It has been over 90 years since the first natural gas-well was drilled in the bed of Lake Erie. The first wells were drilled by steam powered, cable-driven rigs which were hauled out onto the ice. The first well drilled on open water was in 1910. Modern commercial drilling began in the late-1950's, since when, over 2,500 wells have been drilled on the Canadian side of the lakes. Currently, 550 operating wells produce 30 million cubic feet of natural gas a day.
The big player on the lake in the late 1950's was Consolidated West Petroleum Ltd., a Calgary-based firm, which held drilling leases on almost 13,000 acres of Lake Erie bottom off Tillbury, in Kent County, Ontario. They held an additional almost 40,000 underwater acres jointly with Imperial Oil Ltd., off Howard Twp., about 30 miles east of their leases. Between 1943 and 1958 Con-West had completed 46 gas wells, which were between one and four and a half miles from shore. The gas from these wells was sold to the Union Gas Co. under long-term contract. Underwater Gas Developers Ltd., of Toronto, was a wholly owned subsidiary of Con-West. In 1958 they owned eight portable gas-drilling platforms.
Another participant was Place Gas & Oil Co. Ltd., which later became Place Resources Ltd. This company was bought by Pembina Resources Ltd., of Calgary, and that company was subsequently bought by its current owner, Talisman Energy Ltd., of Calgary.
A third firm, Long Point Gas & Oil Co., and its subsidiary, Translake Drilling Limited, of Toronto, was a fairly new company in 1958. They ordered three almost similar gas-drilling jack-up rigs built that year. The first, TRANSLAKE NO. 1, [C.311443] was built by E. B. Magee Ltd., of Port Colborne. It was designed to drill in depths up to 40 feet. The following two rigs were contracted to the firm of Russel-Hipwell Engines Ltd., of Owen Sound. TRANSLAKE NO. 2 [C.189910] was slightly smaller (43 g.t.) than TRANSLAKE N0. 3 (55.96 g.t.). The N0. 2 rig was designed to drill in depths up to 50 feet of water. It was successfully launched and operational by the time its sister ship was launched, and although the N0. 2 rig was a success, N0. 3 met with disaster.
Built to the design and specifications of Patrick S. Bazett, President of Long Point Gas and Oil Limited, and Douglas B. Bruce and Associates, a leading firm of Toronto consulting engineers, the N0. 3 rig was capable of drilling in water up to 75 feet deep. The rigs weighed about 300 tons overall, and were the first units of this type built by Russel-Hipwell. The six weeks of fabrication provided work for more than 25 men during the manufacture of the various components for the rig.
The drilling rig was basically three sections: a triangular drill platform roughly 50 feet long on each side, a similar underwater truss section, and spuds (or legs and feet). Each of the spuds were attached and connected underwater by divers working at depths varying between 10 and 25 feet, with a surface crew of about 10 men in contact by telephone. The rigs had to be towed to a point in Owen Sound harbour just north of the Great Lakes Elevator for final assembly because water at the Russel-Hipwell slip was not deep enough to attach the tanks and feet. Fully assembled the rig had a draft of 24 feet.
The truss section under the barge platform was also assembled at the elevator. Diver Tom Ayers, an employee of Translake Drilling, was the principle assembler, connecting and matching the leg units and truss sections.
Six hydraulically operated spuds, placed on 44-foot centers, were used to lower and raise the drilling platform. Twelve six inch diameter cylinders, each operating at 1,300 psi. drove the spuds. The rig was powered for its services (air, water and hydraulic pressure) by a 27 hp Lister diesel engine. Three spuds on the truss section each had a large air-filled tank, about 15 feet square, attached to it. When the tanks were flooded the spud sank to the lake bottom and allowed the truss section to rest firmly about 30 feet off the bottom. The drilling platform was then jacked up from the truss section, to a level about 10 feet above the lake surface before drilling operations began. When the rig was ready to be moved, the air-tanks on the base spuds were pressurized; the spuds floated off the bottom, and the rig was towed to its next location.
TRANSLAKE N0. 2 was completed and taken in tow to Erieau, on Lake Erie by the Hindman tug HELEN HINDMAN in July of 1958. It was found that the hydraulic jacking system, which was originally positioned on the underwater truss section, suffered difficulties from the cold water, and the rig could be jacked up, but not down. The problem was resolved by shifting the hydraulic jacking system up to the drilling platform.
Crews worked on the rig eight days straight, 12 hours a day, followed by four days ashore. Accommodations for a crew of six were located beneath the deck, as was a small galley with about eight feet of headroom. Showers, washroom facilities, and a holding tank, were located in the bow peak.
