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Meteor Crater 100th Anniversary

The tumbler is tumbling tektites and I am cutting and preparing meteorites regularly during this time of being homebound. I have several hobbies and writing. But I have not been out meteorite hunting which I want to happen again soon. I keep really busy always, sometimes I wonder how I got things done when I was working considering how busy I am retired. Some of the readers may know that I have a Facebook page devoted to the history of Meteor Crater in Arizona. It also seems to be a recurring topic of magazine articles here at Meteorite Times. I have had a life long fascination with the place. 2020 will go down as a weird year full of strange and often annoying events and circumstances. 1920 at Meteor Crater was also an eventful year. The world was just emerging from another pandemic, The Spanish Flu. Millions of persons had lost their lives to it. The world was still recovering from World War One as well.

A small group of men assembled on the plateau of north-central Arizona in 1920 to find a buried asteroid made of solid nickel-iron. The property owner one Daniel Moreau Barringer believed that this asteroid weighed millions of tons and was going to make himself and any partners he could persuade to join him wealthy. Meteor Crater in 1920 was a rough and tumble place, the norm was to kill several rattlesnakes a day and the occasional change of pace was to fend off the prowling mountain lions near the camp. The heat in the summer could be lethal and the winters were freezing.

The natural untouched south slope of the crater had been transformed into a significant mining camp in just the months from May to August. Wooden buildings rose for living, sleeping, and eating. Thousands of tons of rock and dirt were removed from the crater rim and dumped into its interior. Test shafts were dug into the flank of the south slope to investigate the ejecta. A water tank was moved and erected again and pipeline trenches were dug. Dams and reservoirs were improved and built. With not enough new pipe available for purchase the old pipe was cannibalized from the interior of the crater. With the need for lumber nearly as serious, the old buildings on the crater floor were torn down to supply some of the crater’s needs. Part of the wood was used to make a 1200 foot long slide constructed in the southeast corner of the crater and running up the wall. A horse-powered whim was obtained from a local quarry to haul the materials up the slid and out of the crater. By September of 1920 exactly a hundred years ago as of this writing, they were pulling the lumber up. They got up enough useable old pipe to patch together the final portion of the 15,000-foot long pipeline from the pumphouse at Canyon Diablo to the water tank on the knoll near the south camp. They were getting close to ready for the drilling of the hole down through the south rim of the crater. Down to where Barringer had long believed the asteroid came to rest. But they had to complete the clearing and leveling of the actual drill site.

The flat area right of center is the leveled area for the drill rig as it appears today from across the crater with a telephoto lens.

The drill rig would be erected on a 100 foot by 40-foot area at the very edge of the crater rim. The drill would grind down through the rock so close to the crater wall that when difficulties were encountered later and thoughts of redrilling considered, they could not move the rig any closer to the edge to drill a new hole. The rig site was leveled by handwork and sometimes blasting, then men mucked away the debris with wheelbarrows. At the crater edge around 25 feet of the Moencopi Sandstone was stripped away. A total of five thousand five hundred tons of rock were removed for the drill site. Most of the rock was dumped over the edge into the crater. Months of labor were required to prepare the drill site. But, by mid-September the drill site was ready and the crew that would assemble the drill rig was summoned by telegraph. Though delayed 10 days they would arrive on September 27th to begin building the drill rig.

The great piles of timbers that are beneath the drill site today are what remains of the derrick, drill rig, and enclosure building from the early 1920s. Gray with exposure and age some of the beams are massive.

The work was to be completed by the 10th of October but was again delayed two weeks as they waited for dynamite that never arrived. The deep cellar under the rig for handling the long sections of the casing was blasted out with black powder instead. Amazingly, only five days late the rig was finished enough that on the 15th of October the drilling crew was expected to arrive.

