Bob Kerr packed him around on some of his surface explorations.
MRS. CALVERLEY: They weren’t doing seismic tests?
JACK HANNAM: No, it was all surface geology. However, in seismograph study about three years ago (before 1974) the chief told me that they had come upon a very good-looking likely formation in an area east of East Pine. And, in speaking with Bob Kerr, he was told that T.V. Williams had told him that from surface indications, if oil ever was found out there, it would be in that area. So, if Williams, doing surface geology, had hit upon the same area, he must have known something about it.
MRS. CALVERLEY: You say it was because of the war that the work was started. Why wasn’t it thrown open to exploration before?
MRS. STEVENSON: I don’t know why, but I do know that the B.C. government released it not long before the spudding in — perhaps in two years. Oil leases had been taken up all over the Block.
MRS. CALVERLEY: It must have been very hard to get into the Commotion Creek area in 1937. As I recall, there was no road beyond the Pine River and there were only basket ferries across the Murray and Pine Rivers. I understand that E.J. Spinney and James and Reimer had something to do with it. Can you explain?
JACK HANNAM: They were the trucking companies. A tote road was put in by cat (caterpillar tractor) and then in the summer of 1941 when they drilling, they had cats and Le Tourneaus building that road. In the summer of ‘41 they got as far as the neighbourhood of Little Prairie (Chetwynd). Past that it was pretty well all side-hill cuts made with the cats. But I recall that when I went out to work, I left at approximately 7:30 in the evening, riding with Con Hergott, which was the fastest means at the time, and it was about two o’clock when we got to the well site.
MRS. STEVENSON: Con Hergott was the drilling superintendent. The roads were for the most part unsurfaced and like caramel pudding — lots of mud holes.
JACK HANNAM: Con Hergott hit them real fast so he didn’t get stuck.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Who put in the ferry?
JACK HANNAM: That was the government.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Was it put in for the well?
JACK HANNAM: Yes — it was a great benefit to the people of the area but I don’t imagine they would have gotten it except for the well.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I was told by Ivor Johnson that he was one of the first representatives to come in to try to get an even basket on a ferry or a road, or anything of the sort into that area. In the first year, I believe all hauling was done by horses, then, in the first year or so.
JACK HANNAM: Supplies to the well were trucked in. When the Olson boys went in early — Marvin and (?), some of his brothers — they moved their mill across. They took their wagon apart and took it piece by piece across in the basket. Whether they took their mill in that way or not, I don’t know.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I imagine the mill had to go across on the ice because it was hard enough with two pulling and a third person in the basket.
JACK HANNAM: They took gas in and then they sawed the lumber that built the camp, covered in the rig and what not.
MRS. STEVENSON: We have one picture here of the draw-works (for pulling up pipes, etc.) going over on an ice bridge. It obviously went over before the ice was out, and it was trucked to the site by James and Reimer, I believe. There was one ferryman, Jake Smith — and who was the other one?
JACK HANNAM: Billy Burroughs (sp. Burrows).
MRS. STEVENSON: They were both colourful characters! (Laughter)
MRS. CALVERLEY: It sounds as if there is a story there. In what ways were they colourful?
JACK HANNAM: Well, they both liked a nip once in a while, so when you came on the ferry you had to rescue them from falling overboard — which was all a part of well-drilling in those days! So you got in by a road that was more or less built by those who were hauling the materials. The government Dept. of Highways worked on that road, and I can recall that one or two of the Goodrich boys from Pouce Coupe were building roads down to Little Prairie.
MRS. STEVENSON: If I remember correctly they had three boilers. The first boilers were wood-fired and this necessitated a large wood crew. A great many men were employed in that capacity, were they not?
JACK HANNAM: There was a large wood cutting crew. Gerald Gilles had the contract — I don’t know who else had contracts — but there was Jim Holly and I, Fred Levy and Johnny Wilson. There was quite a crew from Moberly Lake. I can remember Fred Letendre, he was a good worker and numerous others.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Did you have a stockpile or did you just cut as needed?
JACK HANNAM: Just cut. If we could cut a little ahead of them the wood would dry out a little. That was a problem — the wood was so green that they had to put blowers on. Then it burned very rapidly.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Where were you cutting? Did you clear that flat at Chetwynd?
