The first reported instance of "shooting" oil wells with explosives as a means of "stimulating" reservoirs, or bringing the well in as a 'gusher,' might have occurred as early as 1865 in Pennsylvania and was done by a civil war hero named, Roberts. Sticks of dynamite and a detonator were lowered in the well in a long tube using a slick line, wired back to the surface and detonated. Robert's business grew quickly; fees for his service were between $100 and $200 per well plus an interest in the well, if he could get it.
By 1908-1909 the process had gotten slightly more "sophisticated" with the use of canisters, called "torpedoes," and thick gelatin, a mixture of nitroglycerine, cotton and wood pulp. These things exploded on contact at TD. These torpedo shooters were some tough sumbitches and lots of them did not live very long. Driving nitroglycerine down bad oil field roads and dropping torpedoes into wells, only to have them blown back up the hole during a kick, killed many a hand back in the day.
By 1913 a man named Ford Alexander, a torpedo shooter in California, made sort of a bomb out nitr0- gelatin, and wheeled it into the base of an oil well fire in the Midway- Sunset oil field near Taft to blow off a well head. Low and behold, the explosion blew the well head off and the fire out. The casing was then re-capped and the well brought back under control. Karl Kinley worked for Alexander and was involved in that Sunset fire. His young son, Myron Kinley watched the
Myron M.Kinley (seated); Taft, California, 1912
The MM Kinley Company, including Myron and his brother, Floyd, essentially controlled the business of worldwide oil well firefighting and blowout control from 1924 to 1959. Myron eventually hired a man named, Red Adair in 1945 and later Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews in 1956 and 1958, respectfully. Red, Boots and Coots left Kinley in 1958 to form The Red Adair Company. A man named, H.L. "Pat" Patton from Houston also did some well control work in that era before jerking his arm plum off on a blowout for Texaco in Louisiana in 1944. He had a well head boomed to the casing head with chains went the whole thing, including his arm, got launched. He actually did well control work several more years with one arm.
Often completely lost, unfortunately, in discussions about the history of early well control, where Kinley and Patton were the main characters, was a man named Ward "Tex" Thorton from Amarillo, Texas, himself an old torpedo shooter.
'Tex 'was born in Mississippi in 1891 and went to World War I in 1918 as an explosives expert, much like Myron Kinley. When he returned from the war he went to work for the United States Torpedo Company in Wichita Falls, brought in a lot of wells North Texas and Oklahoma before moving to Amarillo around 1923. There he eventually formed the Tex Thornton Torpedo Company and carried on with his profession of stimulating wells and severing strings of casing, etc. with nitroglycerine shots.
Several years later Tex began using nitroglycerine gelatin canisters to blow off well heads, to get fires going straight up, then re-shooting them again to snuff out fires. Some of the shot placement techniques in those days involved trolley rails to push the explosives canisters into the well head, at the based of the fire.
Tex Thornton, circ. 1922
Tex on the run in the Texas Panhandle, circ. 1942
The Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma Panhandle and Kansas areas contained lots of natural gas development (Hugoton Gas Field was discovered in 1922) and Tex made a good career for himself shooting wells and putting out fires. Plagued by drought in the 1930's and the era of the North Texas "Dust Bowl," Tex Thornton attempted to shoot explosive filled rockets, and float balloons into cloud ridden skies to create rain, and even did demolition work destroying buildings and bridges in and around Amarillo during his career.
Thornton was known to be colorful and brash, was prone to carrying larges sums of money around with him and drank a lot. He often bragged about how many undetonated torpedoes he 'caught' in mid air that were blown back out of the hole when the well kicked. He was reported to have taken credit for blowing out over 300 oil and gas well fires in his career and referred to himself as the "king" of oil well firefighting, a term Myron Kinley would have most likely smiled at.
In mid summer 1949, coming back from a job severing casing strings in the Farmington, New Mexico area, Tex Thornton stopped in a bar near the Texas/New Mexico state line where he met a young man and woman that were hitchhiking across America, heading east. The next day Tex was found murdered in a hotel room in Amarillo. He was 58.
The role the hitchhiking couple had in the murder has long been debated but neither were actually ever charged.
It was a hell of a way for Tex to go, given where he'd been.
Ward A. 'Tex' Thornton (1891-1949)