The men that would begin the remarkable task of drilling for an asteroid were obtained from the Oak Ridge Oil Company of Fillmore and Santa Paula, California. A half a dozen or so men and a foreman arrived, settled in, and began drilling on November 1, 1920. For three days the drilling goes spectacularly and they are down 97 feet. But, after that, the work for these men will be an endless nightmare. Finally, on February 21, 1921, over three and a half months later with the drill only down to 312 feet and hopelessly blocked by a lost underreamer bit work was halted. The drill crew was paid off and left for California on the morning train. The contract that Barringer had with U. S. Smelting was for up to ten holes to be drilled. The expectation was that each hole would take just days or weeks to drill. They were starting with the first hole above the arch of the south wall. This was a place that Barringer believed had been pushed up higher and more strongly by the asteroid which was buried below displacing this area upward. Magnetic surveys had revealed several anomalies around the crater rim these would be the next locations the rig was moved to. But there would never be more than this first disastrous hole. Nearly all of the $75,000 that U.S. Smelting had committed to was consumed before the drilling even began.

No asteroid was found even after another year of drilling in the same spot by a different crew with different equipment. That crew had no easy time either. They finally arrived at a depth of 1,376 feet when a final disaster stopped their work too. The final cost was over $200,000. U. S. Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company would give up their lease on Meteor Crater having found nothing of value. The small amount of iron shale that was drilled through proved to have little remaining nickel. Nickel almost unknown in America was what they were there to recover.

In 1920 the train was how everything moved long distances. All the equipment and supplies, even the food came to the Crater by train. The primitive gasoline engine that powered the drill rig was supplied with fuel that came in barrels by train. It was a temperamental machine and a real gas guzzler. At first, it was almost impossible to start because it arrived with bent parts. This damage also caused it to consume 175% more gas than it was supposed to use. It ran 24 hours a day when things were going well with the drilling. It consumed 80 gallons of gasoline a day after the repairs were made. This was close to the 72 gallons it was designed to burn per day. When there were problems with the drilling it would be shut off. The bitter cold and the difficult process involved in getting it primed to hand start infuriated the men that were mostly used to working with steam powerplants. The barrels of gasoline had to be moved from the train station promptly to the south slope camp. They used the Ford truck of Crater Mining Company. A barrel contained 42 gallons and they were consuming two barrels a day for just the drilling. It is easy to imagine that hauling gas from the train station was a big job and something that happened often. I can not imagine that more than a few barrels at a time could be put in that 1920’s era Ford pickup. And it should be noted that the roads were horrible in the area in 1920. The gasoline came from Texas and Oklahoma refineries to Holbrook, Arizona. Crater Mining Company had to pay an extra charge to have the gas brought the rest of the way to Sunshine Station seven miles from the Meteor Crater camp.

These are two of the buildings still standing on the south slope of Meteor Crater at the campsite of the 1920-23 drilling program.

The 100th anniversary of the beginning of the drilling is November 1st and approaching fast. The world has changed enormously. Electricity or perhaps diesel would power the engine of the drill rig today. There was no communication at the crater in 1920. Telegrams were the fastest way for superintendent Holland to talk to the home office in Boston. To send a telegram was a rough ride to Canyon Diablo station or Winslow. Nearly every visitor today has a cellphone and the interstate makes the trip to Winslow only a few minutes.

