Lufkin Foundry and
In June, 1939, I was
loaned to the Caribbean Petroleum Company, Shell
affiliate, for some special work in connection with
oil field equipment in the Lake Maracaibo region
of Venezuela. In my seven months' stay in South America,
I had time to make many interesting observations,
some of the most vivid of which I have attempted
to recall in the following article.
Lake Maracaibo, located
in the northeastern section of Venezuela, is some 120
miles long by 60 miles wide at its widest point. Open
to the Caribbean through a narrow channel at its northern
end, and with shifting sand bars at its outlet, the
water is brackish in the upper portion. The numerous
rivers emptying into the lower half discharge such
a tremendous quantity of water during the rainy seasons
that its level will actually rise during these periods.
The fishing is reported as excellent and is one of
main week-end recreations of the foreign (white) oil
company employees. Water temperature is 80-85 degrees
F. Because it is impossible for ships of more than
12 feet draft to cross the bars, even at high tide,
only small or lightly-loaded ocean-going freighters
are ever seen on the Maracaibo waterfront, The specially-built
tankers of 11 feet draft, which carry crude from the
various fields to the immense refineries on the Dutch
West Indian islands of Aruba and Curaçao, line
up in single file to ride the high tides over the bars.
Many native craft, almost exclusively sailboats, from
small fishing boats to larger freight schooners and
passenger boats, ply the lake's surface; and each week-end
there is a Star-boat race between sailing enthusiasts
among the oil companies' foreign staffs.
The city of Maracaibo,
of some 110,000 population, is situated on the western
shore at the northern end of the lake, and ranges from
the dirt and smells of the typical tropical port to
the attractiveestates of wealthy upper-class Venezuelans
and the well-landscaped grounds of the oil companyoffices
and camps. The surrounding country is desert-like,
with relatively little rainfall, and thorn trees and
cactus are virtually the only natural foliage. The
thorn tree foliage begins about 4½ feet above
the ground and appears to have been clipped. This is
the "goat line," or the maximum reach of
a goat standing on his hind legs. Goats, with a few
burros, are virtually the only domestic animals which
can forage this area successfully.
Except in the Bella
Vista section, the location of the newest and better
residences and the oil company camps, the majority
of Maracaibo's streets are dirty and very narrow, with
most of them for one-way traffic only. Driving, for
a foreigner, is a gamble, since the streets are full
of cars, mostly in taxi service, which are driven any
place in the street which the driver may happen to
fancy-either side or the middle. The average native
driver appears to handle his car like a new toy, and
the more horns the better. All electric horns are taboo
in town, and by accepted convention the right-of-way
belongs to the driver who toots first. Consequently,
all drivers honk continuously, and the bedlam of rubber
bulb horns, many of them asthmatic, is terrific. The
traffic situation has been complicated recently by
the digging of miles of ditch for new water mains -
Maracaibo's first - which are left open for weeks,
There are almost no
street signs or house numbers. Many of the houses are
painted in bright colors, most have plastered exteriors,
and many have fanciful names posted over their doors.
All windows are barred, with solid inside shutters,
and almost none have screens. Window glass is unknown
except in store windows and the few air-conditioned
The stores in the business
section are hardly recognizable as such to a foreigner.
Most are pretty dirty and dusty, with primitive interiors
and antiquated fixtures, if any. There are many sidewalk "shops",
peddlers, tobacco bootleggers, beggars, and lottery
ticket sellers. Prices of everything are very high.
The large central produce market is dark, dirty and
very smelly. Until recently, meat on the hoof, and
other produce was brought from far down the lake in
the native schooners, which are slow and unequipped
with refrigeration. With the recent extension of the
lake road to connect with the Trans-Andean Highway.
much of Maracaibo's food is now trucked in and arrives
in much better shape. All meat is slaughtered at night
and sold the next day because of lack of cold storage
MARACAIBO FROM THE LAKE ROAD
OF LAGUNILLAS VILLAGE WITH WHITE-ROOFED V.O.C. CAMP
IN THE BACKGROUND.
Each Monday a drawing
is held in the government lottery. Tickets are peddled
by old women and children, and from 1/10 ticket up
can he purchased.
Green grass and lawns
can be found only in the oil company camps, due to
water scarcity. Beautiful flowering trees, in season,
with red, white, yellow or purple blooms, surround
some of the larger residences. Cocoanuts, mangoes,
bananas and platanos are occasionally found growing
along the streets.
The usual atmospheric
temperature range is 85-90 deg. F., with personally
observed extremes of 76-95 deg., although it is said
that an occasional minimum of 69 deg. has been registered
during the early spring rainy season. The humidity
is always high, with one personal observation of 80%.
