Read these stories about nitroglycerin
accidents causing deaths in the 1890s
The 1890s oil boom brought to Bluffton prosperity plus some bad news in an extremely dangerous chemical called nitroglycerin.
Nitroglycerin, or nitro, became a leading, if not the leading, cause of death of 1890s Bluffton oil field workers. These deaths, often described in the most gruesome detail of any horror story, creates images of fearful spirits, with missing body parts.
That’s how the Bluffton News typically described death by nitroglycerin. It had many opportunities for this, as several examples follow.
Jan. 17,1895, Bluffton News – A horrible accident occurred near Wapakoneta last Thursday which resulted in the instant death of three men and the almost complete annihilation of one of them.
They were engaged in thawing nitro-glycerine by immersing the cans in hot water when the stuff exploded, searing everything in the immediate vicinity into fragments and scattering it in every direction.
PHOTO - Nitro being poured into a shot container in an oil well - photo from Hancock County Museum
The horses had their heads blown off and their bodies terribly mutilated. No part of the wagon could be found. The victims of the accident were Frank McNelly, shooter, John Pettigrew, driller and Frank Logan, tool dresser.
The body of the shooter was torn to fragments and those of the others were dismembered and scattered all about. McNelly was the man who shot the well on the David Anderson farm near Bluffton only a few days before the accident.
He was a married man and lived in Findlay. Logan’s home was in Arlington where he leaves a wife and six children. He was a cousin of Frank Huff of the Bluffton creamery.
From Spencerville Journal, reprinted in an October, 1896, Bluffton News - While driving in from the country, last Saturday, with a load of 120 quarts of nitro-glycerine, Billy Seigle, the shooter, met with a little experience that might have resulted so much differently that he would never have lived to tell the tale.
PHOTO - Shooting an oil well in
Orange Township near Ada.
While driving along at a pretty good gait, he felt one of the hind wheels on the rig wabbling and knocking against the axle, and turned around just in time to see the wheel about ready to come off. He soon put on the “air brakes” and succeeded in stopping the horses into the ditch, letting the wagon, Bill, and all down in the road.
The “enfarnal Stool” failed to go off, fortunately for Billy, and with the assistance of a neighboring farm boy he succeeded in fixing up the rig so he could get home.
From the same issue - A most miraculous and fortunate escape from what might have been one of the worst and most fatal nitro-glycerine explosions that ever occurred in this field occurred on Saturday last on the David Solt farm in Eagle Township.
Findlay Republican, October, 1896 reprinted in Bluffton News - “Rasty” Levan, a shooter, employed by the Bradford Glycerine Co., of this city was preparing to shoot a well on the farm for C.C. Harris and was unloading the powerful explosive from the wagon when the team of horses attached to the wagon took fright and started to run away.
“Rasty” made an attempt to catch the horses, but without success, and they ran on, spilling several cans of nitro-glycerine out from the rear of the wagon. They fell onto the ground, but fortunately did not explode, greatly to the surprise of those who witnessed the affair. The latter expected every second to hear the report of the explosion and started to run away from the wagons until they saw that the stuff was safely landed.
The Dec. 16, 1897, Bluffton News reported that Rasty “Dan” Levan of Findlay, then an employee of the American Nitro Glycerin Co., was blown to fragments in a glycerin explosion in Radner one day last week. He leaves a wife and two sons.
Dec. 3, 1896, Bluffton News - An ordinance regulating the keeping, storing and transporting nitroglycerine through the village and limited the amount to five quarts, was given its first reading.
Jan. 1, 1897, Bluffton News - Any port will do in a storm and Scott Bentley thought that any kind of a ride would be better than walking home from town Monday afternoon, so he hailed Kid Lafey as the latter was driving out to the magazine with his nitroglycerine wagon, empty, as Scott supposed.
But when he arrived at his home and was about to get off, Kid informed him that the wagon was loaded with 180 quarts and Scott’s heart leaped up into his mouth and did not return to its natural position for three hours afterward.
July 1899, Bluffton News - A number of citizens were awakened about midnight Monday night by a shock as a nitro-glycerine explosion or an earthquake. Up to the time of going to press we have be unable to learn the cause of the shock, but whatever it was, there was power behind it as houses were shaken and window panes and dishes rattled as though the buildings were coming down.
Petition to prohibit nitro in Bluffton
A petition signed by fifty or more residents and free holders praying the Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting the passage of loads of nitro-glycerine through the town, was read. It was tabled as the Council has no power to enact such a law.
Even the name carries an ominous threat. Its description sounds ghost-like. Imagine a spirit appearing dense, colorless, oily and as a liquid, it becomes extremely explosive.
Nitroglycerine was the wonder explosive of the 1880s and 1890 oil fields because of its active ingredient in the manufacture of explosives including dynamite. When the flow of oil in a well became sluggish and unworkable, nitroglycerine became the problem-solver.
Lower a can of nitro down the bottom of an oil well. A falling weight, called a go-devil, has one nasty purpose. It sets off an explosion as it strikes a torpedo in the top of the can to ignite the explosive.
Small wonder Bluffton residents didn’t appreciate having nitro stored in town, as you will soon discover in these accounts.