Plains Folk

Shooting Wells


These days we hear a great deal about the hazards of hydraulic fracturing in the oil patch. Let me tell you a story about hazardous drilling operations.


One day in March of 1916, a teamster named Harry Hill was nearing the end of a fifty-mile journey to a point in the countryside near Cleveland, in southern Kansas. He never made it. His cargo was 600 quarts of nitroglycerine intended for use by the Eastern Torpedo Company in shooting new oil wells.


The nitro detonated, leaving a “great gaping cavity in the earth,” according to the Liberal Democrat, and “scarcely a pailful of remains” of poor Mr. Hill. He shared the fate of many others who lost their lives bringing in wells in the early oilfields of the Great Plains.


There was a Civil War officer named Edward A. L. Roberts, colonel of a New Jersey regiment, which happened to fight alongside my great-grandfather’s regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Being of a curious mind, he observed and remembered the effects of Confederate shells exploding in a millrace on the battlefield.


This was the germ of the idea of the Roberts Torpedo, the iron capsule patented by Roberts in 1866 to carry gunpowder (later nitro) to the bottom of a well and induce the flow of fluid. Used first for water wells, the Roberts Torpedo came into notable, heroic, and often catastrophic use in petroleum exploration. Hence the sad fate of our teamster, Mr. Hill—and of many a legendary shooter. The shooter was the well-paid individual who would be called to the platform of a drilling rig that had reached what was hoped to be a bearing formation, and who would fill and drop the torpedo that would bring in the well, or not.


A treatise on petroleum engineering published in 1916 describes the method of torpedoing wells that had become customary by then on the southern plains. In fact, if a “small shot” of nitro (say perhaps 24 quarts) proved insufficient, this guide says, then a “large shot” (perhaps 160 quarts) would be deployed, and periodically thereafter a well might be re-shot to re-induce flow. Most all early wells across Oklahoma and Kansas were shot with nitro, the drilling firms maintaining magazines strategically situated across the production region.


“The work of shooting wells is naturally very dangerous,” observes an authority in this 1916 text, which was why shooters were paid $150/month. The same authority observes, “It is generally considered that a shooter’s final illness will not incur either a doctor’s bill or funeral expenses.”


Which leaves those of us in a macabre frame of mind to wonder, what became of that pailful of remains of our teamster Mr. Hill?


Nor was Mr. Hill ever celebrated in the way the legendary shooters were in oil patch folklore and the popular press. Indeed, there were serious hazards for everyone in the locality of shooting operations.


Which brings me to the moral of the story, I guess—what we on the northern plains might learn from experience on the southern plains a century ago. The moral is, I think, that those torpedoes of nitro going off underground did no harm, except perhaps for messing up drilling operations if the job were botched. The hazards came in transit—getting the hazardous material to the site and handling it down the hole. In such matters we might try to do a little better than the bosses who sent Mr. Hill down the road to eternity.


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