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  • Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

    Tex Thornton:
    King of the oilfield firefighters
    and rainmaker

    by Clay Coppedge

    The 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 in 1920.

    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.

    Later, 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.

    Dalhart was 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 May 1 , 2012 Column
    More "Letters from Central Texas"
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