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!