Jim Bradshaw: Slat-wheeled Model A's helped open the oil patch
Sweat-stained, mosquito-slapping, cottonmouth snake-fearing seismic crews and oil and gas drillers were slogging through the wetlands of south Louisiana well before they began exploring even the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, learning to contend with one of the biggest obstacles to over-water drilling — getting the men and stuff they needed to the place where they had to go.
Drilling through water wasn’t the tough part; a lucrative oil field had been developed over and around Caddo Lake in north Louisiana by the early 1900s. The equipment was available.
But as Tyler Priest of the University of Houston pointed out in a 2008 Minerals Management Service history of the offshore industry (“History of the offshore oil and gas industry in southern Louisiana,” OCS Study MMS 2008-042), “Southern Louisiana added another level of difficulty for even the most intrepid oilmen. Swamps, marshes, and shallow open water … posed frustrating transportation and operating problems.”
Priest quotes an earlier study by oil historian R. L. Lankford: “There were no roads in the marshes, no bridges over the bayous, no bases from which to move into the bays. The whole expanse from Calcasieu Lake (Big Lake, sprawling across the Calcasieu-Cameron line) to Breton Sound (below New Orleans) was a sort of nature’s no-man’s land, neither land nor sea.”
For example, the Borealis Rex, an old paddlewheel steamboat, was the only practical way to get from Lake Charles to Cameron until a road was built in the late 1930s, and that boat service made Cameron one of the more accessible places.
In the beginning, oilmen had to turn to the people who knew the wetlands and how to get around in them, renting boats and hiring guides from “the small Cajun communities where people traditionally made their living … (by) fishing, shrimping, crabbing, frog hunting, muskrat trapping” and other ways. Early seismic crews used Cajun pirogues to follow winding water trails into the marsh.
When the little water trails played out, they had to wade.
“With their pants legs tied tightly to protect against snakes and leeches, (the crews, carrying their equipment on their shoulders) would trudge along waist-deep in swamp water dodging cypress roots and saw-toothed palmetto leaves,” according to a Shell News feature in 1939. Sometimes they had to wade for miles — “the longest miles in the U.S.A.” — carrying “instruments, explosives, pumps and pipe … and all the other paraphernalia of the seismologist’s art … at a rate rarely exceeding one mile an hour.”
Necessity being the mother of invention, it didn’t take long to find a better way.
Nobody is sure who was the first to come up with the idea, but sometime in the 1930s, a mechanically minded trapper in the Mermentau area fitted out his Model A truck with extended axles, attached tall wagon wheels to the long axles, and stuck 4-foot-wide wooden slats onto the wagon wheels.
Riding in a “slat-wheel buggy” beat the heck out of wading, but there was still a big problem. The buggy didn’t float; when it hit a deep hole, it sank.
Enterprising engineers at Gulf Oil took on that challenge, and designed a “balloon buggy-boat” with inflatable tires 10 feet tall and three feet wide. It wasn’t long before the contraption came to be known as a “marsh buggy,” and, because Gulf failed to apply for a patent, a dozen or so competitors were making their own versions — including a propeller-driven machine developed by a Houston company that was the likely parent of today’s airboats.
Marsh buggies were soon crisscrossing the wetlands, bringing speed (up to 10 miles an hour!) and convenience to exploration crews, but also beginning an argument that has grown sharper over the years.
The buggies tore up the marsh wherever they went, leaving trails that trappers complained damaged the natural habitat.
The seismograph crews who used them admitted they caused temporary damage, but argued that their buggies “stirred up the marsh” in such a way that it grew back healthier and better.
The trappers said “better” is in the eye of the beholder.
Those opposing viewpoints, in one form or another, can still be heard today, as often as not in a legal brief or courtroom argument.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.