Hindsight they say is twenty-twenty and we know much more about impact craters today. But that was not the case in 1920. Meteor Crater proved to be more than challenging. It ultimately defeated two drilling crews and in the end the most modern equipment available. The broken, shattered rock of the crater wall made keeping the drill bit going straight nearly impossible. I wanted to wander following the giant fissures and crevices until it would bend too much and break. The limestone which is 260 feet thick was harder than it looked for churn drilling. The bit never reached the depth that Barringer and U.S. Smelting wanted. It came teasingly close but did not make it. The list of things that made the drilling work a disaster is long. Perhaps chief among them at the start was the poor wartime surplus metal used in the drill rods. At one point they broke as fast as the men could attach a bit to them, start drilling, break the stem, fish out the bit, and attach another drill stem which would break as well. After consuming all the long stems which created the weight for the drilling the men at one point were forced to use a stem so short and light it barely cut the rock when pounding. The broken stems all broke in the same spot indicating a poor design in addition to poor quality metal. The repairing of the stems took so long that they were sometimes without equipment to work. This prompted Mr. Holland to leave the crater and travel to Los Angeles and find a forge for himself that would promise to expedite the repair work. The Regan Forge in San Pedro, California was the one he found. It happens that it was next door to the first real job I had as a young man from San Pedro. The buildings of the Regan Forge and Engineering Company were by then part of Todd Shipyard. I worked for the Catalina Steamship Company at the next berth over. But I walked past the old Regan Forge buildings on Regan St. when I did my night watchman rounds. It would be 50 years before this connection to Meteor Crater would be learned. The supplier of much of the equipment and the gasoline engine was the Union Tool Company of Torrance, California. It would decades later become Armco National Supply and later have its great buildings torn down in urban renewal. My father a man noted for collecting anything of value he saw being thrown away would gather up some of the old leaded glass windows from the Union Tool buildings when they were being demolished. The windows were lying in a pile to go to the trash. He and I were glass artists at the time and I still have some of the old rippled glass that was once clear but had purpled over the decades. It was again not until fifty years later while researching my book on the drilling at Meteor Crater that the Union Tool Co. connection to Meteor Crater and my life was made.

This is where it happened. The actual location of the drill rig and the debris scattered around that was left behind after the timbers were pushed over the edge of the rim.

In most types of drilling the casing of tubular iron must remain loose so it can be easily pulled up and removed as necessary. In early December 1920, they had to put dynamite down the hole and shoot off the big iron shoe on the end of the casing and just days later dynamite fourteen feet of the casing to free it. They had tried everything else after it had become cemented in place when the gasoline engine broke down and forced a work stoppage for several days. All the broken metal from the blasted casing and shoe had to be drilled through. Pounding on the hard metal created the need for constant sharpening of the bits. This was a hole 10 inches in diameter and the iron parts weighed tons once screwed together. The drillers were strong, tough men used to hard work. I can imagine that every day they wondered what new failure would occur and how long it might be until their return to the oil fields of Southern California. Just the thought of pushing around drill bits to sharpen that weigh six hundred to nine hundred pounds makes me weary.

The so-called red streak which runs down the crater wall on the south side is the result of the 1920’s drilling. The iron both meteoritic and from the pulverizing of more than a thousand pounds of casing and tools in just the first year created the streak by the rusting of the iron. I have watched the crater for nearly fifty years myself and I think the streak may be fading and being washed away. The streak was originally white from the limestone and gray sandstone mud which was dumped and pumped over the edge. It quickly turned the rusty color from the bits of iron it contained. But it does not seem as continuous or bright as it did years ago.

Likely, there was never anything under the south rim to find. Even if the drilling had reached the intended depth about one or two hundred feet deeper. Science today has moved well beyond the physics and math existing in 1920. There was just a hint of evidence that asteroids would vaporize at the start of the drilling. But, just a handful of years later when Barringer began the last of his explorations the math proved that asteroids vaporize on impact. He would never have been able to get financing for a drilling program by 1928. Today it is accepted that little of the Canyon Diablo asteroid survived except as the fragments inside (deep below the crater floor) and outside the crater. Of the original mass of 100,000 or more tons only around 30 tons of fragments have been collected from the slopes and surrounding plains.

Barringer was an incredibly stubborn man with years invested in believing his golden dreams of wealth from the asteroid. He made discoveries and added much to the early understanding of craters. Sadly, he died a discouraged man without the wealth he had earlier in life. It is safe to say that Meteor Crater broke him both financially and in other ways. But, 1920 was an exciting year for him as he saw a twenty-year dream of drilling through the arch of the south rim realized. And it was being done using someone else’s money.

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