15.  Tales of Destruction...I'm Quitting the Nitro Business

Only these fragments and nothing more!  Can naught to our arms the lost restore?--Milton

This June, 1871 story from John McLaurin, "A case similar to Thompson's followed a few weeks after, near Rouseville.  Descending a steep hill on his way from torpedoing a well on the Shaw farm, William Pine was sent out of this world unwarned.  He had a torpedo-shell and some cans of glycerine in a light wagon drawn by two horses.  No doubt, the extreme roughness of the road exploded the dangerous freight.  The body of the driver was distributed in minute fragments over two acres and the buggy was destroyed, but the horses escaped with slight injury, probably because the force of the shock passed above them as they were going down the hill.  Pine had a premonition of impending disaster.  When leaving home he kissed his wife affectionately and told her he intended, should he return safely, to quit the torpedo-business forever next day.  He was an industrious, competent young man, deserving of a better fate."

Also from McLaurin, the story of "Careless Charlie", "In October of the same year Charles Palmer was blown to pieces at the Roberts magazine, near Titusville, where Brophy died two years before.  With Captain West, agent of the company, he was removing cans of glycerine from a wagon to the magazine.  He handled the cans so recklessly that West warned him to be more careful.  He made thirteen trips from the wagon and entered the magazine for the fourteenth time.  Next instant the magazine disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke, leaving hardly a trace of man or material.  West happened to be beside the wagon and escaped unhurt.  The horses galloped furiously through Titusville, the cans not taken out bounding around in the wagon.  Why they did not explode is a mystery.  Had they done so the city would have been leveled and thousands of lives lost.  Palmer paid dearly for his carelessness, which was characteristic of the rollicking, light-hearted fellow whose existence terminated so shockingly."

Note:  This is one of four stories that Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. does in their live "Nitro Show" performance at the Drake Well Museum...fireballs, explosions, and gun-battles capped off with an exploding building.

And this sad October 28, 1871 Captain West finale from McLaurin, "Charles Palmer's shocking death decided Captain West, who lived at Oil City, to engage in pursuits more congenial to himself and agreeable to his devoted family.  He was finely educated, past the meridian and streaks of gray tinged his dark hair and beard.  In October he torpedoed a well for me on Cherry Run.  The shell stuck, together we drew it up, the Captain adjusted the cap and it was then lowered and exploded successfully.  At parting he shook my hand warmly and remarked:  'This is the last torpedo I shall put in for you.  My engagement with the company will end next week.  Good-bye.  Come and see me in Oil City'.  Three days later he went to shoot a well at Reno, saying to his wife at starting:  'This will wind up my work for the company.'  Such proved to be the fact, although in a manner very different from what the speaker imagined.  The shell was lowered into the well, but failed to explode and the Captain concluded to draw it up and examine the priming.  Near the surface it exploded, instantly killing West, who was guiding the line attached to the torpedo.  He was hurled into the air, striking the walking-beam and falling upon the derrick floor a bruised and bleeding corpse.  He had, indeed, put in his last torpedo.  The main force of explosion was spent in the well, otherwise the body and the derrick would have been blown to atoms.  A tear from an old friend, as he recounts the tragic close of an honorable career, is due the memory of a man whose sterling qualities were universally admired."

The following headline and article appeared in The Titusville Morning Herald on October 28, 1871:

Mr. A. S. West Killed Instantly by the Premature Explosion of a Torpedo at Reno

"Yesterday morning at 10 o'clock A. S. West, of Oil City was instantly killed by the explosion of a torpedo that he was drawing from a well at Reno.  The particulars so far as can be ascertained by the Oil City Register, are as follows:  Mr. West is the agent for the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company for this locality.  He was engaged this morning in torpedoing one of the Reno Company's wells.  From some cause the torpedo failed to explode.  It was being drawn up again by Mr. West, and had nearly reached the top, when it exploded, fracturing his skull, breaking some of his limbs, and otherwise injuring him.  His death was instantaneous.  The force of the explosion shattered the derrick floor, but did no other damage.  Mr. Charles Vernon Culver and several others were standing near the well, but were uninjured.  Mr. West was a gentleman highly esteemed wherever known, and his death will be sincerely regretted.  He has been agent of the torpedo company for some time, and was considered one of the most careful men in the business.  He is the father of Dr. A. West, druggist, of Oil City, and related to Mr. Meade, who is also an agent of the torpedo company.  His family have the sincere sympathy of our community in their affliction.

"The following telegraphic dispatch has been handed us by Dr. Roberts:
'Reno, Oct. 19
'Mr. West put the torpedo into well No. 18.  Two plungers were dropped, and no explosion.  It was then drawn, and Mr. West reached his hand into the casing, when the torpedo exploded.  We suppose the torpedo was at the top of the casing.  The top and back part of Mr. West's head were blown off; face not much disfigured, and body but slightly broken.  No one else injured.  Deceased was a widower and leaves no young children.'"

As has been pointed out in Drop Weight Disasters, a major danger with the Roberts Torpedo was misfires.  A misfire resulted when the drop weight plunger, or "Go Devil", was slid down the wire from the surface, and upon striking the firing mechanism situated on the top of the torpedo, no detonation occurred.  Upon experiencing a misfire, a shooter would then move the wire line rapidly up and down in an effort to bounce the weight that now rested on top of the firing mechanism, hoping to produce a detonation.  If the bouncing procedure failed, then additional weights could be slid down the line as Captain West did.  In those days it was common practice to withdraw the torpedo with its cargo of weights resting upon the firing mechanism, in what amounted to a game of Russian Roulette!  The safer procedure would have been to simply lower the torpedo to the bottom of the well and then lower another torpedo on top to affect detonation.  Obviously this is a much more costly and time consuming procedure which was avoided in those days.  Interestingly, drop weight technology has risen again for use in modern tubing conveyed perforating (TCP) guns.

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