Throwback Thursday: Ralph Will

Originally appearing in Vol 1 Issue 1 of The 1989 CAODC Official Magazine (Aug 1989)

Ralph Will

First CAODC president and drilling pioneer Ralph Will takes an historical look back at a few of the many unusual events that have occurred in his long, industrious career.

ralph_willWhen the CAODC was founded 40 years ago, Ralph Will became its first president. By that time Ralph had already spent two decades in the oil patch — initially in his native United States and later in Canada. Starting as a pipe stabber on a gas pipeline project in Kansas, he rose steadily through the ranks until he owned a drilling company. Today, although now in his late eighties, Ralph Will continues to take a keen interest in the drilling industry, arriving at the office every morning at 7:00 a.m. In a life as full and varied as Ralph Will has led, there are bound to be many interesting and unusual events. He re­calls a few of them.

“On August 20, 1935, a general letter was mailed to all superintendents stating I would be general superintendent of Rocky Mountain Drilling Company in charge of all rigs, trucks and machine shops owned by the company, and my headquarters would be the head office in Casper, Wyoming.

“My first and biggest problem after moving to Casper was to kill a gas well that had been running wild for over a year. My boss made a deal with Paul Stock (Stock Oil Company of Cody, Wyoming) to kill the well and bring it under control. I was given a free hand as the Ohio Company was most anxious the well be capped. Ohio owned all the surrounding leases. A well they owned a mile away had dropped from 1,650 psi to 1,350 psi.

“Ohio went in after a fire consumed Stock’s rig. They shot out the fire, cleared debris away from the location and laid 1,011 flow lines east and west from the well. One hole near the location where some gas escaped was covered with a 250 bbl tank with the bottom knocked out and vented away from the location.

“The deal was made with Stock providing I personally stayed on the well to completion.

“I assembled all single men — three crews of 15 — and insured each for $25,000. A derrick was built and rig assembled, then work was started with a special control head. Of course gas masks, asbestos suits and other safety equipment were used. A wind sock was installed so that when a man began feeling the effect of gas on his system, he could run toward the wind. If a man has been knocked out by hydrogen sulphide gas once, he feels that in his system. If he runs toward the wind, he can save his own life. No man was to go under the rig floor without a rope around his waist and two men outside manning the rope who would drag him out if he were overcome by gas.

“The hole was full of 5-9/16” drill pipe which Stock was using when he lost the well. I used an 8-5/8” bit with 4-1 /2” drill pipe and succeeded in reaching 3,900 feet, sidetracking that junk. That was as far as I could get.

“We then decided to attempt to kill the well with 20 lbs. per U.S. gallon of premixed mud. We started and the well went quiet for about one minute. Then some 10-3/4” casing from a well which had been drilled in territorial days popped up through the top of the 250 bbl tank. It plunged up and down, causing sparks, and our rig burned down.

“I was exhausted. As I couldn’t keep food in my stomach, milk was the only thing that would stay down. The only rest I got in three weeks was by having someone drop a chemical in each eye for about two to three minutes. Each new shift that came on brought me a quart of milk.

“I then secured from Stock Oil Company the acid bottles they used to survey the deviation from true vertical. The deviation was 3-1 /2 degrees. I then calculated that if I controlled the deviation of a relief well to 1-1 /2 degrees, I needed to drill the relief well 175 feet northeast of the wild gas well.

“After arranging for a rig to start and giving instructions to toolpushers and crews, I went to the hospital in Lovell, Wyoming, where nurses kept my eyes packed and I slept 48 hours. I had lost 50 pounds; however, my appetite soon returned.

“When the relief well reached 4,800 feet, which was the producing horizon of the Devonian Lime, I ran and cemented casing. An irrigation ditch was near and we had secured permission from the authorities to cut the water into our suction pits. We pumped water with four mud hogs into the 7” casing of the relief well. The flow of gas in the wild well was cut from 60 million cubic feet per day to 2 million, and the water had extinguished all the gas fires.

“With slickers and gas masks, four crewmen with dies cut pipe threads on the 4-1 /2” drill pipe which was protruding from the wild well. Then they installed the necessary fit­ting for another attempt.

“In the meantime we had installed two 5,000 bbl tanks, filled one with Rollin Red (weight material) at 22 lbs. per gallon and one with barite at 20 lbs. per gallon. We had installed another battery of boilers and mud pumps. Also, 10,000 sacks of ce­ment were available; Halliburton had hooked six cementing trucks.

“We started both batteries of pumps and pumped all the weight material into the wild well in about 20 minutes, then all the cement in 30 minutes and had to cut the reserve pits to the pumps to finally fill the well. It was finally killed and our com­pany had no casualties. Stock Oil Company lost two men and some cattle. I had lost some fat.”

In August 1937, on his 35th birthday, Ralph Will arrived in Canada and assumed his duties as general field superintendent for the Anglo Canadian Oil Company in Calgary.

“In 1945, I made a deal with the company to buy five of their rigs which I had work for and took an option on their remaining four drilling rigs. In 1946, the Leduc oil field came in and I exercised the option on the balance of the rig purchase. I also bought one rig from Bill Ferris and two rigs from Home Oil Company. I had brought the first diesel drilling rig to Canada in 1938. All the option rigs and the rigs purchased outside the Anglo Canadian were steam rigs. These I had to convert to diesel. I had to buy power mud pumps, diesel engines and accessory equipment such as V-belt sheaves and twin disc clutches, then fabricate and assemble this equipment for the conversion.”

By 1950, Ralph Will was looking forward to retirement, but his plans were short-lived. He received a telephone call from C.D. Howe, then federal finance minister. Ralph was asked to take charge of an elaborate, and costly, scheme for the allocation of tubular goods, which at that time were available only from U.S. mills.

“I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Howe. I have thought of the way I would prefer to operate. We don’t need a warehouse and the government doesn’t need to put up any money for stock. The supply companies will stock the pipe and guard it, but will not deliver it to any operator without OK from the Canadian government, which I will give as that government representative. I will need a small office, an understudy and one stenographer.”

“Then he asked me what that would cost. I answered, ‘Office rent $100 per month, my assistant $500 per month, stenographer $175 per month.’

“He then asked about my salary and I said no salary as I would give most of it away in income tax. He wanted to know why. I told him that I disliked politics. If I took no salary, there would be no indication of political interference. I would serve one year, then my assistant would be able to handle the job.

“I was conned into serving another year. I then received a thank-­you letter and one dollar from Mr. Howe, which I now have.”

It is no exaggeration to say the memoirs of Ralph Will could easily fill a book, and a very interesting book it would be indeed. His experiences span the drilling industry, from its infancy to the modern day.