A flame or spark would not explode Nitro-Glycerine readily, but the chap who struck it a hard rap might as well avoid trouble among his heirs by having had his will written and a cigar box ordered to hold such fragments as his weeping relatives could pick from the surrounding district.” So wrote John J. McLaurin in his book, “Sketches in Crude-Oil,” published by the author in 1898. It’s a lurid reminder of nitroglycerine’s explosive force. A chapter of this fascinating book is devoted to the use of the powerful and unstable explosive in early oil well stimulation efforts in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The aftermath of the explosion in which Adam Cupler Jr. was killed Oct. 12, 1903, in East Titusville, Pa., is shown in this photograph. His company was the predecessor of the Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. (Photograph courtesy of Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Pa.)  
The history of oilfield explosives is surprisingly rich, if frequently tragic, and the chapter, “Nitro-Glycerine in This,” recounts an extensive list of vividly described disasters. But it also reveals the origin of the term “moonlighter” (“nervy men who put torpedoes in at night”) and even includes some humorous anecdotes concerning the “dread compound.” Believe it or not, there were a few. As McLaurin relates, “Robert L. Wilson, a blacksmith on Cherry Run in 1869-70… opened a shop at Modoc. A fellow of giant build entered one day, bragged of his muscle as well as his stuttering tongue would permit and wanted work. Something about the fellow displeased Wilson, who was of medium size and thin as Job’s turkey, and he decided to have a little fun at the stranger’s expense. He asked the burly visitor whether he could strike the anvil a heavier blow than any other man in the shop. The chap responded yes and Wilson agreed to hire him if he proved his claim good. Wilson poured two or three drops of what looked like lard-oil on the anvil and the big ‘un braced himself to bring down the sledge-hammer with the force of a pile-driver. He struck the exact spot. The sledge soared through the roof and the giant was pitched against the building hard enough to knock off a half-dozen boards. When he extracted himself from the mess and regained breath he blurted out: ‘I t-t-told you I co-could hi-hi-hit a he-he-hell of a b-bl-blow!’ ‘Right,’ said Wilson, ‘you can beat any of us; be on hand to-morrow morning to begin work.’ The man worked faithfully and did not discover for months that the stuff on the anvil was Nitro-Glycerine.”

And then there was the case of The Loaded Porker, taken from an account McLaurin claims to have written in the Oil City Times in December of 1869: “Rouseville furnishes the latest unpatented novelty in connection with Nitro-Glycerine. A torpedo-man had taken a small parcel of the dangerous compound from the magazine and on his return dropped into an engine-house a few minutes, leaving the vessel beside the door. A rampant hog, in search of a rare Christmas dinner, discovered the tempting package and unceremoniously devoured the entire contents, just finishing the last atom as the torpedoist emerged from the building! Now everybody gives the greedy animal the widest latitude. It has full possession of the whole sidewalk whenever disposed to promenade. All the dogs in town have been placed in solitary confinement, for fear they might chase the loaded porker against a post. No one is sufficiently reckless to kick the critter, lest it should unexpectedly explode and send the town and its total belongings to everlasting smash! The matter is really becoming serious and how to dispose safely of a gormandizing swine that has imbibed two quarts of infernal glycerine is the grand conundrum of the hour. When he is killed and ground up into sausage and headcheese a new terror will be added to the long list that boarding-houses possess already.”

Why did nervy men put torpedoes in at night? That’s because it was a frequently used tactic in the “torpedo war” of the time, which erupted when an acrimonious patent battle resulted in one company, the Roberts Torpedo Company, begun by Col. Edward A.L. Roberts and his brother Walter, having a monopoly on the process.

As McLaurin tells it, “The torpedo-war became general, determined and uncompromising. The monopoly charged exorbitant prices — two-hundred dollars for a medium shot — and an army of ‘moonlighters’… sprang into existence. The ‘moonlighters’ effected great improvements and first used the ‘go-devil drop-weight’ in the Butler field in 1876. The Roberts crowd hired a legion of spies to report operators who patronized the nocturnal well-shooters. The country swarmed with these emissaries. You couldn’t spit in the street or near a well after dark without danger of hitting one of the crew. Unexampled litigation followed. About two-thousand prosecutions were threatened and most of them begun against producers accused of violating the law by engaging ‘moonlighters.’”

Col. Roberts died in Titusville, Pa., on March 25, 1881. By then, he had spent a quarter-million dollars on torpedo litigation, an enormous sum for the time. It is said that he was responsible for more lawsuits than any other man in the United States. Col. Roberts is buried in Titusville and according to McLaurin, “a peculiar monument, emblematic of the torpedo, marks the burial-plot.”

The nitroglycerine era did not come to an abrupt halt. At least one company in the region today, the Otto Cupler Torpedo Co., can trace its history directly back to the Roberts Torpedo Co. According to Rick Tallini, Otto Cupler’s president, “Our business since Col. Roberts’ day has concerned lowering high explosives charges into oil wells in the Appalachian area to blast fractures into the oil bearing sand. Our company manufactured nitroglycerine from 1867 at various plants mostly located in Titusville until the last one blew up in 1978. At this point we bought our nitroglycerine from the former Independent Explosives Co. in Moosic, Pa., until their plant blew up in 1989. We used up the last nitro in early 1990, which marked the end of the liquid nitroglycerine era in the United States.

“Up until the late 1950s, most wells in the Appalachian area were shot with large explosives charges, at which time hydraulic fracturing rapidly exterminated all the torpedo companies, which once numbered close to 100 across the United States. Today the only active company left from that great era is the Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. All the wells shot with nitroglycerine (in amounts from 30 lb to over 3,000 lb) were completed open hole… through the production sand (most shallow wells in the Appalachian area are still completed open hole). As a side note, Devonian shale gas wells located in West Virginia were shot with dynamite charges up to 60,000 lb into the early 1980s.

“Our customers today are small independent operators who, for a variety of reasons, want to shoot their shallow, openhole wells. Some 8 years ago, wishing to expand our market place, we started developing a variety of propellant formulations for both openhole and cased-hole applications. So today we have our binary propellants, which are transported as oxidizers and fuels, where they are blended at the job site. Their performance is similar to that of black powder but their safety is such that they are barely flammable. Our ‘well cannon,’ which uses large-bore smokeless gun propellants, can be run on wireline or tubing. We have used these guns successfully for over 3 years. This technology goes back to the early 1900s. And finally, our family of composite propellant (the same propellant used on the booster rockets of the space shuttle) was just approved for transport.”

Otto Cupler houses a museum of early nitroglycerine use. For a more realistic — or at least louder — historical encounter, the Drake Well Museum, also in Titusville, presents “The Nitro Show.” History lives in the birthplace of the industry. It’s a resource as rich as the oil discovered there.