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Alberta - October 8, 2018

Safety is a priority for workers in the oil patch, but how do you stay safe when your job is to blow up oil wells?

Before there was fracking, companies used “oil well shooting,” a process where explosives were used to break up the rock in wells that had slowed production, allowing the oil to flow more freely.

In 1922, the United States–based Independent Torpedo Company found itself looking for an oil well shooter after former employee “Shorty” Glass blew himself up. Fortunately, Charlie Stalnaker, former sergeant of a machine-gun platoon in WWI, was hired to step into the position. Stalnaker, also known as “Nitro Charlie,” managed to survive in his profession for 50 years.

Blowout

Charles Stalnaker, AKA Nitro Charlie, pouring nitroglycerine down a torpedo on an oil rig

In the 1920s, operators in the Alberta oil industry, centred in Turner Valley, were looking for ways to coax oil out of tight limestone formations as production declined. The nearest source of nitroglycerine was Independent Torpedo’s factory in Shelby, Montana. Enter Stalnaker, who became a frequent traveller to Alberta, transporting the nitroglycerine in a truck that he drove very carefully over rough roads.

Once on site, his job was to size up the well to determine how much explosive to use before pouring the nitroglycerine into a canister to make what was called a “torpedo.” He then lowered one or more torpedoes into a well with rope or wire and ignited it.

Stalnaker developed a method called a “time bomb.” According to a Glenbow Museum profile of Stalnaker, “Once everything was in place, Charles packed the shot with small rocks. This helped him to direct the explosion sideways in the well. If this step was missed, the explosion could blow straight up the shaft!”

The museum’s profile also notes that well shooting was not an exact science, and it was up to Stalnaker “to decide how much was required to break up a rock formation without collapsing the well or damaging the rig equipment.”

While he worked mainly in United States, his single largest explosion actually happened at Turner Valley. “The biggest shot I ever put in an oil well was 1015 quarts of liquid nitroglycerine,” Stalnaker was quoted saying.

What was his secret to staying safe? Observers noted that he always worked alone, choosing to rely on his own judgement when deciding how much nitro was needed.

Stalnaker attributed his longevity to two factors: first, he respected the power of the nitroglycerine; second, he claimed that he never took a drink of liquor when handling nitroglycerine.

And owing to this, Nitro Charlie lived to 88 years old. He died of old age in 1979.

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