As written in my last column, this chapter describes a Bucyrus-Erie 20W spudder rig I bought used in 1968. Some older readers probably say, “I know all about that rig.” Or they may know its competition, the 55 Speedstar or the 42 Cyclone (or other spudders). Many younger fellows, however, know little if anything about cable tool or spudder drilling and the rigs used. This will be my version of a history lesson. If you are bored, I apologize. If you learn something new, I will have succeeded in my lesson.

Bucyrus-Erie, based in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, built the rig. The company formed in Bucyrus, Ohio, in the early 1880s to build power shovels. Then known as the Bucyrus Foundry and Manufacturing Company, the company moved to South Milwaukee in the 1890s to make room for expansion. In 1927, Bucyrus merged with the Erie Steam Shovel Company of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Bucyrus-Erie had several plants throughout the United States launched into international markets through a connection with Ruston & Hornsby Ltd. of England. B-E had a reputation for building tough, well-built machines that, given reasonable care, would last for years and years. I know several people who worked in the earthmoving business and they tell me that the Bucyrus shovels were tough, tough machines.

B-E got into the drill business in 1933 when they purchased manufacturing rights to the Armstrong drill rig made in Waterloo, Iowa. For a number of years, the rigs were called Bucyrus-Armstrong. (As I understand, Bucyrus had to pay Armstrong a royalty on every rig built.) After about 1943, the rigs were known as Bucyrus-Erie.

The company opened and closed a number of plants through the years where they manufactured shovels, drag lines, excavators, blasthole rigs, oil well spudders and water well rigs. I understand that, all told, they built about 11,000 spudder rigs over the years. In the 1980s, they sold the spudder line to the Buckeye Drill Company of Ohio. I believe that Buckeye will still build you a brand new B-E spudder rig, but I’m not absolutely sure.

In 1997, Bucyrus-Erie changed its name to Bucyrus International. I have read that they acquired several international companies around the world. I have also read that, a few years ago — and I’m not sure of the date on this — that Bucyrus closed its doors. Over the years I have found literature that they made close to 6,700 water well spudders, over 2,900 oil well spudders and a little over 1,900 churn or spudder blasthole rigs — certainly a long and successful enterprise. I don’t think I ever talked to an owner of a B-E rig who didn’t believe it was well built.

The 20-W that I purchased used in 1968 was among the smallest of the true spudders that B-E made. They did build an even smaller model 1W, but it was really a jetting rig (which used drill pipe down the hole — a popular method for drilling 2- and 3-inch wells.) The 20W was a popular size rig here in the Midwest, rated to drill 3- to 6-inch wells to a depth of 500 feet. This was ideal for southern Michigan, especially in the area I am in where if you go too deep you’re probably going to hit saltwater. This rig could handle a 1,200-pound tool string at the surface and 900 pounds at 500 feet. The difference was the weight of the drill cable, so the load on the drill at 500 feet was about the same as the higher rating at the surface.

These rigs were designed to mount on a 1½-ton truck of whatever make and they weighed about 6,000 pounds plus the drill lines, drill tools, and extra parts and tools everybody carried. A few were trailer-mounted, but I think I have only seen a couple rigs like that in Michigan. I understand the trailer-mounted rigs were meant for export, where they could be hauled around by tractors and perhaps even horses or mules.

The 20W was a three-line rig with a bull reel, sand reel and casing reel. I understand that, when these rigs were first produced in 1949, the casing reel was optional. The 20W I bought in 1968 did have a casing reel. That reel and the bull reel operated with the same clutch, making it a unique setup. A lever at the operator’s station controlled a moveable pinion gear that engaged the gears of both the casing and bull reel. The advantage was those reels could be operated in a freewheeling manner so, when running tools in the hole, you didn’t spin the operating clutch backward at a high speed. It also helped on a cold morning in the winter when that clutch could be a little stiff and sticky. The downside was that, when bumping pipe out of the hole or setting a well screen by the telescoping method, you sometimes wanted to put a strain on the casing with the casing reel. The one-clutch, two-reel system meant the driller had to do a lot of shifting as casing came out of the ground. Other rig makes, like the Speedstar and Cyclone, had separate clutches for these two reels. Both systems worked, and each had supporters and detractors.

Now you know a bit of the history of the 20-W. All told, Bucyrus made about 1,600 of these from 1949 to 1981. It was the second most popular water well spudder — well behind its bigger brother, the 22W (of which 3,500 were built from 1941 to 1984). I’ll do more details on the 20W next time and am enclosing a picture of this rig taken some years later after dad and I made a few needed repairs and repainted it.

The weather in Michigan has been hot and dry and my infamous lawn isn’t brown but is not very green either. I have had a bumper crop of the dreaded buckhorn, which I have written about lately, having had four cuttings of this nasty weed. As I wrote this, Louisiana and Texas were facing yet another hurricane. My heart goes out to those readers. May God be with you as you recover.

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