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Legends of the Oil Patch

 

The occupation of shooting oil wells—stimulating the flow of oil by detonating torpedoes of nitroglycerine in them—was the stuff of legend. The legendary status of shooters, the guys who transported, handled, and dropped the charges, was established on the southern and central plains already a century ago.

 

Early treatments of shooters in the popular press, like that by Harper’s Weekly in 1910, emphasized the prospect for catastrophe endemic in the practice of shooting. “Several wagons bearing shooters and their loads have been blown up,” reported this staid journal, “but no one ever lived to tell what sort of jar caused the explosion.” And so the legend began.

 

The shooter, careless of life, well-paid, even stylish—using some of his liberal salary to buy such trappings of field distinction as Witch Elk, high-laced boots. Living hard, dying young.

 

An extended article in the Tulsa World in 1922 was perhaps the best profile of the legendary occupation. “Nitroglycerine, most dangerous and unmanageable of practical explosives, has an absorbing romance,” writes the author for the World. Although by this time, owing to the replacement of horse-drawn wagons by automobiles for transportation of explosives, the casualty rate for shooters had declined, the shooter still partook of the romance of his explosive material—“dangerous and unmanageable.”

 

By this time, too, another thread was woven into the shooter legend, that of being cool under fire. Oral tradition abounded with stories of shooters who saved lives and rigs through deliberate action. The most common story was that of the shooter who feels the line go slack as he lowers a torpedo into the hole. He knows then that gas or oil is coming up the casing and bringing the torpedo with it. Instead of running, however, the shooter stands his ground, catches the torpedo as it pops out of the hole, and sets it aside safe.

 

The shooter was the #1 skill player in a team of skilled individuals who brought in the wells of early petroleum development on the plains. Rig builders, drillers, toolies, tank cats—they all had legendary reputations built on craft, sweat, and nerve. They gave a heroic cast to petroleum history.

 

As described by Bobby D. Weaver in his fine book, Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch, the shine came off the legends of the oil patch around about the 1950s. By then wells were being acidized instead of shot with nitro. All the rigs were rotary drills on steel derricks. Tanks were welded, not riveted, and pipelining was mechanized.

 

It seems to me there are no legends of the oil patch today, despite the revival of petroleum exploration from Texas to Alberta. A year or so ago Continental Resources tried to jump-start the legend process by emplacing a monument to itself in Crosby, North Dakota, but that won’t work; you can’t just make a monument to yourself and expect people to salute.

 

Neither can you revive the sort of legendary themes that lionized the denizens of the oil patch a century ago. Any scent of hazardous materials or employee hazard today prompts outrage rather than admiration. Any sort of cavalier behavior, such as characterizes legendary heroes, is condemned as arrogance. Perhaps we have lost our capacity for romance, and if so, that is a shame.

 

I still believe that somewhere on the plains, a legend, or a ballad, or some stirring narrative of the oil patch of the 21st Century is coming up the pipe, and I’ve got my boots laced up, waiting to catch it.

 

 

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