JACK HANNAM: No — any decent-sized poplar within a radius of three miles.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Why was it called the “Commotion Creek” rig? It was down at the mouth, was it?
JACK HANNAM: No, Commotion Creek was the last creek you crossed. It was actually a couple of miles past. We cut down on the flat at Commotion, but that was a couple of miles away. Fred Levy was down on the flat, but I was up top. There was always a lot of kidding going on, so when I heard someone shouting, I didn’t pay much attention. But when I heard loud shouting, I knew something was wrong so I scrambled down. They were cutting a real big poplar and splitting it with a sledgehammer and a steel wedge. A piece about the size of a thumbnail had come off the wedge and had flown into Johnny’s groin and cut an artery. Fred got a little excited and lost his thinking capacity. Johnny was standing, blood was running down and his boot was full. I grabbed him and sat him down and stopped the bleeding.
MRS. CALVERLEY: You couldn’t put a tourniquet on there!
JACK HANNAM: No, I just pressed in with my two thumbs and stopped it, and then Fred settled down, and we lay Johnny down. Fred kept holding it while I took off for the rig. Nobody had a stopwatch on me but I made pretty good time. We came back as fast as we could. T.V. Williams came back. He was a First Aid man. He had a kit and did what he could. Then Fred and I packed Johnny out to the rig and one of the crew took him to hospital by truck. He had lost so much blood — they weren’t giving transfusions at that time — he was in hospital about six weeks.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Did you have any such incidents?
JACK HANNAM: No, it wasn’t such dangerous work, but one I was involved in stuck in my memory.
MRS. STEVENSON: That was an all-steel rig, wasn’t it? And do you remember any of the drillers? I can remember two, but the third one escapes me. There was Shorty Hawkins and Scotty Tosh.
JACK HANNAM: The head driller was Bob McAllister — and Con Hergott. Bud Wylie was working derrick. Do you remember Tommy Mitchell? Les Nicholson — Bob Wark?
MRS. CALVERLEY: Approximately how many years did they drill there?
JACK HANNAM: As far as I know they drilled during the summer of ‘40. Then towards fall they twisted off.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Would you please explain about the “twisting off?”
JACK HANNAM: Well, the hole got crooked, and going around the corner, the pipe couldn’t make it so it twisted the pipe off — the drill pipe — so they had a section of pipe in the bottom of the hole with the bit on it. They finally got a hold of it, but they broke the drilling line. Something I don’t know if I should tell even now — but they had three boilers. Two of them were newer and larger boilers and one older boiler, and the older boiler’s safety was 90 pounds steam pressure. When they were trying to pull, they shut that boiler down and used the safety valve on the other two, but they broke the drilling line.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Was Homer Stevenson in on that operation?
MRS. STEVENSON: I suppose so. He was there all the time.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Earlier you said something about one of the strata down in the earth being upended, in such a way that the drill was going down through a vertical stratum and kept slipping off.
JACK HANNAM: I think that possibly was so. It was on an angle instead of being flat and let the drill off to the side. Somebody told me that the next year they wound up whipstocking that and going by it.
MRS. CALVERLEY: What was whipstocking?
JACK HANNAM: Well, this is where if your hole is straight and you want to go off you run a piece of equipment in that bends your hole, or if your hole is bent, maybe you can straighten it.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Do you have to pull this crooked pipe up all the time?
JACK HANNAM: Oh yes, you have to clean the bit off, depending on the strata, at least every twenty-four hours.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Wasn’t nitroglycerin used to try to shoot the bit off at one time?
JACK HANNAM: Yes, that was shortly after they broke the drilling line. Stodaker (sp. Stoninger) –I think his first name was Charlie — a well expert, was brought in. I remember they put one charge down; it was supposed to go off in so many minutes, but it didn’t, so he pulled it back up, and the clock had slipped.
MRS. CALVERLEY: So it was still alive when it came up!
