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The Shooting Stars of Drake Well


This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 3 - Summer 2009

During Drake Well Museum’s Nitro Show, visitors experience the flash and thunder of “shooting a well,” safely showcased by substituting nitroglycerin with Hollywood-style, close-proximity pyrotechnic explosives.

Much like other important industries in the Commonwealth—coal, iron, steel, timber, and railroading—the production of oil in northwestern Pennsylvania was fraught with danger. Among the perils petroleum speculators and drillers faced were fires, explosions, and fatal jams while shipping crude oil to market on waterways.

One of the most dangerous tasks in extruding oil from the earth was “shooting a well.” At the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Venango County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), a Nitro Show enthralls visitors by recalling the hazardous days of the nineteenth-century oil boom. Today’s Nitro Show is a modern version of an earlier production developed by Rick F. Tallini, president of the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company, formerly the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company Inc., of Titusville, which specializes in explosives. He is, in the words of Drake Dell Museum administrator Barbara T. Zolli, “detonator extraordinaire” and “one of the last of the real well shooters.”

Tallini had long been interested in the history of the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company, in which he acquired controlling interest in 1985. The firm’s history dates to the oil industry’s earliest years in northwestern Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek Valley and began with brothers Colonel E. A. L. and Walter B. Roberts who established the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company in 1865. Colonel Roberts had patented the use of a torpedo, black powder and the “super incombant water tamp” for shooting wells in 1864. The patents included three components: the use of a torpedo, or tin tube, propellant (initially black powder and changed to nitroglycerine two years later), and water. The water cushioned the torpedo as it was lowered into the oil well and provided weight to hold the explosive force down in the well so the oil-bearing sandstone would crack and release the oil. Workers hired by Roberts, known as “shooters,” would shoot the well by dropping a pointed weight into the well to detonate the torpedo.

The force of a genuine nitroglycerin well blast in 1900 was apparent to Pennsylvania oil region photographer John A. Mather.

Roberts performed the first successful oil well shot on the Ladies Well on Oil Creek, near Titusville, on January 21, 1865. “The tremendous success of the process, and the resulting furor over the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company patent instigated thousands of lawsuits, arrests, and bloodshed,” says Tallini. “The company charged exorbitant fees to shoot a well and speculators and landowners balked. The term ‘moonlighting’ emerged from this struggle. Moonlighters mixed their batches of nitroglycerine with crude equipment during the day and illegally shot wells in the dark of night. Roberts hired Pinkerton National Detective Agency guards to protect his patent interests. The Roberts patent expired in 1883 and Congress refused to renew it because of the strife it caused.”

The Roberts brothers sold their company to Adam Cupler Jr., a former employee, who died in a nitro explosion twenty years later, in 1903, at the age of fifty-six. The Cupler Torpedo Company was taken over by his son-in-law, Clarence Mosher. In 1927, the region’s well owners, dissatisfied with services offered by the shooting company, organized the rival Otto Torpedo Company in Bradford, McKean County. Ten years later, in 1937, the Otto Torpedo Company purchased the Cupler Torpedo Company, and the firm became the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company. Many other companies were formed, including DuPont™’s American Glycerin Company, and competition intensified. Of the nearly one hundred torpedo companies in operation in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, only two remain: the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company and the Otto Torpedo Company.

Tallini developed the original Nitro Show “to share the human side of the early days of the oil industry, especially the dangerous, violent, and competitive side of nitroglycerin,” says Zolli. “He has heard many stories and has seen some ghastly artifacts from horrific explosions and wanted to tell the human interest component of the oil saga for visitors to the museum.”

Tallini joined the Titusville Tourist Promotion Agency about 1992 and met Zolli, who encouraged him to create a special effects nitroglycerine show on company property. Two years later the show opened to the public and school groups and continued through 1995. In addition to loud, fiery explosions and staged shoot-outs over Roberts’s well-shooting patents, Tallini’s production included music, singing, and a cast of costumed characters. Willing to share his shows with passengers on the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad’s excursion trains, Tallini enlisted the construction services of Drake Well Museum’s Larry E. Say, whose staff helped him build a streetscape of exploding buildings—similar to a Hollywood studio set—along the railroad tracks at Hunt Farm, part of the Oil Creek State Park, adjacent to the museum grounds.

