The Day the Well Exploded: The Aftermath of a Gas Tank Leak

An Iowa farmer recalls the devastation on his family's property caused by a leaking gas tank.

Edgar Stout

Edgar Stout in front of the well shed in the middle to late 1930s.

Photo courtesy Richard Stout

Content Tools

At about 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1949, I was awakened by a ker-boom, and then the sound of my dad hollering at my mother. When I got downstairs, Mother said the well had blown up.

The trouble had started the night before. When Mother got water from the faucet, there was only cold water, and it had the smell and taste of gasoline. The folks knew they were in for more grief. This would mean that all potable water would have to come from a hand pump in an 18-inch, tile-lined well 30 feet from the door and Mother would have to carry it.

This was not the first time this had happened. There had been a 75-gallon barrel in the shed six feet from the well. From that barrel, we filled 5-gallon buckets and then poured the gas into the tractor or automobiles. I do not remember how the gas barrel got turned on, whether it was calves or pigs or kids that got into the shed and bumped the valve. I suppose when Dad found out the barrel was empty, a considerable amount had already run out on the ground. So, there had been gas in the well for some time.

This time it was on a bigger scale. Dad had a 500-gallon gas tank sitting on the ground against the north side of the shed with a hand pump and hose to fill tractors and cars. A hole had rusted in the tank and the gas had leaked out. That evening, Dad pumped all the gas he could find containers for. At that time, he farmed another farm 18 miles away, so we were always hauling gas, mostly in 5-, 10- and 15-gallon milk cans. You could see dirt and water in the gas.

Electricity comes to the farm

This well was in a rickety shed, approximately 24 feet by 16 feet, with a dirt floor, 12-inch board walls and Model T body sheet metal pounded flat for the roof. Wild grapes had grown all over the top of it. Off the northwest corner Dad had put some woven fencing wire to a corn crib about 20 feet away. The grapevines grew against that as well. It made a nice shady place to fuel tractors in the summer. That is where all those gas cans were sitting. I believe the gasoline killed the grapevine.

The well was 150 feet from the house. The well pump and pressure tank sat on a half-cement platform six feet down in the top part of the well, covered with a cement top approximately seven feet in diameter. The top had a 2-foot opening to allow access to the well and get the pipes in. Grandfather had put in the jet pump and the cement top in 1941. (I went out and walked on the wet cement, so Dad had to mix up some more and fill in the tracks.) Before that, it had a pump jack and a gas engine with a plank top. A hen had fallen into the well through a hole around the well top. Grandfather’s hired hand went down and cleaned out the well. We had just got electricity in 1941 when Grandfather Stout put the jet pump in. At that time, they also put in a house drain and running water in the house.

A glum breakfast

Dad went out to do chores that morning and had just been in the shed (I don’t know if he looked in the well or not) when he got the cows in and started the milking. Mother drew water to fix the oatmeal for breakfast and the jet pump started. When it started, I suppose the switch made a spark. The gasoline vapors must have been just right, and the well exploded. Dad said he knew just what had happened. The cow he had been milking stood stock-still for a minute, then went ballistic.

The shed had a second story with a lot of iron and other things in it. Part of that came down on the barn roof, which stood 75 feet away. Rods were driven into the wood shingles. Dad came out of the barn and Mom came out on the porch. He hollered to her to call the fire department, as he expected all that gas sitting around to light up. Fortunately, it did not, so the fire department was not called. No one came around. One neighbor, Buel Fortney, said he heard the explosion, but since there was no fire, he didn’t come over. Dad went back to milking.

I went out to look at the devastation. Things were everywhere. Both cement platforms were gone and there was just a funnel-like hole at the top part of the well. The roof and second story of the shed over the well were gone, and what was not scattered around the broken timbers of the second story just funneled back into the well. Normally, two 30-gallon oil barrels sat on the well platform. Now, one was gone and the other was 35 feet away. A kerosene barrel was off its stand with the valve open.

