Friday, October 9, 1964. Fire destroyed the above five businesses in downtown Bartlesville, Oklahoma, at 4th and Johnstone. It was ironic that the fire happened during National Fire Prevention Week, and so the Fire Prevention parade was called off that was scheduled that weekend. After the fire was under control, everybody breathed easier when there was no loss of life. Or so they thought.
Click on images to enlarge.
The next day the clean-up began. Mixed in the debris that workers carried off contained a jug that was filled with methanol wood alcohol. Methanol is used as antifreeze, solvent, fuel, and as a denaturant for ethanol, and was found in common industrial solvents in paint remover, and cleansing agents. As little as 10 mL of pure methanol when drunk is metabolized into formic acid, which can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve. 15 mL is potentially fatal. The actual tragedy is that workers thought the dump was down the street from Gratt’s Place on North Johnstone. However, it wasn’t the city dump, but property that belonged to people who lived on this street.
When six people in that area saw all of the trash debris, they immediately went to investigate what it was. Seeing that it was the fire debris, they started searching through it for copper or anything they could salvage for money. The owners of the business downtown should have poured out the contents before sending it to the dump! But that didn’t happen.
There were two possibilities as where it came from. Either from Gunter’s Drug Store, or Rex Billiard Parlor, that used the compound on their billiard tables. But, it could also have been used as a cleaning solvent in any of the businesses. So nobody took responsibility for the ownership of the jug and its contents.
The men mixed the contents of the jug with soda pop, and drank it.
Three men died of methanol alcohol poisoning:
• Leroy Chambers, 64, 212 N. Johnstone
• Harold C. ‘Teen’ Miller, 52, 200 S. Johnstone
• Clem Amos Winn, 37, Rt. Two, Bartlesville
One man went blind, Leon Jackson, 34, 701 S. Penn. He passed away only recently, and lived blind since the 1964 incident. Elmer Dean Clements, 43, 204 N. Park, was confined to the hospital for two days before being released without many complications. Lonnie Dooley was not confined after drinking only a small amount.
Mistake Jug Contents
Harlan ‘Pony’ Chambers, 84, gives an interview with Karen Kerr McGraw, on North Johnstone and points out where this tragedy happened. His father, Leroy Chambers, left 8 children behind. (I apologize for the wind interference).
In conclusion, these men were directly influenced by the tragic fire, as were the many family members they left behind.
Sixty-four years ago this month, May 1953, the national magazine with just one word, ‘Men’, hit all the news stands, and Bartlesville, Oklahoma was on the map. Officially. Ben Townsend was sent to write about a particular hotel that was known far and wide, the Burlingame Hotel. At the time, Bartlesville had 19,000 residents, most of whom were connected to the oil business in one form or another. Townsend’s first impression as he drove through the city was ‘sleepy’. But sometimes first impressions are an illusion.
He checked into the Burlingame Hotel, and was told by the bellhop, “if you want anything, sir, just see me in the lobby.” And that was the beginning of a weekend filled with finding secrets about wine, women, and song. And anything else a person had an appetite for….gambling, alcohol, dope. Money was the key, and it didn’t take long to find a bootlegger.
The Burlingame Hotel was in the heart of downtown Bartlesville, in the center of commerce and business. All around it was Frank Phillips’ oil empire, slowly spreading in every direction, known as Phillips Petroleum Company.
Townsend didn’t hide anything, he reported everything he witnessed, and everything people told him. If he saw it, he recorded it. It makes you wonder how the city reacted when the story was published. But as far as I can tell, the city took it in stride, almost proud of it, and life continued about the same. Every now and then, however, I talk to somebody that remembers the magazine article, and they will lower their voice somewhat to tell the story, ‘Bartlesville….sleepy time sin’, which is printed here in its entirety! (Click on images to enlarge).
Meet Harlan ‘Pony’ Chambers
Pony Chambers is known by many in Bartlesville as the mailman from 1963 until he retired in 1978. He was dedicated to his job, and enjoyed interacting with all the people that he came into contact with! While working on this story, I can vouch that Pony is one of the nicest guys I have interviewed and worked with! Chambers will be 84 years young on August 6.
Around the time that Dick Tracy was a popular comic strip, there was a character in it called Yellow Pony. That is where the nick name ‘Pony’ started, and it stuck!
