MORGAN CITY — As of Saturday, the Mr. Charlie drilling rig is an engineering landmark.
In 1952, it was a gamble, an untried and unproven method of floating and sinking a rig to move it offshore, settle it for drilling, then move it and drill again.
Alden “Doc” Laborde, a Navy engineer working for Kerr-McGee, had the brainstorm that led to Mr. Charlie’s construction — but of course, not the money to finance it.
Kerr-McGee wouldn’t finance the project, either; so Laborde sought other backers, eventually pitching his idea to a receptive Charles Murphy, owner of Murphy Oil Co., in El Dorado, Ark. With money, and then a functional drilling rig, Mr. Charlie needed a job.
Enter Shell Oil, with some daunting terms.
“His first contract called for 100 percent performance or no pay,” said Virgil Allen, president of the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition, recounting the rig’s history.
Despite having to detach and resettle due to a storm, the well produced, and more than expected, so it was deemed a success and earned Laborde a payoff.
The rig drilled hundreds of wells in the ensuing years, until its retirement from service in 1990. With no serious interest from museums or other entities, Mr. Charlie would have been scrapped if Morgan City had not taken the initiative to bring the rig here. It opened as a museum and training facility in 1995.
Now, the rig is the 249th feat of engineering recognized as a historic mechanical engineering landmark, joining other designated sites ranging from the 1740 Ringwood Manor Iron Complex to early nuclear power plants.
“Too often, these mechanical achievements go unnoticed,” said Terry Reynolds, a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Committee on History and Heritage. “Their effect is forgotten after they are put into service. They are behind the walls of a factory … or like this, they operate out of the public eye, and no one ever hears about them unless something goes wrong.”
Mr. Charlie’s contributions as the forerunner of all offshore drilling rigs in service today are nationally recognized now because of the efforts of the Collegiate Committee of ASME’s International Petroleum Technology Institute.
“I interned in Morgan City, and remembered there was a rig here,” said committee member Andrew Bradt, a student at Colorado School of Mines. “We started looking into it, and we found it really fit what we were looking for.”
“This program shows that engineers are not just problem-solvers, but men who have vision,” former ASME President Reginald I. Vachon said. Laborde’s vision, “Mr. Charlie just keeps on giving.”