oil fields of the Texas
Panhandle in the 1920s and ‘30s were a place where a man who
knew how to use nitroglycerin could make a good living for himself.
Ward A. “Tex” Thornton was such a man. He learned all about nitro
when he went to work in 1913 for an Ohio company that manufactured
torpedoes. He brought that knowledge along with a steady hand and
no small degree of courage to the oil fields around Amarillo
Thornton was sent to Amarillo
in 1920 as a branch manager for U.S. Torpedo Company of Wichita
Falls where he learned about the peculiar nature of those oil
fields and how nitroglycerin, which he knew all about, was in high
demand. The problem was handling and using nitroglycerin without
blowing everybody and everything around it to atoms.
Nitroglycerin, first developed in Italy in 1847, was adapted commercially
by Alfred Noble of peace prize fame as a high explosive, which meant
that it was highly unstable and could be set off with just the slightest
jolt; numerous explosions of the spectacular but tragic variety
attested to this and led to it being widely banned, which was bad
for Nobel’s nitroglycerin factory. He experimented with it some
more and eventually stabilized it with the use of diatomaceous earth
in the manufacture of an explosive he called dynamite. (Yes, the
man for whom the Nobel Peace Prize is named invented dynamite.)
Nitroglycerin in its raw form was used in the Panhandle
oil fields in a couple of ways. Well shooters like Tex Thornton
would put it into promising holes to create an explosion intended
to shake the oil loose and bring it to the top; the thick limestone
formations in the fields made it necessary to use a lot of nitroglycerin.
The fields also held large amounts of natural gas, which made dropping
little canisters of nitroglycerin into well holes occasionally problematic.
Demonic gas vapors sometimes caught the canisters and forced them
back up the well hole. When that happened it helped to be able to
(a) run very fast, or (b) catch the canister when it came back up.
Bobble the nitro and the well shooter and everyone and everything
in his immediate vicinity would be toast. Thornton was said to be
one of the best at catching the nitro when it came back up.
The high levels of natural gas also made the fields susceptible
to fires. One way to extinguish such a fire was to drop a charge
of nitro into the fire and explode it; the explosion sucked all
the oxygen from the fire and snuffed it out. When the threat of
starting additional fires was too great to use the nitro, Thornton
would smother the fires with massive amounts of steam and water,
which took about three weeks, 20-30 men, and 50 steam boilers; but
it worked. Tex Thornton was known as the king of oilfield firefighters.
during the Dust Bowl, he picked up a reputation as a rainmaker or
charlatan, depending on your point of view. There’s no evidence
that Tex Thornton did not believe that explosions properly placed
in the clouds would produce rain. Napoleon believed it, World
War I soldiers believed it, and in the 1930s everybody in Dalhart,
at the cold, flat and windy northwestern tip of Texas,
was ready to believe it, too. Thornton probably believed the theory
that rain follows artillery but if he tried such a thing anywhere
other than Dalhart
it hasn’t been widely reported.
hit especially hard by the Dust Bowl. The bank failed on June 27,
1931, a day when the temperature reached 112 degrees. That began
the first of eight years with very little rain and the beginning
of the most destructive dust storms in history. Dalhart
was one of the worst-hit communities in the nation.
Tex Thornton showed up in Dalhart
right the middle of the town’s misery, in 1935. He told the city
he believed he could make it rain. He certainly tried. He set off
explosives in the clouds for several days, battling dust storms
and high winds much of the time. People came from miles around to
watch him but the blowing dust drove most of the spectators away.
Thornton stayed at it. Finally, it snowed. Then, as the temperatures
warmed, it sleeted.
For all anybody knew, Tex Thornton had coaxed moisture out of the
sky in Dalhart,
though places like Kansas and Colorado, way out of range for Tex
Thornton’s nitroglycerin, also got snow and rain in roughly the
same amount at roughly the same time.
His reputation as a well shooter, firefighter and rainmaker made
Tex Thornton something of a legend in the Panhandle
but he met with an unfortunate ending that had nothing to do with
a large explosion, as we might expect. Thornton was murdered by
two hitchhikers he picked on June 22, 1949.
The man and woman charged in the murder – the hitchhikers – were
not convicted. The trial was of the sensational variety, and aspersions
were cast on Tex Thornton’s character, an ignoble end for a legendary
character of both oil field and Dust Bowl lore.
© Clay Coppedge
1 , 2012 Column
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