As you can see from the title, this isn’t a Windsor, CO Part 2 post as promised. I have an eBay bid later today on a great Windsor image and decided to postpone the Windsor post, hoping I win the auction. Instead, here are some images of one of the biggest events in the Fort Collins area in the 1920s.

A few months ago, I started the story of the oil fields north of Fort Collins in a post entitled “The Oil Bonanza of the 1920s.”

“At 4:00 AM on Armistice Day (November 11), 1923, a ‘terrifying noise’ announced that Union Oil had brought in the first well in the area called the Wellington Dome. The Discovery Well, located between Fort Collins and Wellington, Colorado, was called by the local newspapers ‘one of the largest wells ever struck.’

“The Wellington Dome oil field was large, spreading from Terry Lake in Fort Collins to north of Wellington. Prosperity seemed assured. The newspapers predicted that the population of Fort Collins would grow from 9,000 to 50,000 by 1928.”

By mid-1924, the Union Oil company was drilling more test wells, trying to get a handle on the size and quality of the oil field. Two of the test wells seemed very promising – the Whitaker Well and the Mitchell Well.

The progress of the two wells was followed by newspapers across Colorado. Here’s an example of a “status report” from the Routt County Sentinel on July 18, 1924:

“In northern Colorado, the Wellington field is believed to be just on the verge of a strike. Oil is said to be standing 500 feet deep in the Whitaker well . . . and a huge gusher is predicted within a week. . . . The well is down to a depth of between 4,180 and 4,200 feet. The Mitchell well is down 4,170 feet and seepage oil is standing several feet deep in the hole.”

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The Whitaker Well, “Over the Top,” 1924

The Whitaker Well lost the race by three weeks or so. It came in on August 7, 1924. However, it was the first well to pay off to investors as reported in numerous Colorado newspapers in October 1924.

“Turning oil into gold became a reality when the first royalty checks ever issued at Fort Collins were sent to holders of royalties in the Whitaker well by the Union Oil Company of California. The company recently had sold seventy-eight barrels of oil from the well to a local concern, for which the sum of $117 had been received. Checks to several holders of parts of a one eighth interest in the well accordingly were sent.”

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The Mitchell Well Gasser, 82,000,000 cu. ft. a day. 1924.

The Mitchell Well came in earlier, on July 19, 1924, at a depth of 4, 210 feet. It was a large well, throwing 82 million cubic feet of gas into the air every day. A well that comes in with gas is called a “gasser.” Union Oil knew the well contained gas and had poured millions of pounds of water down the hole to hold down the gas as the drilling continued. Newspapers reported that the workmen nearly drowned when the well “blew in,” scattering water for hundreds of feet around the well.

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The Mitchell Well Gasser Close-up. 1924

Crews immediately started trying to cap the well but the situation worsened when the cap valve broke, forcing the gas through a smaller opening and increasing the pressure.

The July 23, 1924 Steamboat Pilot reported, “Blowing in of the gasser was a signal for thousands of curiosity seekers to appear Sunday, and the countryside for miles around was a mass of slowly crawling automobiles. . . . The great, black spout is visible for ten miles.”

An uncontrolled gas well is a dangerous thing. Any spark can turn the cloud of gas into an enormous torch. That’s just what happened on Wednesday afternoon, July 23, 1924. Below are two photographs of the inferno.

 

 

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Mitchell Well Burning, July 23, 1924.

No one seems sure of the cause, but one theory is that as they were trying to remove the broken cap, a spark from a hammer ignited the gas. Seven workmen were injured and flames could be seen from the tops of the buildings in Fort Collins. The well head was located on the ranch belonging to Joseph Mitchell. I think his ranch house is shown on the right side of the photograph. His house was only 1,000 from the well and Mitchell had to evacuate his family until the well was controlled.

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Mitchell Well on Fire, Wellington, Colo., July 1924

The blaze was a spectacle, especially at night. Fort Collins newspapers reported, “Soft drink stands and hot dog lunch counters have sprung up and are being patronized by the crowds.” Immediately, Union Oil began to gather the equipment and forces it needed to extinguish the fire.

The fire occurred just at the time that explosives were beginning to be used to extinguish well fires. Not being sure of the new “technology,” The Steamboat Pilot, in a long article on the fire published on August 20, 1924, described the mix of attacks used by Union Oil. First, going old school, they gathered 13 high pressure boilers and three large pumps and hoses to send steam and water onto the well head to reduce the oxygen necessary for combustion. Prior to explosives, this was the combination used to put out well fires. This method took a week or more of effort to control a blaze. Then, going new school, they brought in a group of explosive experts in their asbestos suits. See the image below.

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Asbestos Suits for Fighting Fire. Mitchell Gas Well Fire, c. August 1924

As near as I can determine, this is a very early photographs of fire fighters in asbestos suits. I couldn’t find any information on the group of firefighters. Of course, we know today how dangerous asbestos suits were for them, maybe more dangerous than the fire.

According to the Steamboat Pilot article, the team placed a charge of dynamite (other newspapers said it was a 40-pound charge of nitrogelatin) on a two-wheeled cart and shoved it directly against the casing head using a long section of pipe. The theory was that the explosion “blew out the candle.” As the charge was exploded the contents of the boilers and the hoses were turned on the well casing to keep it cool while a new cap was installed. Here’s how the pilot described the results:

“Under the three-form attack, the top of the huge jet of flame that for nights had illuminated the country for many miles around burned for a moment red at the top, then [faded] out. Soon after, the blaze began dying down at the bottom and, as the jets of steam cut off oxygen from the surrounding air, the flame seemed to slip from out of the sky to the ground and soon was extinguished.

“[The] company, who had planned the last fight against the flames were unable to believe their eyes. [They] waited, fearful that the heat of pipe or tools around the well might start the conflagration anew, but when it dawned that the long fight had at last been won a shout went up from all about. Whistles blew, auto horns tooted, bells rang and men laughed and shouted until tears came to their eyes. They had seen a dragon killed, seen the mind of men triumph at last in what looked to be an unequal and unending fight.”

The Mitchell Well fire was extinguished on August 14, 1924, over three weeks after the fire started.

Drilling in the Wellington Dome area was heavy through 1926 but then production began to drop. By 1930, the industry had faded from public notice. Instead of reaching 50,000, Fort Collins population stood at 11,500 residents.

Depending on my auction success and shipping times, next Sunday I’ll return to Windsor or post images of the earliest Fort Collins’ trolleys, the Interurbans.

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2 thoughts on “The Mitchell Oil Well Fire of 1924

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