Nitroglycerine Saved Many Wells
Less than a year after the first oil well was drilled in northwestern Pennsylvania, well owners had trouble. Paraffin was the culprit. Petroleum in this region is rich in the waxy substance and it was clogging the underground flow of oil. The producers were an ingenious lot and they quickly set out to find a solution.
Wells were steamed, they were drenched with benzene, and boiling liquids were poured into the openings. Gun powder was applied via various methods until a torpedo was developed and the process met with some success. Water in many of the wells served as a tamping agent. In 1864 Colonel E. A. L. Roberts applied for a patent to increase well production using explosives in “connection with superincumbent fluid tamping.” The patent was granted and for many years it was vigorously defended by Colonel Roberts and his brother, Dr. Walter B. Roberts, a dentist in New York State, who came to Titusville in 1867. Producers who felt they were well on the way to finding a similar solution to the problem were just as resolute in trying to circumvent the Roberts’ patent and the high fees charged by that company.
Nitroglycerine soon became the explosive of choice even though the liquid was unstable and deadly accidents happened. The explosive was also easy to make and the process of shooting a well required simple equipment—a torpedo and a squib—as well as a steady hand as the nitroglycerine was poured from the cans into the torpedo. To protect its patent the Roberts Company hired detectives to spy on the activity at wells and as many as 2,000 lawsuits were in court at one time.
Frequently wells were shot at night in an effort to keep the action secret. The men hired for those jobs became known as “moonlighters” because they often sought a bright moonlit night to do their work.
“Shooting” wells was a dangerous occupation whether it was done through a legally-licensed company or by moonlighters. No one was able to tame the unstable nature of the liquid nitro and oildom’s history is filled with dozens of tales of explosions which left only mangled remains and gaping holes in the earth’s surface.
In the early years a custom-built nitro wagon was used to transport the explosive which was stored in cans in a heavily-padded chamber under the driver’s seat. Pulled by a team of horses it bounced its way over the rutted rural roads to the well site and considering the unpredictable nature of the nitro it is amazing so many reached their destination.
The region was quickly alerted to the danger. In July 1868 there were two fatalities. A nitro plant at Reno exploded as a worker approached, killing him, tearing a large hole in the ground and damaging nearby homes. The Roberts’ storage area near Titusville exploded and a workman was killed. In the 19th century Venango County had 31 deaths from nitro and there were 124 killed in the thriving oil fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia. Many were shooters, oil well workers and bystanders. In addition 38 magazine explosions resulted in 27 deaths, 17 factory blow ups brought 14 deaths and 12 people were killed by “empty” cans.
The Allegheny River community of Kennerdell in southern Venango County has a large marble monument erected in memory of two men who lost their lives in an explosion November 23, 1872. Royal A. “Doc” Wright was the experienced torpedo agent in the southern part of the county and kept his stock in a magazine up-river from the village. On the fatal morning he stopped his horse-drawn sleigh at the railroad station where he was joined by Henry J. Wolfe, the telegraph operator. Soon a loud explosion was heard with tremors felt six miles away. Like most such events no one survived to detail the cause and it was believed the explosive might have been frozen setting off a blast. The Allegheny Valley Railroad erected the marker at the gravesite.
While most of the nitro was transported by land there was also some traffic on the river. Dr. Roberts built a small steamboat in Oil City in 1877 and it was used up and down the river. In November 1899 a boat was moored in the river just south of Oil City, having hauled 6,000 pounds of the explosive from Warren, Pa. Part of the load had been removed to a magazine when the remaining 3,400 pounds exploded, killing two men, destroying a nearby ice house and two dwellings and breaking windows throughout the city.
Despite its dangers this facet of the oil business was frequently a family affair. John Hall, who followed his father and brothers into the business, was only 30 when he was killed when he tripped and fell with a nitro can while shooting a well at Turkey City in 1914. His brother, Framp Hall, lived to shoot his last well on his 80th birthday in 1956.
Heavily-populated areas were understandably nervous about the transport of nitroglycerine through the communities but were generally lax in establishing and enforcing ordinances. In 1907 Oil City levied only a $25 fine for shooting a well in the city limits. In 1895 Charles Ward hauled a 1,680-pound load through a refinery at Reno, through the large Eclipse Refinery near Franklin, over seven blocks of a main residential area in Franklin and up a steep hill to a magazine at Bully Hill when the load exploded, breaking windows three miles away in the main part of the city. His twin brother, Clarence, was killed in 1901 when a magazine in the Rynd Farm-Kaneville area exploded. It was owned by his father-in-law, A. G. Harper, who was in the business many years.
Three other magazine-factory explosions occurred in that same area. One in 1908 killed two workers, Peter McGuire and David Feeley, and the latter’s two sons, ages 9 and 8, who were waiting outside. No one was hurt in two later blasts in 1924 and 1939.
In spite of the dangers, shooting a well brought out many spectators. On New Year’s afternoon 1924 a group gathered to witness such an event at a well five miles from Franklin. Robert Kinnear, 45, a veteran shooter, had thawed 15 quarts of nitro. When he started pouring it into the shell, it exploded, killing him, the son of the well owner and his wife, and three other people who gathered to watch the event.
Dozens of other accidents and many near misses are part of the Oil Region’s lore. Some seemingly insignificant incidents ended in tragedy; other times runaway teams would bump over rough ground and come to a harmless stop, their load intact.
The Otto-Cupler Company traced its roots back to the original Roberts’ company and workers from there were still shooting wells with nitro in the 1980s although hydrofracing had become the favorite means of finishing off deep wells. Four employees of the Otto-Cupler plant at East Titusville escaped an explosion at the plant in 1978. With 380 quarts of nitro in the building they noticed the temperature rising sharply, heeded the warning and rushed outside seconds before the blast destroyed the two-story building and company truck.
A number of shooters lived to retire after long careers, some of them switching to trucks or automobiles to haul the explosives. But when Louis Stahl of Titusville closed out 48 years with the Cupler company in 1930 he was still driving his horse and wagon. Everyone who was in the business for many years had a number of close calls but they persevered. T. M. Agnew, who started in 1879 as a moonlighter, retired in 1907 having shot 5,500 wells. And the lure of seeing an oil well being shot was always a constant draw for spectators with as many as 50 to 100 frequently on the fringes of a well site to witness the spectacle.
Written by Carollee Michener