Drilling into Local History with a Water Well Drill

Wyoming collector rebuilds and restores water well drill dating back to the 1870s.


| May 2015



1870s cable-tool drill

This 1870s-vintage cable-tool drill with 15-foot derrick can reach depths of 300 feet. Larry spent eight months rebuilding and restoring the rig. "When I first saw it in a woodpile," he says, "it was about to be scrapped."

Photo courtesy Larry Fulton

Following the death of a lifelong collector in Wyoming, the executor of the man’s estate faced an enormous challenge: cleanup of property groaning under the weight of old iron. Fortunately, he knew enough to alert local collectors. But they had to beat the scrap man to the scene.

Larry Fulton, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was one of those who paid a visit. “Our tractor club – the Centennial Antique Tractor & Engine Club in Cheyenne – rescued five tractors,” he says. Larry also got a pair: a 1936 Oliver Hart-Parr 70 row-crop and a 1930 Cletrac Model W equipped with a 1932 Ford flathead V-8 engine.  “I had to drag them onto the trailer,” he recalls, “as they had not moved in 20 years.”

While looking through the rest of the hoard, Larry saw remnants of a machine in the middle of what appeared to be largely rotten wood. Larry studied the pile on four different occasions before he was able to identify it as a water well drill mounted on a wagon.

“Most of the wood had rotted away and the derrick was gone,” he says. Retrieving it was a major operation. “I had a high school kid helping me,” he says. “We worked with a skid-steer all morning and half of the afternoon, and then we had to cut out a tree.”

Built just after the Civil War

Raised in the oil patches of Wyoming, Larry has a keen interest in the rig, which he’s since dated to the 1870s. A cable-tool drill, the rig used rope to suspend wooden rods and drilling tools. According to an article by the Petroleum History Institute, rope pulled the string of tools up and down as brought about by a spring pole or walking beam at the surface. The heavy bit had a blunt chisel end that cracked, chipped and smashed rock through repeated blows delivered in a measured or regular cadence. Power would have been provided by a horse power or a steam engine.

Larry believes the rig was built by Kelly & Tannyhill Co., based in Iowa, immediately after the end of America’s Civil War. “It’s not easy to find information on a water well drill that old,” he says. “I’ve seen pictures of a drill from that era, but with the derrick gone, I was just working off my imagination. But I’m a driller: Once I figured out what it was, I knew how it worked.”