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.

| April 2015

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.