La Blanca; 1938


The Texas Rio Grande Valley started getting oil and gas well tests drilled in it by the late 1910's and early 1920's; some Miocene tests closer to the Laguna Madre were showing gas, then further inland the Oligocene, Frio sands began looking very liquids-rich gassy. This area lacked surface anomalies indicative of salt, like Beaumont, Houston, etc., so a lot of initial testing was done based on gassy water wells and gas seeps in dry arroyos. Commercial oil was found in 1924 in Hidalgo County but of not much signficance.


With the advent of long period seismology and computer-like data collection in the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Rio Grande Embayment was found to have extensive growth faulting and structural closure associated with those faults. Deeper Frio and Vicksburg pays were found and some kick-ass gas fields were discovered, fields like Sam Fordyce, Jeffress, McAllen Ranch, Roma, etc.

Deeper Frio tests found a sort of over -pressured transition at 6,000-7,200 feet lying directly above the Vicksburg series and this section caused some awesome blowouts over the years. Mama Earth can be fairly predictable sometimes with 0.465 PSI per foot pressure gradients; for whatever reason She threw a loop in that in the lower Frio in this area with some 0.7's. Bottom hole temperatures in the Frio to Vicksburg facies change could be far above gradient as well; some 7,000 foots wells reported BHT of 300 F.


I worked with Adair once, then Coots Matthews later, as a kid roughnecking in the RGV.


A fella named Joseph Davenport, headquartered in Mission, Texas, had completed his No. 2 well in a Frio sand some 8 miles east of Edinburg near the little community of La Blanca a few weeks before Christmas, 1937. At 6,200 feet Davenport had wrestled a 100 BOPD well out of the Frio mix that also made enough gas to light up all of Hidalgo County. The Railroad Commission, actually then concerned about preserving bottom hole pressure, shut him in because of flaring. Over the ensuing weeks of the well being shut in, the casing pressure increased dramatically and caused lots of concern.

GIS Map of La Blanca Fld., left.



On the afternoon of January 7, 1938, Davenport got the dreaded phone call no operator ever wants. A rancher on his way to feed cows found his No. 2 well head gone and gas blowing 200 feet in the air. Slabs of dirt flapping around the casing stub like blankets suggested the flow was coming around the pipe. A crater was being formed. Sometime during the night of the 7th the casing cut out completely below ground level and the well caught fire.

Our old friend, H.L. 'Pat' Patton was called. If you are not familiar with Mr. Patton please take a time out and skim through this piece Oily Stuff did on him, here, just three or four months ago. He was a character and very much worth knowing about. Like an American Express card, Patton never left home without his capping stack winch truck !


Patton would have most likely driven to the Valley from Houston down Highway 77 and between Victoria and Refugio, near a wide place in the road called, Greta, he would have had to have detoured out in the pasture to get around a boiling gas well crater Myron Kinley was working on, described here on Oily Stuff. Patton worked on the same crater two years prior and eventually got run off, replaced by Kinley. I am not sure these two famous oil well firefighters were the best of friends and there may have been some single digit salutes occur when Kinley saw Patton's famous winch truck and stinger manifold drive by.

Once Patton arrived on location in La Blanca on the 10th of January he found essentially a big giant crater getting bigger by the minute, full of fire. On the right, Patton is having a look see at the casing stub, his brother Will and son, Luke, behind tin, spraying water to keep him cool.





The first order of business was to sort out the water situation (abundant because of local irrigation canals) and to use a track dredge, engineered to keep the boom and shovel sprayed with water as much as possible, to start enlarging the crater, pull debris away from the casing and try and get the fire going straight up. Below is an old British Pathe newsreel film shot of this well in January of 1938. In the opening of the clip I hope you will recognize Patton's famous winch truck.


After several days of digging Patton was able to see the casing was actually cut out about 20 feet below ground level and the hole was causing the well to crater, not a broach of the casing shoe. He used the dredge bucket to break the casing off, getting most of the flow going up and out of his hair. They laid irrigation pipe to the base of the casing in hope of being able to flood the flow and put the fire out, all of which was unsuccessful.


With flow pretty much contained to the casing, Plan B was implemented using Patton's infamous stinger/capping stack method. In the photo on the right a sort of rack was built close to the well to aid in snubbing the stinger assembly into the casing stub. Patton's winch truck has been backed in, the stinger is being landed and he and his brother and son are out on the winch truck's boom pulling on ropes trying to get the flow to go up thru the stack. The stack, Patton liked to call a "manifold," had two wings on it, a bleed off on one side and pump into side, the other. The bleed off side acted as diverter and the pump side was hooked up to a Halliburton trucks and bulk mud system way out in front of the winch truck.


They were actually able to snub the stinger assembly down into the casing stub and get flow going up thru the stack, below, but pressure restriction caused the casing to cut on again, deeper. Within hours the casing broke and and the crater filled back up with fire. Patton's stack and winch truck were pretty much completely lost.

The dredge was used to open several irrigation canals into the crater in hopes of flooding the fire completely out. Above the we can see the end of Patton's gin poles on his winch truck, now completely submerged in water. The capping stack/stinger is still in the casing but the boiling water around it all is indicative of how badly damaged the casing actually was below the bottom of the stinger. The fire is contained to the flow out the top of the stinger/capping stack. The Patton Navy has rigged up a row boat with protective tin and are trying to approach the manifold valves on the capping stack, unsuccessfully.


Defeated, the well pretty much lost, every gallon of available water was directed to the crater and this flooding lasted 3 or 4 days when the fire actually went out and well bridged partially dead. The crater was then pumped out and Patton was able to recover his prized winch truck and stinger, capping stack assembly before going back to North Houston on February 22. The crater bubbled for six months before the well could be re-entered and plugged.

Patton may not have driven back thru Greta on the way home for fear Myron Kinley would have seen his winch truck being hauled back to Houston on a float, cooked by fire, then soaked in water for two weeks. That sort of stuff can be a little embarrassing sometimes.


When comparing Pat Patton's well control methods with Myron Kinley's, there is a stark difference in the manner in which problems were approached. Kinley had his share of mistakes and walked away from several wells in defeat, but he was meticulous; Patton on the other hand was a wild man and took lots of unnecessary risks. The stinger/capping stack method he used was fraught with peril, in my opinion, and he never developed a good manner in which to "seal" the stinger assembly into a casing string. The chain and turnbuckle means of anchoring the stack down, once over the flow, worked infrequently and was incredibly dangerous, and sometimes fatal, as we will see soon on OSB in another post about Patton on a well in Louisiana that occurred just six weeks after this one.



Personal Files

The Museum Of South Texas History

Brownsville Herald, January 17, 1938

Life Magazine, Jan. 1938

Film; British Pathe