JACK HANNAM: Oh, yeah — it hadn’t blown. Anyway, he fixed it and put it down and tried to shoot it off. Then they had some nitroglycerin left so they took it off in the bush and shot it off because it was cheaper that way than trying to haul it back to town.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Besides a lot safer! I understand that they hit some kind of conglomerate formation. Why didn’t they stop when they found they were hitting the same conglomerate again. Wouldn’t that give them a hint that they were in a fault?
JACK HANNAM: Oh, they realized that, but when you’re in a fault you never know what you’ll find. This was an exploratory well, so they might as well continue, and then they’d know. When they hit it the third time then they realized ….
MRS. CALVERLEY: They stopped just short of a mile and a half, didn’t they? That’s according to the figures we have. At what point did they cease to fire with wood and try for some more power with coal?
JACK HANNAM: When they twisted off, at about the 5200-foot mark, they didn’t require much fuel because they were just standing. It was in the fall of the year. Once the river froze over they were able to get up to the George Goodrich mine up the Hasler Creek valley they started hauling coal out. I was working for George when they put the road into the mine. Teamsters from the area hauled all winter and stockpiled the coal for operating next summer.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Farmer Grant’s name was associated with that wasn’t it?
JACK HANNAM: Yeah — he was hauling coal — George (?), Bill Cardith. There was a joke about Farmer Grant. He had a seat on the front of his sleigh box. They had a fellow checking. They got paid by the ton, and it was based on the cubic footage. The seat that Farmer Grant had covered the front end of his box. Nobody could see for sure unless he got down for a close look whether he had that front end full of coal or not. He always had a big dog with him, that didn’t get along with the checker, so they never did know whether Farmer had that front end full of coal or not.
MRS. CALVERLEY: There were some other little enterprises out there, weren’t there? I understand it was a pool hall, some groceries, a variety store. George Goodrich had the dance hall.
JACK HANNAM: Fred Leifson had the store.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Were you much bothered with the R.C.M.P. coming out, or did they dare those roads?
JACK HANNAM: I don’t think they ever bothered unless somebody got shot, and nobody went that far.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Did the isolation bother too much?
JACK HANNAM: Not me too much, because I was born and raised here.
MRS. STEVENSON: On long changes was it difficult to dream up some amusement?
MRS. CALVERLEY: What’s a “long change”. This might need some defining for someone.
JACK HANNAM: It was a long weekend. Every third weekend you got two days off. You came off work at 8 o’clock Saturday morning and you didn’t have to go back until 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. On the opposite weekend you had a short change. You’d come off at four in the afternoon and go back to work at midnight.
MRS. CALVERLEY: There was continuous twenty-four hour drilling.
JACK HANNAM: When the roads weren’t too bad most of the long-change crews came to Dawson Creek.
MRS. CALVERLEY: When the floods on the Pine were bad, you still crossed on the cable, and picked up a ride on this side of the rivers.
JACK HANNAM: After July we were able to cross on the ferry or the ice.
MRS. CALVERLEY: In your opinion, did the money that was spent on that well contribute a great deal to the economy? Wasn’t the country pretty hard up right before the war?
JACK HANNAM: Definitely it did. Before the war a homesteader was lucky to get a dollar a day and his board. When I went up to Commotion, we were contracting of course. If you wanted to get out and get with it you could make five dollars. That was big money in those days. We were paying $2.50 a day for our board, which was a third of our wages. Nowadays, they pay about 18%.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Your food was pretty good, wasn’t it, and your accommodations weren’t all that bad.
JACK HANNAM: No. We slept in a tent when it was 40 below.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Double tent — tent over tent?
JACK HANNAM: No, single tent with a wooden base and airtight heater in it.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Dangerous!
JACK HANNAM: We never had any problems, except that the first guy up in the morning got chilblains before he got the fire going!
MRS. STEVENSON: That was standard procedure in all homesteads! Stan Carnell was our radio operator. Did his reports go to Vancouver or did they go direct to Calgary?
JACK HANNAM: He was in direct radio contact with Calgary. Where they went from there, I don’t know. His reports went in to the contractor, Newell and Chandler, in Calgary. It was a licensed Department of Transport radio.
MRS. CALVERLEY: You wouldn’t have any other communication service, except East Pine, as I recall — half way to town and a pretty rickety line. Poor service. There must have been a lot of fun out there. Can you tell us?
