Before "Mr. Charlie"
Back in 1947 when the oil industry first waded into the Gulf of
Mexico off of Morgan City, Louisiana, companies were so eager to find where the oil and
gas was buried that they used almost anything that would float to get out there -- old
naval vessels, patched together boats -- as long as it didn't sink, they used it.
they were out there, these Gulf pioneers approached drilling the same way they did land
drilling, carrying equipment and parts to the site where they built the derrick and
drilled their well. They then dismantled the rig, floated their boats and parts to a new
location, and started all over again. All supplies and workers were stowed on support
boats anchored next to the rigs.
It was a costly, time-consuming process and it wasn't much fun. All the Gulf's men
agreed there must be a better way to drill a well offshore. They just didn't know what
that better way was.
The Rig Doc's Cure
Enter A.J. "Doc" LaBorde. He was a young Naval engineer
who worked for an oil company called Kerr McGee --the first company to drill an offshore
well out of sight of land. LaBorde had been a problem solver in the war and he soon turned
his skills to the problem of offshore drilling.
He came up with a plan to put the
entire drilling operation on a transportable barge that could be floated to any location.
Water would be pumped into the barge to sink it. When it was resting on the bottom, the
barge became a stable platform from which to drill. When they were finished drilling, the
barge could be pumped out, re-floated, and transported to the next location.
Transportable drilling rigs are commonplace now, but back then Doc's ideas were
regarded with suspicion. The Doc's boss at Kerr-McGee thought the idea "looked good
on paper," but told him, "there are too many unknowns. You have ocean
currents,shifting bottoms, hurricanes and many other factors that just would not allow
this idea to work as planned."
LaBorde was a man of integrity and conviction. He believed in his rig and wanted to
build it. But he didn't feel right about trying to sell his idea to another company while
continuing with Kerr McGee, so he resigned and for the next six months went "wild
catting" for a company to invest in his design. Unfortunately every major oil company
doing business in the Gulf agreed with Kerr McGee.
How Did He Get His Name?
"Mr. Charlie" was named after Charles H. Murphy, a cotton
ginner, banker, and oil man, who's determination and perseverance so inspired his son, the
owner of Murphy Oil Corp. ,that he named the rig after him.
How did Murphy Oil get involved?
They were a small independent company out of El Dorado, Arkansas with no knowledge of
ocean currents and hurricanes. Murphy listened to Doc's idea for a transportable rig and
liked the idea enough to invest the first half a million to build it.
He also went with Doc to St. Louis to help him put together a consortium of investors
needed to finance the balance of the 2.5 million. They got their investors and "Mr.
Charlie" was constructed at Alexander Shipyard in New Orleans the beginning of 1952
and completed in late 1953.
Mr. Charlie Gets a Job
Shell Oil Company wanted to open a new field in East Bay, near the
mouth of the Mississippi River, but it wasn't cost effective for them to use the
traditional build-and-drill method.
They proposed a deal. If "Mr. Charlie" did what Doc said he could, they'd
hire him for the whole field. If he didn't it was good-bye "Mr. Charlie." Even
LaBorde admitted later to having some doubts when they sailed "Mr. Charlie" down
the Mississippi accompanied by a flotilla of skeptics, newsmen,and the curious.
Fortunately "Mr. Charlie" didn't let him down, the field turned out to be a
big one, and "Mr. Charlie" went on to drill hundreds of wells for Shell Oil and
every other major oil company operating in the Gulf.
How Mr. Charlie Became a Museum
"Mr. Charlie" was designed to last. He was also designed to drill
in water 40 feet and under. Eventually offshore drilling moved into water deeper than 40
feet and by 1986 "Mr. Charlie" was left high and dry. Morgan City area oilmen
agreed that "Mr.Charlie" was historically unique and worthy of preserving, but
when they offered him to the Smithsonian Institute, their museum people didn't know where
they could put a 220'x135' transportable rig, with a platform sixty feet above the barge.
Charlie appeared to be destined for the scrap heap, but the men who'd worked on or around
"Mr. Charlie," helped create the non-profit International Petroleum Museum &
Exposition so that "Mr. Charlie" and other oil field artifacts could be
preserved that they might "continue to serve the industry by training oilfield
workers, by serving as an industry resource, and by educating the general public about the
oil & gas industry."
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