Breakfast was a glum affair that morning. There was no water for the livestock. I got ready and drove to high school and my sisters were taken to country school. At school, I told a cousin about it. He just looked at me like I had two heads, so I kept still after that.

Making do in the short-term

Dad called the well driller, C.L. Jennings from New London, and he came up to see what had happened. The driller said this was newsworthy. He told the local newspaper and a reporter came out. The reporter wrote a story and took a photo that they put in the paper. It is the only photo we have of the incident; we were in no mood for photos that morning. At a family get-together on my mother’s side, my grandmother remarked, “What some people will do to get their name in the paper.” That did not set too well with my dad.

Mr. Jennings got lined up to drill a new well, as the old one would always run short of water in late summer. As Dad said, when Long Creek (one-quarter mile away) went dry, he would have water problems. Under those circumstances, only about three feet of water would seep in overnight. Then Dad had to go one-quarter mile away to our neighbor, Howard McCleery, to get water for the livestock. Mom carried her water from the hand pump in the yard (that was about all the water it would put out). I suppose my sister and I helped carry water for wash and other big jobs. Our bathroom facilities were a path to the building at the corner of the yard.

Cleaning out the well

While waiting for the drillers, Dad decided to do something with that hole. He hired bricklayers to brick the well back to ground level. The well was originally 48 feet deep and five feet in diameter. Now it was approximately 28 feet deep with all of the junk in it.

Someone told Dad of a father/son team, the Groffs, who would clean and work on wells. They came out with a jeep (I believe the jeep belonged to the plumber who put in the new pump and the piping), a swing gin pole (a pole with a pulley or block and tackle on the end, used for lifting), a hay rope and a 30-gallon barrel.

They ran the rope from the jeep to the gin pole to the barrel. They raised and lowered the barrel inside the well by rolling the jeep forward (to go down) or back (to pull it up). The son put on an Army helmet dating to World War I, stood on the top of the barrel and rode it down. He said, “Boy, it really smells of gas down here,” then got out a cigarette and lit it up. They worked three days bringing up the broken cement top, bricks from the well wall, the missing 30-gallon oil barrel and all the stuff that had been in that shed. When the son felt the “call of nature,” he just answered it in the barrel, down there!

Finally he found the granite rock in the center of the bottom that they used to set the wooden pumps on. The father told the son not to dig around the bottom of the rock walls that the well was cased with, as that might loosen them and cause a collapse. They did all that for $54 ($533 today). The Groffs told many hair-raising stories about dug wells. Wade Pence, the local plumber, put a cement top on the well. We never used much water from that well again. There was a pump jack in it and we did wash hog coops with it. Early on, the water had a rainbow effect when pumped, the result of all the oil and gas in it.

Back in business

The well driller came back and set up his drill, then went off and finished another job. A week later, the well drillers started to drill. Four days later, they had the new well drilled and cased. It was beside the house, 160 feet deep, for $623.50 ($6,152 today). Dad dug a pit around the casing. On Jan. 17, 1950, Mr. Pence got a jet pump set up and working, then laid the pipes across in the well, for the cattle tank and a hydrant to run water into the water pickup for the hogs. The weather that winter was very mild, allowing all that to be done in a month.

The gasoline man wanted to get the gas tank fixed but Dad said no. Instead, he got a new, 500-gallon tank for gas from Keating, who made 500-gallon water wagons to haul water for hog operations in field-raised pigs. Then there was the matter of the old gas tank. The only fellow Dad could get to cut the tank in two was the owner of Wagner Welding. His son did not want him to do it. Mr. Wagner went to a neighboring business, Washington Transfer, and filled the tank with their water (he claimed their water ran faster). He started cutting at the top with an acetylene torch and went down each side. Dad said there was fire inside the tank as he cut. Dad put hog drinks on the tanks and used them in the fields for our hog-raising operation.

The water in the new well had rust in it. Mother was not happy about the stains in the sink. We had to get a water softener! The farm did need a new well, but this was a heck of a way to get it. FC


Richard Stout lives in Washington, Iowa. He is assisted in his writing endeavors by his granddaughter, Ashley Stout.