Mosquitoes are scarce, but sand flies are abundant.
The people are typical
of any tropical Latin-American season port. Upper class
Venezuelans are Spanish or perhaps Spanish-Indian,
with an occasional admixture of German, Dutch, or English
blood. With the peons---the great mass of the population
there is no color line. They vary from plenty black
through brown to the lighter Spanish-Indian. Some oriental
mixture is observed. There are many West-Indian negroes.
It is not uncommon to see a very blonde baby or child
in a much darker family. The typical Venezuelan peon
is small of stature, small-boned, under-nourished due
to the preponderance of starchy rice and platanos in
his diet, and with little resistance to disease. Few
are legally married, due to the high cost of the Catholic
religious ceremony, and illegality of births is apparently
no stigma. Few can read or write, although the school
system is being expanded.
Crossing the lake from
Maracaibo via modern passenger and automobile ferry,
and driving south along the lake road through the oil
fields, the country and climate change rapidly. Desert-like
country gives way to rank jungle, which becomes very
dense before Tia Juana is reached. Obviously the rain
fall is much heavier here. A single oiled road, built
and maintained by the oil companies, runs south from
the ferry terminal at Palmarejo through the oil fields
which line the eastern side of the lake and lots recently
been extended further south to connect with the Trans-Andean
Highway at Mototan. Venezuelan Oil Concessions (Shell),
Lago Petroleum (S.0. of N.J.), and Mene Grande (Gulf)
oil companies, are all represented in Cabimas, Tia
Juana and Lagunillas fields. The many wells on dry
land are exclusively Shell, with mene Grande's in the
water, within 1000 meters of shore, and Lago's starting
1000 meters out and continuing into the lake to the
present drilling limit of five miles. At this distance
from shore the water depth is some 60 feet, making
drilling operations more difficult, although the best
wells are those farthest out.
Each oil company has
established a well-equipped camp in each field for
its white employes, and in addition one or more camps
for native laborers. Complete recreational facilities
are provided in all camps. Most of the food used
by the white employees is imported from the U. S.,
and is expensive. It costs about $1.50 per meal per
person to feed the men in a company mess hall.
Each company has its
own large steam power plant with transmission and distribution
systems, and all three systems are interconnected.
V.O.C. generates 2300 V., 60 cycles, transmits at 33
KV., and distributes at 6900 V. with 440V. secondaries,
except for a few large 2300-V. drainage pump motors.
Most pumping wells are electrically driven, with conversion
of older wells from gas engine to electric drive being
carried on continually.
With the exception of
the town of Cabimas, which is large enough to show
a few urban characteristics, all lake shore villages
are small and very primitive. Most originated as fishing
villages built on piling over shallow water, with houses
connected by plank walks; but many have since spread
to the shore.
OLD PIRATE BASE
The ancient village
of pueblo Viejo was reputedly used as a repair base
for his Caribbean operations by Sir Henry Morgan, the
English pirate, and has changed little since.
A few small farms have
been hewn out of the jungle, their produce being principally
corn, beans, and goats. The occasional tiny village
in the back-back-country jungle has bamboo-walled thatched
huts. The only domestic water supply is from roof drainage.
The residents of these jungle villages do practically
no farming besides rasing a little corn. They pick
platanos and fruit in the jungle, keep a few chickens,
a pig or two, and perhaps a cow. They shoot small deer
in the jungle, hunting at night with spotlights and
shotguns, and occasionally get a wild pig. Some of
the ancient muzzle-loading long-barreled rifles seen
now and then are curious affairs, but the importation
of both rifles and small arms has been prohibited for
The jungle in many places
is impenetrable without a machete. The writer discovered
that a bamboo thicket, with its inumerable thorns,
is extremely dangerous and can cut a man to ribbons.
Ants and mosquitoes, of course, are plentiful. Poisonous
and constrictor snakes are numerous hut seldom seen.
Quiet and apparently lifeless by day, with few birds
evident, the jungle wakes up at dusk. Bands of howler
and spider monkeys in the trees, and flocks of screaming
parrots overhead provide plenty of noise. The jaguar
makes good hunting, and the colorful iguana is much
prized for its succulent meat.
To a person accustomed
to driving a car in the U.S., automobile operation
on the lake road appears extremely hazardous. The national
speed limit is 45 kilometers per hour - 28.5 miles
- and for good reason. It is not only necessary to
dodge peons. naked children, pigs, burros, chickens
and cattle (the many goats are too smart to get hit),
but the average native driver holds the middle of the
road until forced to move over. And he is likely to
suddenly stop anywhere at any time without
warning. A large number of native-owned cars have their
front wheels toed in at the top. This is apparently
king-pin wear, since their owners never give them any
attention beyond gas, oil and water, so long as they
A driver's license costs
$50.00, but is good for life. In addition to this document,
the foreign driver must have in his possession his
passport, vaccination, health and good conduct certificates,
a statement certifying that he is not a political agitator,
his identification cedula with photographs and fingerprints,
and his bill of sale if the car is privately owned.