On deck the rig carried a small rotary drill similar to a truck-mounted land-based rig. Pressurized water injected into the drilling pipe flushed the drill tailings up to the surface and overboard. When a live well was found, mud (a combination of bentonite and aquagel) was pumped down the drill pipe to plug the pipe until it could be properly capped underwater. For this purpose a twin-piston mud pump was located on deck, and mud holding tanks were located along the sides of the rig.
From Russel company brochure: BARGES - SCOWS - FERRIES.
Gerry Ouderkirk archive.
There were two heavy swing-arm davits located on the rig topside, each with a moveable car, to which chain falls were attached for handling drill rods and pipes, which were stored in open wells on the rig. Originally the pipe and drill rod was stored on open beams above the lake, but after a few man overboard situations, and lost pipe and rods, the storage area was enclosed. There was an additional set of smaller davits for the rig's lifeboat.
The company's tug LONG POINT GAS [C.310444] was constructed by Steve Powell at Dunnville in 1957. It was used to tow the rig from one drilling location to another, which happened about every three weeks. The tug also it transported drilling material and supplies to the rigs, and was used to change crews. Because the tug was slow, and the crew wanted a faster mode of transportation, the company purchased a 20' Grew motorboat which was used for crew transport in good weather. When TRANSLAKE N0. 1 first came out, the only way to get aboard, when it was jacked up, was to climb up a series of iron rungs welded to the hull and the leg support, the first rung was about four feet off the water, making the first step an adventure, especially if the lake was a bit rough. When the TRANSLAKE N0. 2 came out, the boarding procedure was modified.
A landing stage, about four feet by six feet was added to the rig, with wooden bumpers which extended into the water. It was constructed in such a manner that it could be raised up and down with a set of chain falls to compensate for different heights off the water, and it could be raised when the rig was floating, so as to reduce the draft. Because TRANSLAKE N0. 2 was working in the west end of the lake, near Erieau, a small fish tug was used as a tender.
The tug LONG POINT GAS was sold to Con-West Petroleum in 1964, and went to their subsidiary Underwater Gas Developers Ltd. in 1969. Eventually the tug ended up back in the builder's hands. Steve Powell cut off the deckhouse and put it aboard his floating drydock S. G. POWELL LIFTER N0. 1 (ex- Welland Canal GATELIFTER N0. 1) as a control booth. The hull of the tug currently lies just north of the drydock in Port Maitland.
The ill-fated TRANSLAKE N0. 3 departed Owen Sound at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, September 16th, 1958 bound for the Point Pelee area of Lake Erie. The rig was towed by the tug E. D. M. PURVIS, owned by C. W. Lougheed and Son Fisheries, of Owen Sound.
E. D. M. PURVIS [C.130226] was built by James Purvis at Gore Bay, on Manitoulin Island in 1918 and it was named for his daughters Edith, Dorothy and Maude. It was a composite tug (71 feet x 18 feet x 8 feet 6 inches) with steel frames covered by three inch white oak planking. The tug was mainly used to transport fish twice weekly from the Purvis fishery at Québec Harbour to Sault Ste. Marie. The tug remained in the Purvis family until sold in July 1956 to Clemens Warren Lougheed to replace the fish tug G & L, which had sunk.
In October 1957, the PURVIS had stranded on Griffith's Island in Georgian Bay. It was taken off by the tug HELEN HINDMAN and brought to the Russel-Hipwell yard in Owen Sound for repairs. HELEN HINDMAN was featured in The Scanner, Vol. XXXI, No. 9, as Ship of the Month No. 250 (Mid-Summer 1999 issue). At the time of that writing the author was unaware of the 1957 salvage job and the 1958 TRANSLAKE N0. 2 tow.
It was expected that the 250 mile trip to Lake Erie with TRANSLAKE N0. 3 in tow, would require seven days since the towing speed was only expected to be two miles an hour or less depending on the weather. Veteran Owen Sound mariner, Capt. Jack McKay was in charge of the E. D. M. PURVIS, with owner, Capt. Clem Lougheed aboard for the delivery, and crewmembers Jack Edmonstone, Dalton Lang, and Eddie Robinson, all of Owen Sound. The weather turned against them.
