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THORNTON, WARD A. [TEX]

THORNTON, WARD A. [TEX] (1891–1949). Ward A. (Tex) Thornton, well shooter and oilfield fire fighter, was born in Oxford, Mississippi, on October 9, 1891. In 1913 he went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked for a company that manufactured torpedoes; there he mastered the use of explosives. Thornton put out his first oilfield fire in East Liverpool, Ohio. After World War I he began working as a well driller and shooter for the Knox Oil Company at Artesia, New Mexico, and then at Electra, Texas. He first traveled to the Texas Panhandle in 1920, while working with the United States Torpedo Company of Wichita Falls. Later the company sent him to Amarillo as a branch manager. There he met and married Sarah Troxell; they had one son. Thornton soon found that the limestone formations in the Panhandle oil and gas field necessitated the use of as much as 500 quarts of nitroglycerin to shoot each well. He established his own business, the Tex Thornton Torpedo Company, in a canyon nine miles outside of Amarillo. There he constructed a torpedo factory, hired two engineers, and manufactured his own nitroglycerine explosives. The high gas content in the Panhandle field made a well shooter's job particularly hazardous. More than once Thornton reportedly caught shells of nitro forced back up well holes by gas bubbles. The great amount of gas in the Panhandle field also made well fires a constant menace, and Thornton quickly gained a reputation as the man to put them out. Wherever there was danger of causing other fires by using explosives, he used massive amounts of water and steam to smother the flames. This process usually took about three weeks, required twenty to thirty men, and employed fifty steam boilers. The better-known and more spectacular mode called for extinguishing the blaze with a charge of nitroglycerine. After removing red-hot metal pieces from around the well head, fire fighters planted a post on either side of the blazing well and connected the posts with a double wire line strung on pulleys. A bundle of nitroglycerine wrapped in a protective asbestos covering was then attached to the wire, positioned over the fire, and exploded with a foot-operated electrical switch. The blast choked off the oxygen and snuffed out the fire. The most dangerous part of the operation, however, was capping the still-blowing well.

Thornton's exploits earned him fame as the "king of the oil-well fire fighters." In January 1928 he traveled to Corpus Christi, where a fire had been burning out of control for some time. After spending a week preparing the site, he made the shot. The fire went out, but within fifteen minutes it re-ignited and blew a crater over 200 feet wide and almost as deep. Thornton called Amarillo, where his wife, Sarah, loaded up a company vehicle with nitroglycerine and drove 700 miles to Corpus with the load, a performance that made headlines throughout the state for several days. Once, while Thornton was attending a convention in El Paso, he gave oil company employees step-by-step instructions over the phone for putting out a gas fire that had erupted near Borger. Thornton was also known for his inventiveness. He is credited with designing the protective asbestos suit for fighting fires, although he preferred not to use the clumsy outfit. During the 1930s he invented a device with which he sought to produce rain by bombing clouds, but with only limited success. His ability to make friends and his generosity were legendary. He was killed on June 22, 1949, by a pair of hitchhikers to whom he gave a ride, and was buried in Llano Cemetery in Amarillo.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

F. Stanley [Stanley F. L. Crocchiola], The Early Days of the Oil Industry in the Texas Panhandle, 1919–1929 (Borger, Texas: Hess, 1973). F. Stanley [Stanley F. L. Crocchiola], The Tex Thornton Story (Nazareth, Texas, 1975).

H. Allen Anderson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

H. Allen Anderson, "THORNTON, WARD A. [TEX]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fth57), accessed September 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.