There are a number of
oil fields in western Venezuela, on and near the lake.
Two small Shell-owned fields, Concepción and
La Paz, are some ten to fifteen miles west of Maracaibo;
each with less than 50 wells producing relatively small
amounts of high-gravity oil. Production is pumped to
Maracaibo for shipment. A small amount of production
is also obtained at Casigua, some 45 miles N.W. of
The important fields,
however, are all located along the eastern lake shore
south of Maracaibo. Cabimas has probably 500 wells
ranging from 1400 to 3000 feet in depth, producing
crude of from 16 to 26 A.P.I. gravity in quantities
which would probably average less than 50 barrels per
well per day, since this is the eldest field in the
region. Many of the dry-land wells are on jacklines
operated from central pumping powers. In June of 1939.
when these and the following figures were obtained,
Shell in this field had 254 wells pumping, 63 on gas
lift, and 40 flowing. No figures for the other operators
Tia Juana, south of
Cabimas, produces 13 gravity oil, almost exclusively
by pumping, from 2400 to 2700 ft. Lagunillas, the largest
field on the lake, is only a short distance south of
Tia Juana, and the production figures of both these
fields are lumped
wells are from 2000 to 4000 ft. deep and produce
sizeable amounts of crude averaging 16 gravity. Almost
all wells come
in flowing 400 to 1000 barrels, and some will continue
this flow for several years. Shell had 538 producers
in the two fields; 215 flowing, 3 on gas lift, and
The present figure is
between 750 and 800 producers, with several drilling
strings operating continuously. Total wells for all
operators in both fields is close to 1500, with an
average potential production per well of some 150 barrels
Lago Petroleum Co.,
Mene Grande Oil Co., and V.O.C. (Shell) are all represented
in each of the foregoing fields, with Shell operating
entirely on land and the other two companies dividing
the seagoing territory. Shell digs its wells and puts
them on production within a week's time; while the
other operators, drilling in the lake from barges,
require somewhat longer.
Mene Grande field, also
exclusively Shell, is some 20 miles east of the lake
shore. It had a total of 122 wells bottomed at from
1700 to 5000 ft. and produced crude ranging from 16
to 29 gravity. 51 wells were flowing, 19 on gas lift,
and 52 pumping.
Mene Grande crude is
pumped to San Lorenzo, on the lake shore, where the
Shell has its single Venezuelan refinery, and some
of it is refined to obtain a very vile grade of gasoline
for local distribution. Apparently they never heard
of octane, and only one grade is sold. The remaining
crude is carried by tanker to the immense refinery
at Curaçao-second largest in the world.
Each operating company
in each of the other fields has its own loading dock
where its fleet of shallow-draft lake tankers are loaded.
Lago's goes to their largest-in-the-world refinery
on the Dutch island of Aruba, while Mene Grande's oil
is transferred to ocean-going tankers at a terminal
on the Gulf of Venezuela and carried to their Port
Arthur, Texas, refinery, from which most is re-shipped
For almost a year, due
to the lack of sufficient convoyed tankers to carry
refined products from Curaçao and Aruba to Europe,
the lake fields have been at least 25% shut in.
Eastern Venezuela has
relatively small established producing fields at Caripito
and Quiriquire, with others in process of development.
PIER VILLAGE OF LAGUNILLAS, NEAR V.O.C. CAMP, BURNING,
NOVERMBER 13, 1939.
VILLAGE THE MORNING AFTER THE FIRE.
BUNK HOUSE, V.O.C. CAMP, LAGUNILLAS, ONE ROOM DEEP,
EIGHT ROOMS LONG, BUILT ON DRAINED SWAMP.
HOUSES IN TINY JUNGLE VILLAGE OF PICA PICA; IN JUNGLE
25 MILES FROM LAGUNILLAS..
represented there are Standard of N.J., Socony-Vacuum,
Mene Grande Oil, and The Texas Co. The great savannah
country of the Orinoco basin has been more or less
covered by geophysical crews, but a great deal of
exploratory work has been postponed until after the
cessation of European hostilities.
HIGH COST OF OPERATIONS
In general, oil operations
in Venezuela are carried out only with difficulty.