He was born in 1933 to Leroy and Gertrude Chambers at 402 N. Johnstone. Back in the day, North Johnstone came to a dead-end at the Caney River, and was referred to as the Johnsone Bottoms, or just the Bottoms. Gratt Rogers, 405 N. Johnstone, was the kingpin of this area, and ruled for over 50 years. Gratt lived directly across the street from the Chambers family, and Pony knew him well. I have many stories in upcoming blogs about Gratt and life in the Johnstone Bottoms.
Another thing about life back in the early days in the Bottoms is the fact that babies were born at home, not at hospitals. Pony was born at home, and lived all of his childhood at the Bottoms before the family moved to 918 South Maple, and lives there to this day.
In 1951, when Pony was 18 years old, he went to work at the Burlingame Hotel as a bellboy. He is full of stories from those days, and I would just as soon not share a lot of the corruption that happened.
However, Ben Townsend’s article, above, is a good description of part of the Burlingame Hotel’s history. But also understand, aside from a certain floor, the Burlingame had businesses, coffee and fine dining, and was the main hotel for families and businessmen who didn’t have a clue about another lifestyle. It had a flower shop, and a beauty/barber shop, a news stand, and several other businesses. It was simply a thriving business in the heart of downtown Bartlesville, and although people remember some of the corrupt stories, it was full of good people who were either business owners or people who rented a hotel room, and also later people rented rooms as apartments.
The Burlingame Hotel, after 55 years, closed its doors to business on January 31, 1968. It began as an idea in January, 1910, and sat on the corner of 4th and Johnstone where decade in, and decade out, people’s lives were played out in all different ways, some stories live on, while others have forever been lost in the annals of time. The building still stands, and is owned by the City of Bartlesville and houses several city departments and agencies.
THE MAIRE HOTEL
Before it was the Burlingame Hotel, however, it was the Maire Hotel. Although C.E. Burlingame was involved from the beginning, it was first named for Frank and Ed Maire, of Lima, Ohio, when it began in 1912. The Maire Hotel finally opened in 1914.
DAILY LIFE EVENTS OF PEOPLE AND EVENTS THAT WERE PUBLISHED IN THE NEWSPAPERS OF THE DAY (click on image to enlarge):
Hundreds of people were involved in daily activities at the Hotel on 4th and Johnstone, and this is just a sampling of life that has long been gone.
MEET WILLA MAE RUSSELL PALMER, BURLINGAME HOTEL COOK
Willa Mae was born in Waco, Texas on June 26, 1928 to Andrew ‘Babe’ Russell, and when she was 3 years old, her family moved to Dewey, Oklahoma. Babe worked at the Dewey Cement Plant, but met an untimely death on January 4, 1948, when Gratt Rogers shot him in an altercation at Gratt’s Bar (this story will be told in full on this blog next week). It’s hard to believe, but Willa Mae still lives in the house in Dewey that her family moved to in 1931. I just left her house this morning, and I’m still amazed that she is so spry and full of life at the age of 89 years young. She wanted me to know, first and most important of all, that God has given her these many years of life, and that she is a testimony of His Love and Goodness. And after being with her a couple of times, she lives it and is full of love!
Willa Mae, at 23 years old, became a cook for the Burlingame Hotel, and worked there for 17 years. What a lovely lady!
It is somewhat hard to believe, but the most bizarre explosion in the history of the oil industry happened in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, on Friday, March 10, 1922! I don’t know if we still claim that honor these 85 years later, but I would sure think so!
The Enterprise story, in its entirety:
“One of the most peculiar accidents recorded in the history of the oil industry occurred late yesterday afternoon 4 miles south of Bartlesville when a blazine oil-saturated rabbit caused the explosion and total destruction of the Eastern Torpedo Company’s plant. The shock of the explosion was felt in Bartlesville. There were no casualties except the rabbit, and the loss is less than $5,000.