JACK HANNAM: There was real good fishing and good hunting! There were lots of fish in all those creeks then — not all fished out like they are now. There were dances every other week — or every week.
MRS. CALVERLEY: It wasn’t much of a boom to Little Prairie, was it?
JACK HANNAM: We were pretty well self-contained. Nicholsons had a store and a post office.
MRS. CALVERLEY: We haven’t got the whole story, I know. From this point we’ll let Mrs. Stevenson and Mr. Hannam take over. What about the matter of changing the pipes?
JACK HANNAM: I caught a ride in with Spinney. He was hauling out 6-inch pipes, and hauling 4 and-a-half inch back, about March 1. We were crossing on the ice and one set of wheels on the pole-trailer fell through an air hole, dumped a load of pipe and twisted the tongue in the pole-trailer. This was about two o’clock in the morning, 25 below. So, what with winch lines, bull work, etc., we finally got the pole straightened. Then a couple of trips to Rosenau’s for coffee. We finally got the pipes all loaded, and got to Progress about noon the following day.
MRS. STEVENSON: Well, the pipe-dolly and the pipes were much too long for the small ferry, and they were hampered by the narrow roads, and the long loads were bad on the switchbacks. There were moments when they feared they would lose their loads — one trucker was heard to say that if a sparrow had left his droppings on the tail end, they’d never had made it.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Well, we can’t seem to remember any more anecdotes, which for my money, are as much a part of history as the statistics. I was new to the country, but I heard a lot of unfavorable publicity given to this venture. Recently in the local press, there was a reference to the “scandal”. Did I miss something?
JACK HANNAM: I never heard of any scandal. Some people thought there had been a lot of money spent, but it paid for a lot of employment of quite a number of people right at the end of the depression when they could certainly use it. I believe it must have sparked a lot of interest in the oil business which blossomed into the oil exploration and production that led to the Taylor refinery and all the associated industries we have in the Peace River today.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Ruby, what is your opinion?
MRS. STEVENSON: I feel that we enjoy gas in our home, and progress has to be started somewhere. Oil companies consider two procedures in ten wells is a good average. If the B.C. government drilled one dry hole — so what?
MRS. CALVERLEY: You don’t consider it what we call today a rip-off?
MRS. STEVENSON: No.
MRS. CALVERLEY: After all how many years before producers were struck here.
JACK HANNAM: Shortly after the war, as soon as steel became available in the late 40’s gas wells were drilled, and the first oil was found on Taylor Flats, I believe.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I have heard but never verified that there is a fault in the earth’s crust of about eight feet, and that the river follows it, and there seemed to be more development on the north side than on the south side. Did you ever hear anything about that?
JACK HANNAM: No. There have been more wildcat wells driven on the north side and a lot more productivity.
MRS. CALVERLEY: Am I right that there was an oil find not too many miles away from Commotion Creek?
MRS. STEVENSON: I think it was comparatively recently that they have gone back into that region. There was an area that Dr. Stelke would have liked to move into when they found that they were in a fault.
JACK HANNAM: I believe that seismic exploration turned up a very likely location, but it has never been drilled yet. Whatever company is holding the oil lease is still sitting on it. (Nov. 12, 1974). This is the area where Dr. Williams said years ago that oil would be, so maybe his surface geology wasn’t too bad.
MRS. CALVERLEY: I think it speaks well of the incentive and the “go-get-’em” attitude we had in this country. We would take part in such enterprises. And I think it is a splendid part of our history that so many of the older people take pride in having a part in that development. I think this recent suggestion of “scandal” should be scotched.
JACK HANNAM: Definitely, it wasn’t a scandal. Some money may have been spent ill advisedly, but, as you say, you have to start somewhere.
MRS. STEVENSON: I think that we must remember that we were faced with a spreading world war, and in the possibility that our oil supply should be cut off, what should we do? There were a great many questions.
MRS. CALVERLEY: In other words, the world was in much the same position as it is today, in the 70’s. At that time an effort was made by somebody, including our own pioneers, to provide a future that has paid off very well. I think we could leave it on that note.