Cheapest oil field labor is 12 Bolivares ($4.00) per
day, and 1000 Bolivares per month ($330.00) is not
uncommon for native foremen, if they canread and write.
National law requires that 90 per cent field labor
and 75 per cent office help be native, regardless of
its efficiency. The companies must provide housing,
medical attention, transportation and profit-sharing
for all employes. The law also prohibits firing a man,
even for cause, without 60 days' severance pay.
Native drillers and
crews are used, with American toolpushers, each of
whom looks after three rigs, and has his hands full
Machinery for drilling
and production is admitted duty-free; but any imported
material competing with the few products in the country
is heavily taxed. There is a tiny nail factory in Caracas
which cannot begin to supply the oil companies' requirements;
but imported nails carry a high duty. Although a certain
amount is cut locally, lumber is high because of transportation
difficulties. An imported rig floor plank 3 in. by
12 in. by 24 ft. long costs about $2150 laid down in
Maracaibo. Obviously there are no wooden derricks.
The foreign (white)
staff employes of the Lago and Mene Grande Companies
are largely American, but there are very few of the
latter in the Shell camps, perhaps half a dozen in
Maracaibo, and a dozen at Lagunillas. The majority
are English and Dutch, but 21 different nationalities
were represented at Lagunillas.
The company camps provide
good accommodations and a bachelor with subsistence
furnished doesn't do too badly. But it costs a married
couple with no children the equivalent of some $300
per month for overhead - if they don't do much entertaining.
Since the lake shore
road and the Trans-Andean Highway are the only Venezuelan
roads of any consequence, it is virtually impossible
to go any place by car. Planes are much in use for
getting from one section of the country to another.
R. W. "PARKY" PARKINSON,
'13, is Chief Engineer for Caribbean Petroleum, with
his office at Maracaibo, and has been in the country
some 26 years. During my stay there I saw him every
couple of weeks, and he was of much assistance in helping
me to meet and work with the various European staff
At a dance in Maracaibo one Saturday night I ran into
Bob McRAE, '35, who was just in from a
several months' stretch
of surveying concession boundaries in the southeastern
corner of the country, which is Motolone Indian territory.
He was the only white man with a crew of a dozen or
so natives, and was expecting a recurrence of a bad
attack of malaria, which was why he had come to"town." After
hanging around Maracaibo for two or three weeks, the
attack failed to materialize, so he went back into
the bush. Bob attended last year's Seminar session
and announced that he had "gone native" to
the extent of leaving Shell and acquiring a ranch near
the Andes mountains southeast of Lake Maracaibo. He
expects to do very well for himself, raising produce
for Maracaibo consumption.
Because of the bugs,
a spray gun is standard equipment in every bedroom
in company camps. Most Venzuelans sleep under netting,
since window screens are lacking. Due to the high humidity,
it is necessary to burn a 100-watt lamp in each clothes
closet to prevent the rapid growth of green hair on
shoes, leather luggage and wool clothes. Before leaving
the States, the writer was warned that a hat and sun
glasses were absolutely essential. He used neither,
although a hat would undoubtedly be of use during a
hard rainy season. Because of the higher concentration
of actinic rays in the tropics, an exposure meter is
a useful accessory for picture-making. The light fools
A “sack of beer” is
not a few bottles in a paper bag. The standard shipping
package is 60 bottles, each in a straw cone, sewn into
heavy jute sacking to make a rectangular package. These
sacks are tossed on and off boat and trucks, and are
carried through the mountains on burro-back with few
bottles ever broken. Retail, beer is 30¢ per bottle
and cannot be purchased cold except in the larger towns
or in company camps.
Although of higher alcoholic
content than our beer, the Maracaibo beer isn't bad.
The Caracas beer, however, from the capital city, is
terrible. Apparently they don't believe in aging it.
Bourbon whiskey is unknown.
The much-touted “cheap imported Scotch,” of
which I heard in the States, was also non-existent.
It costs as much as $12.00 per fifth last December.
The only cheap drink is native white rum, plenty powerful,
and aged perhaps a couple of weeks. $1.50 per quart.
White Owl cigars are
50¢ each. Native cigars, not bad, are 2¢ each
and up. Native cigarettes (“firecrackers” to
us) are 15¢ for 15. U. S. cigarettes are 75¢ per
pack tax-stamped and 50¢ from bootleggers. There
is no Venezuelan-made pipe tobacco. I tired of paying
80¢ per small tin of P. A., much of it mildewed,
and had a pound of my favorite smoking mailed from
the States. The import duty was almost $9.00, and thenceforth
P. A. was good enough. No trouble is experienced with
tobacco drying out, but quite the opposite. One can
tie a knot in a cigar any time.
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