Reminisce: Well-shooting business boomed for Hercules Torpedo in 1888

In the spring of 1889, the city editor of the Lima Daily Times journeyed to the semi-secluded home of one of Lima’s newest industries, describing a route “along the banks of the meandering Swinona (Hog Creek),” past the cemetery, the land of Benjamin C. Faurot and the residence of James McBeth to an area southwest of the city in Shawnee Township.

“All around are the woods; here and there a dogwood covered with flowers; the ground beneath is dotted with clusters of bright flowers,” the editor wrote in a May 10, 1889, story.

A “sylvan drive” of about a quarter mile along a just-completed road led to the company’s stables, “neatly kept and properly stocked with horsepower and vehicles” while a “little farther a small frame building was reached, having in the window the bold placard ‘NITRO-GLYCERINE, DANGEROUS,’” he wrote. It was, the editor noted, “a building no tramp would ever think of entering. He’d rather by far sleep under the adjacent bridge, over a little ravine and stream …”

The building no tramp would enter was part of the Hercules Torpedo Company, which had recently sprung up in that “rural retreat” (roughly the area west of the intersection of Shawnee and Spencerville roads). Hercules Torpedo specialized in “shooting” oil wells, lowering torpedoes (containers of nitroglycerine) to the bottom of the wells, and detonating them to stimulate the flow of oil.

The company, which had purchased 29 acres in Shawnee Township in April 1888 to build its nitroglycerine factory, had come to the right place at the right time. Oil was found in Lima in May 1885 and the city and surrounding area were in the early stages of a boom.

“A careful examination of the prospects, coupled with numerous conversations with the leading oil men from the eastern states, who are in our city prospecting and leasing land, makes us believe that the time is not far distant when the territory around Lima” would replace western Pennsylvania as the center of U.S. oil production, the Allen County Democrat predicted in January 1886.

“Lima is the Mecca now if we miss not our predictions,” the newspaper added, noting, “the next revolution around the sun will see them verified.” In Lima’s hotels, restaurants, saloons, and on the streets, oil was the topic of conversation and derricks sprang up in and around the city like dandelions in the spring.

By the late spring of 1888, the Hercules Torpedo Company was, the Daily Times reported, “ready to go into active business.”

For Hercules Torpedo, the well shooting business boomed – literally and figuratively – from the beginning. On June 2, 1888, the Daily Times reported the company “shot the Minor Harrod well with 80 quarts yesterday and the results were satisfactory. The same company also shot the Fowler well near Cridersville today with 80 quarts.”

For the next 17 years, the company’s shooters would ply their dangerous trade all over the sprawling oil field, which extended south and west through Wapakoneta and St. Marys and into Indiana and north and east through Hancock, Seneca, Wood, and Putnam counties.

“Cass Jolly, for the Hercules Torpedo Company, yesterday shot a well for the Mendon Oil Company, which made a good response and shows for a nice producer,” Lima’s Republican-Gazette reported February 20, 1894.

Later that year, a well shot by the company almost within the town limits of Spencerville drew an audience estimated by the Republican-Gazette at 500 people, including children dismissed from school to witness the spectacle. “When the oil began to rise high above the derrick the crowd who were there to witness the results, held their breath in silent admiration for the majestic and sparkling stream of oil as it danced in the sunlight,” the newspaper wrote October 2, 1894.

Where nitroglycerine was concerned, area residents often held their breath. In early October 1890, horses hitched to a hay wagon on Market Street were spooked and dashed toward the Public Square where they “swerved to the south and ran upon the sidewalk fronting the Union block (in the southeast quadrant of the Square where the Hercules headquarters were located), scraping in their mad career, a wagon belonging to the Hercules Torpedo Company, in which there were 200 pounds of glycerine,” the News reported October 2, 1890. It turned out the wagon, which belonged to the local Hercules plant manager, contained only a “couple cans” of less volatile gunpowder, according to the Allen County Republican.

Nitroglycerine also had the nasty habit of exploding when least expected. In June 1895, a Jackson Street resident, who drove a nitroglycerine wagon for Hercules, “took the straw and dirt from the glycerine wagon and placed it in a vacant lot south of his house and set fire to it,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. “There happened to be more of the dangerous explosive in the dirt than he judged, and it exploded with considerable force. The report was plainly heard all over the south end of the city.” The man was not injured, but the blast blew out all the windows in his house.

The unexpected detonation of nitroglycerine, however, occasionally did result in substantial damage as well as casualties, with the victims being described as “blown to atoms,” “blown into fragments,” or “hurled into eternity.”

On August 10, 1894, the Republican-Gazette reported on a non-lethal blast at the Hercules factory. “About one o’clock Wednesday afternoon,” the newspaper wrote, “a report, which was heard all over the city, and which caused the earth to tremble as in the throes of an earthquake occurred.” The source of the report was traced to “the factory of the Hercules Torpedo Co., which is located on the farm just west of McBeth’s lake,” the newspaper wrote.

The explosion blew the factory’s main building, which the newspaper described as a “mere shed,” into pieces “suitable for kindling wood” and broke windows in a nearby house. Amazingly, no one was injured, though two of Jolly’s sons who were nearby at the time were forced to run for their lives.

In mid-January 1900, an explosion at the Hercules plant made it seem to people downtown “as if the buildings were going to wreck over their heads,” the Lima Times Democrat wrote. Jolly, the plant’s manager, told the newspaper five hundred quarts of nitroglycerine had exploded. “Considerable damage was done by the force of the explosion which broke window glass in most of the houses within a radius of two miles of the factory and several in the city,” the Times-Democrat wrote. “One of the large plate glass windows at the new Norval (hotel) was broken.” After 14 years with the company, Jolly resigned in February 1900.

Four years later, in February 1904, storage magazines belonging to Hercules and two other torpedo companies detonated at a site about two and a half miles northeast of the city off the Findlay Road. “The streets of the city were simply lined with crystals of broken glass last evening,” the Republican-Gazette reported February 12, 1904, “and the full amount of damage could not be ascertained last night.”

As the Lima oil field played out in 1905 and the need for oil well shooters dwindled, Hercules, which had absorbed the city’s other two torpedo companies earlier that year, shut down its Lima operation. “The Hercules represented the combination which acquired the other companies, and though it is doing the work of the former three explosive concerns yet there was even then insufficient … field work to keep it busy, where three had formerly been kept on the jump in this field,” the Times-Democrat wrote July 18, 1905.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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