Pages Navigation Menu

Bradford Oil Field PA

When exploring used bookstores, I usually begin the hunt for topics relating to Texas, and since I’ve been married to a petroleum geologist for 35 years anything about American energy catches my eye. The book GROWING UP IN THE BRADFORD OIL FIELDS was a surprising treasure. Dedicated to his nine children, Jim Messer tells the story of his father, Joe Messer, who was a “shooter” for the American Glycerin Company from 1941 until his retirement 1950 in northern Pennsylvania.

Fracs, or fracking an oil or gas well, is nothing new. Early oil field frac experts were called “shooters” and they used nitroglycerin.

Shooters defied death to do their jobs. In energy industry terms, a FRAC is short for fracturing the rock formation or pay zone which holds the hydrocarbons. Hydraulic fracking is actually done during the completion of an oil or natural gas well, and is not a part of the drilling phase. Although advanced degrees were not required, these guys were the earliest production engineers and in the those days they carried out this necessary operation using nitroglycerin. Their primary job was to make sure oil flowed to the surface.

As Mr. Messer explains, “Shooters were the highest-paid low-skilled workers in the oil patch, earning at least a third more than any pumper or roustabout….” because of the dangers they faced. After a well is drilled and reaches total depth, the rock zone(s) need to be broken up so that the oil or natural gas can flow more freely and be brought to the surface. Messer notes, “Shooting a well could increase production up to ten times…”

Today we call that hydraulic fracking, or a ‘frac”, to fracture the carbon pay zone by forcing sand into the well bore, and it’s done on both vertical or horizontal wells.

Thousands of feet below the fresh water source and below the surface, long before the controlled process we use today, early oil field workers lowered nitroglycerin filled tin shells into the well bore. It was detonated by a cast-iron “go-devil” or by a stick of dynamite. A blasting cap was used to set off the dynamite.

“Driving a truck with the words NITROGLYCERIN or EXPLOSIVES printed boldly on all four sides demanded lots of respect from other drivers. Cars passed only when it was safe to do so. Absolutely nobody tailgated a nitro truck, and hitchhikers put their thumbs down when a nitro truck went rolling by. ”

Jim Messer

Transported to the well site in ten-quart square cans made of copper, shooting trucks were usually required to go around the town or required a police escort. The more interesting part of his book tells about how they stored the materials needed for a shooter to do his job. Made with concrete blocks with heavy-steel plated doors, the Messer’s storage buildings were secured with large padlocks. Nitroglycerin never deteriorates and only one small drop can kill you.

“The cans of nitroglycerin were far too dangerous to have around any house, so they were kept in a “magazine” built in between some very large rocks in the middle of the woods, on the side of the hill between where we lived and the town of Knapp Creek. The magazine consisted of two buildings, one in which the cans of nitroglycerin were stored and one with a gas stove that provided hot water to heat the storage building. The walkway between the two buildings was elevated and covered with a non-slip rubber surface. The nitro truck was simply backed in along the walkway and the cans carefully carried from the building to the truck so that no up-or-down steps were required.”

Jim Messer

“Then there was the “shooting of the wells”, usually on Saturday afternoon. The best excitement of the week! When we saw Joe Messer and his team of horses hauling a load of nitroglycerin, we knew a well was being “shot”. We jumped on our bikes, if we had one, and followed Joe to the site of the shooting. The nitroglycerin lit– explosion! The flying stone, oil, water, and smoke rose to the air– always watching in awe with our hands over our ears to stifle some of the noise.”

Jean Peace Switalski, remembrances Living “Up the Hill” in Knapp Creek

Jim Messer’s book is a fantastic record of the oil fields in Pennsylvania, the actual birthplace of our industry, with long forgotten tales of the men who worked in the early days of American energy.

To read more, here’s a great article about the history of fracking on the American Oil & Gas Historical website.


Natalie Bright is the author of the upcoming WILD COW RANCH series, a western Christian romance, available January 2021. And KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’: The All-American Chuck Wagon Cookbook. With over 100 recipes, cattle drive history, archival photos, and her own Texas ranch photography, you can bring a taste of the old West to your kitchen! Available now for preorder at all online bookstores. She is also the author of the Trouble in Texas series for middle grade readers.