When R.C. Camblin, the glycerin maker went to the factory yesterday afternoon to fire up preparatory to manufacturing a new supply of nitro-glycerin, he started a fire in the boiler box and turned in the oil from the fuel tank. It seems that a rabbit had been asleep in the boiler box. He became saturated with the oil and caught on fire in making his escape over the blaze. When the rabbit darted by Camblin standing in the door, he was a blazing streak. He ran for the first opening in sight which happened to be a hole under the factory. Camblin knew that there was stored in the factory at least fifty quarts of nitro-glycerin and that an explosion was a matter of only a few minutes. “I knew it was my next move,” said Camblin this morning, in telling the Enterprise reporter of the affair. He moved to such good purpose that he was a quarter of a mile from the scene when the explosion occurred.
The plant was not a large one, but it was a total loss. Very little of value was salvaged and the complany will have to build an entirely new factory. The factory which was destroyed yesterday afternoon is a successor to the plant which nearly cost H.O. Dixon his life almost seventeen years ago. Dixon was making glycerin and had to run for his life when the glycerin caught fire. He and two men with him were only about a hundred yards from the factory when the explosion occurred and all escaped unhurt.”
Back in the teens and twenties, when nitroglycerin plants were in business, I would guess there were few rules and regulations, other than run if something goes wrong! Becky Tallent of OK News writes about the nitroglycerin business:
“After the wells were drilled, the crews fractured the holes with nitroglycerin, something Wolf said was nothing to be afraid of unless you wanted to get hurt.
“It ain’t the nitro that would hurt you, it’s the cans. If the guy who welded the cans (fracturing cans dropped into the holes) didn’t get it all soldered and you dropped some on the walk, then if you stepped on it coming back, it would blow you clear off the track. It wouldn’t hurt you, just blow you a few feet away.”
Wolf said he worked several jobs in the Covington-Garber field, from firing the boilers and dropping the nitro to flying cigarets and gasoline to other fields.
The boom for that area ended in 1922, he recalled, when the price of oil dropped to 50 cents a barrel. The field re-opened during the last part of 1927, but died again in 1932 when oil dropped to five cents a barrel. “You couldn’t give it away then. Gasoline was probably nine cents a gallon,” he said.
Although oil companies are once again going into the old field with the newer techniques for enhanced recovery, Wolf said it is nothing like the old days when 2,000 to 3,000 people lived in the oil field among the rigs.”
I notice in these articles a lack of respect for the explosive. That may be what led to so many people being killed or loss of limbs, if they lived! Carelessness was evident in every area of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The first danger was that the nitro haulers were always driving the streets of our city, and some of them left their nitro trucks parked all night long on Second Street, where plenty of bars and drinking happened. On September 19, 1917, people were up in arms and said if the police wouldn’t stop these hauls through the city, they would do something about it themselves, warning that another accident was imminent. Grant Mears had already been blown up on 14th Street, in a nitro accident, and people were tired of the danger on a daily basis.
The second danger of the carelessness at nitro plants were the canisters that were found lodged in drifts at Sand Creek, and the Caney River. When these nitro buildings were flooded, which happened on a regular basis, the canisters would end up in the creeks and rivers close by. Some still think these canisters are buried in fields and around the creeks and the Caney River.
Torpedo Switch was not the only area where the nitroglycerin plants were located. There was one at Coon Creek, one in east Bartlesville, and several more. I have noticed that sometimes the name of the nitro company changed, to the point where I can’t give a clear and precise history of their name and actual address. Other than the Torpedo Switch location, all of the rest used addresses of ‘East Bartlesville’, ‘Coon Creek’, ‘South Bartlesville’, etc. Then at some point, they blew up, and wouldn’t be rebuilt. But for every nitro plant, there was always a tragedy of how somebody was blown up, regardless of how many years experience they had.
This next picture is just a few steps away from the above Torpedo Switch picture, taken just yesterday, May 4, 2017. It is so ironic, but there is a structure that looks like it was in an explosion of some type. It is right off the highway, County Road 2706, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I’m still somewhat amazed since working on this story the last couple of weeks:
Some nitroglycerin stories that were published in the Bartlesville newspapers, 1909 through 1922. Great reading for people to understand the early days, and to watch the evolution of the oil fields, and the toll it took on human lives (please click on image to enlarge):
It has been said there are some nitro canisters that are still buried in fields, streams, and rivers around Bartlesville. Although I doubt it, you just never know. I would suggest if you ever run across a metal canister while out hiking, fishing or hunting, to call 911 immediately, and do not try to pick it up or remove it. I’m sure the chances are very slim to ever run across one, but better safe than sorry!