The Owen Sound Sun-Times reported on Wednesday, September 17th, that Peter Horn, 35, of Edmonton, Alberta, an employee of Translake Drilling Co. lost his life, while Clifford Wilson, of 5th Avenue East, Owen Sound, an employee of Russel-Hipwell Engines Ltd., escaped a similar fate about 8 o'clock the previous evening when TRANSLAKE N0. 3 went over on its side north of Cape Croker and subsequently sank. Peter Horn had only been working with the Translake Drilling Co. for the previous three weeks.
Patrick Bazett, President and General Manager of Translake Drilling, in a statement to The Sun-Times, said the cause of the drilling rig overturning was unknown. He stated that the rig had been double checked by the best authorities in Canada, and that there was every reason to believe it was safe in every way. Mr. Bazett stressed that Russel-Hipwell were in no way responsible, and he pointed out that the first rig, built by the same firm, had withstood 40 mph winds on Lake Erie while being moved. TRANSLAKE N0. 2 had proven entirely satisfactory in every way.
The survivor, Clifford Wilson, told the Sun-Times that in the last minutes before the rig overturned, there so much water coming in on the starboard side of the rig that the bilge pump was unable to keep up with the intake. He and Peter Horn decided to head for the tug PURVIS to fetch another pump in the 30-foot aluminum cabin cruiser CAROL ANN, (also reported as CAROLYN, but most likely named for Norval Hipwell's daughter Carol) which was tied to the drilling rig, and was being used to take men between the rig and the tug when necessary, while the rig was being towed to Lake Erie.
At the last minute Peter Horn called out for Wilson to wait for him, so that he could go down to the rig's galley to retrieve his personal effects. Meanwhile, Wilson had the CAROL ANN's 140 hp engine running. When he saw the drilling rig suddenly list, he cast off and made for the PURVIS, which was some 500 feet distant. As the rig overturned, the 50-foot-long spuds whipped into the air. Had one hit or come close to the CAROL ANN, Clifford Wilson would have been a casualty.
The incident was over in about ten seconds according to Wilson, who made his way to the PURVIS through what he said were eight-foot waves. With considerable difficulty he got alongside the tug and scrambled aboard. Somehow, the CAROL ANN got loose -- still in gear -- and it circled the PURVIS for some time. The tug gave chase, but the men aboard were unable to get a line on the errant cabin cruiser, and finally gave up the chase.
Just before the drilling platform took the final plunge to the lake bottom, the PURVIS had contacted Horn by the ship-to-ship telephone in the TRANSLAKE N0. 3 galley. They were talking to him as the barge flipped. The drill platform overturned and slowly settled. The PURVIS circled the sinking rig several times looking for Horn before the rig sank, after which the tug returned to Owen Sound. The following day, Thursday 18th, a search party went to the scene of the sinking aboard the tug HELEN HINDMAN. TRANSLAKE N0. 3 had gone down in 240 feet of water, the spot clearly marked by an oil slick and bubbles. Divers from Translake Drilling, and from the insurance company involved, went down to the sunken rig but bad weather hampered their efforts. The divers tried to determine whether salvage was possible or not, and what might have caused the platform to overturn. They also searched in vain for Peter Horn.
The Department of Transport ordered an inquiry into the mishap, as it is standard procedure when a life is lost in a marine accident. The cause of the sinking was never determined. It was thought that a large quantity of drill rods stowed on the rig's deck had shifted, but this was never proven.
Norval Hipwell, President of Russel-Hipwell Engines Ltd., chartered a private airplane from Canadian Aircraft Renters, of Toronto, to search the Cape Croker area on Thursday afternoon for the missing cabin cruiser CAROL ANN. The search party left Wiarton Airport at 1:30 p.m., and less than an hour later, Bill O'Leary, a long time employee of Russel-Hipwell, spotted the missing vessel ashore at Barrow Bay, south of Lion's Head, in a remote section of the bay. The cabin cruiser had been built by Russel-Hipwell, and was valued at $10,000. The search party later traveled by boat from Lion's Head to the scene and found that CAROL ANN had two holes in the bottom of its hull. A fishing tug owned by Tom Shouldice, of Lion's Head, was chartered to bring CAROL ANN back to port.
Tom Shouldice, owned a 36-foot yacht-style boat named SUEMAR, which he used for commercial fishing, but he may have borrowed Maurice Meneray's fish tug TOUCHE on this occasion.
In May of 1961 an attempt was made to salvage TRANSLAKE N0. 3, which was then valued at over $100,000. The wreck had been abandoned by the insurance company and was open to private salvage. Although TRANSLAKE N0. 3 had been assigned an official registry number back in 1958, it was cancelled before the paperwork was finalized. That registry number was reassigned to another vessel in 1961 - after the insurance company released its claim on the vessel.