Rick F. Tallini, who originated and previously produced Drake Well’s Nitro Show, acquired the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company in 1985. The company’s history dates to the first patented oil well shots in 1865.

After the excursion train rolled to a stop, an announcer described the dangers of carelessly handled nitroglycerin. Before long, startled spectators watched buildings burst apart in clouds of smoke and lapping flames. The noise was deafening. Gun battles erupted between the local moonlighters and the Pinkerton guards. In 1995, plans were made to move the Nitro Show to the grounds of the Drake Well Museum for the following year’s school groups. A public-private partnership comprised of Tallini, the museum, and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Pennsylvania Conservation Corps developed a longer and even more dramatic presentation based on historical incidents and events. Say also earned a blaster’s license to ensure that all safety measures were being met.

A realistic-looking set, complete with derricks and an “exploding” nitro magazine (storage shed) was built at the Drake Well Museum, across Oil Creek, which serves as a natural barrier between the show’s explosions and the audience. The Nitro Show partnership continued until 2000 and entertained and enlightened more than fifteen thousand school students and adults through more than seventy performances. The museum staff suspended these labor intensive—but tremendously satisfying—events while a new maintenance building was being erected for the facility. Increasing demand by students and teachers for the return of the popular production prompted museum staff to reintroduce the program. The museum installed a more compact set on the grounds and used close-proximity manufactured pyrotechnic explosives for safety. Daniel J. Weaver, museum educator, is licensed for pyrotechnics and brought in Scott R. Cartwright, president and owner of Cartwright Fireworks, located in Franklin, who agreed to provide insurance for the performances. Cartwright now serves as the producer of the event.

Drake Well’s Museum Educator Daniel J. Weaver (left), licensed in pyrotechnics, and Building Maintenance Supervisor Larry E. Say, a licensed blaster, adjust the pneumatic and water control lines for the well shot performance.

“Retired teachers volunteering at the museum worked with our staff to write a script,” says Zolli. “To lend even more drama, we added additional props, including horses and wagons, a derrick with a well that gushed a geyser of water when shot, and a flying pig. The set today consists of nine derricks, three horses, two wagons, and ‘Pigasus.’

“We toned the story down a bit, but we still included some scary stuff that would hold the attention of fourth grade students. We added prerecorded sound narration with a variety of voices and sound effects. Pennsylvania Conservation Corps crew members continue to serve as character actors and work with eleven volunteers who mesmerize not only our fourth graders, but audiences of all ages.”

The new set has hosted seventy-five school tour groups since its installation. “The Nitro Show is a unique experience that brings history to life,” says Weaver. “I enjoy hearing the students respond to my slapstick sight gags as they are captured by the drama.” Say “enjoys hearing from former student visitors—now in their twenties—who distinctly recall the performance from their elementary school days.” Both the staff and volunteers enjoy watching the children learn about history in an exciting, innovative way.

“Rick is currently working on formulas for well-shooting and combining different surfactants to achieve better results with his shots,” Zolli says. “His most recent formula is number 59. I pointed out the significance of the number to him—1859 was the year the Drake Well came in, and he found it quite amusing.” In addition to compiling a number of historical stories about the perils of shooting an oil well in northwestern Pennsylvania, which he has titled “Tallini’s Tales of Destruction” and posted on his Web site, www.logwell.com, he is also sharing his knowledge as a course instructor for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) blaster training. DEP offers the intensive training course several times throughout the year at various locations.

The editor thanks Barbara T. Zolli, site administrator of the Drake Well Museum, and Daniel J. Weaver, museum educator, for providing background information and illustrations for this installment of Hands-On History.

Crowds gather to witness a well shot, part of special living history experiences offered by the Drake Well Museum, one of the destinations along PHMC’s Energy Trail of History.

Hands-On History illustrates the importance of applied history and PHMC’s commitment to educating staff, volunteers, students and teachers, and the general public about traditional skills and crafts, often in partnership with other state agencies, educational institutions, cultural organizations, and museums and historic sites.

On Thursday, August 27, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the success of Edwin L. Drake’s oil well, the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, will host Drake Day Extravaganza, a daylong event that will include a spectacular Nitro Show. For more details, visit www.drakewell.org on the Web.