Financial backing for the 1961 salvage attempt came from Mel Richmond, of Kitchener, Ontario, and an unnamed friend of his from Montana. The men planned to raise the rig and sell it back to the Translake Drilling Co. Because the wreck was in 240-feet of water, a deep-sea diver, Don Henry, was employed for the project. He was an ex-U.S. Marine, with worldwide experience in wreck raising. His experience included salvaging lake freighters, ocean going tugs, submarines in the Sea of Japan, and the deactivation of mines. He had also worked at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack there in 1941. His air hose and line tender was Roger Hentges, the two being partners of Trident Marine Salvage, of Kitchener, Ontario.
For the initial dive, the tug E.D.M. PURVIS was chartered. They took to the scene a coroner and an Ontario Provincial Police constable, but they were not needed. Peter Horn's body was never found.
The salvage was expected to take 15 days at most, but rough weather hampered their salvage efforts. For raising the rig, the floatation chamber method, using pre-conditioned airtight railway tank cars was proposed. They were to be towed to the site, filled with water and sunk, under and around the rig; then air was to be pumped into the tanks to force the water out and raise the rig. It never happened. It was found that the bulkheads on the barge had collapsed and salvage costs would not have made the venture profitable. TRANSLAKE N0. 3 was abandoned and remains on the bottom of Georgian Bay to this day.
The tug E.D.M. PURVIS was sold by the Lougheed estate in 1962 to the Purdy Fisheries of Sarnia. Milford Purdy sold the vessel sometime later to a marina in Pt. Edward, where the fish tug was taken for conversion to a houseboat. Its bilge pump quit and the PURVIS sank in about 30 feet of water. It was never raised. The PURVIS was last noted in the Canadian List of Ships in 1966.
TRANSLAKE N0. 2 was rebuilt at Port Colborne in 1970. In 1974 it was towed to Lake Ontario by the McQueen Marine tug AMHERSTBURG, where it was used for soil sampling for Ontario Hydro off Frenchman's Bay, near Pickering. No. 2 was eventually sold off the lakes, and it made its way to Walker's Cay, in the Bahamas. It was renamed JIM GIBSON, and continues to operate for Bahamas Oil Ltd., of Pickering, Ontario.
TRANSLAKE N0. 1 was rebuilt at Port Colborne in 1969. It was acquired by Bahamas Oil Ltd., and renamed b] AUTUMN EXPLORER in 1999; departing the Lakes the same year, bound for Walker's Cay, along with the veteran Great Lakes tug JEAN T. [C.107891] which, although registered to a numbered company, is owned by Steve Richardson, of Bahamas Oil. Ltd. This tug was built at Montreal in 1899 as MONITOR for the Minister of Public Works. It passed into private ownership and was given its present name in 1949 by Simjac Marine Ltd.
The drill barge LOUIS J. GOULET [C.188900] joined the Translake jack-up rigs at Walker's Cay, in 2002, where it was reportedly renamed d] LIBERTY HUNTER. Launched as the canaller CONISCLIFFE HALL in 1957, it was converted to a drilling platform and renamed b] TELESIS in 1975, and c] LOUIS J. GOULET in 1998.
In 1964 Russel-Hipwell built another larger jack-up rig named TIMESAVER II [C.311348]. Originally built for drilling, the rig still operates during the shipping season on Lake Erie, south of Port Stanley, as an offshore compressor station.
For more information on natural gas drilling you can visit the Canadian Drilling Rig Museum Inc., in Rainham Centre, near Nanticoke, Ontario. Visits to the operational steam powered drilling rig are by appointment only. Contact the museum at 1-905-776-0919 or by email at email@example.com You can visit its web site at www.canadiandrillingrigmuseum.com
We would like to thank the following for their assistance with this tale: Ron Beaupré of Port Elgin, Don Boone of Collingwood, Lee Chambers of Dunnville, Harry Eagle of Dunnville, Alvon Jackson of Amherstburg, George Lee of Port Lambton, Buck Longhurst of Sault Ste. Marie, Warren Lougheed of Owen Sound, Scott Mallard, of Talisman Energy Inc., Port Colborne; John McKay of Port Elgin, Jerald McKenzie, President, Canadian Drilling Rig Museum Inc., Selkirk, Ontario; Jim McLay of Southampton, Rod Morrison of Kingston, Don Powers, Registrar of Ships for Port of Toronto, and Frank Prothero of Port Stanley, and Gordon Turner of Toronto.