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Meteor Crater a Century Later

2020 will go down in history as a very strange year. The world entered into isolation practiced social distancing and generally tried to avoid the COVID 19 pandemic. As I wrote this in mid-May I reflected on Meteor Crater 100 years ago. The world then was just coming out of a pandemic. The Spanish Flu of 1918 through the spring of 1919 was arguably the worst pandemic of all time. Fatalities numbered somewhere between 20 million up to 50 million persons or even much higher. This was far more than the number of casualties of World War 1. But for me, 2020 is the 100 anniversary of an epic time at Meteor Crater and mid-May 1920 is when it all begins out in the wild west of Arizona.

After long years of sitting idle, the crater will again see bustling activity. Daniel Barringer has finally found a company to take a lease for drilling to find the asteroid he believes is buried there. He has held for decades the idea that the south rim is uplifted higher and arched because the rocks have been displaced by the massive iron asteroid. He believes there are 10 million tons of nickel-iron under the crater. United States Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company after refusing in 1919 to take a lease for drilling has later found that it might be to their best interest to do so. It is rumored that the Arizona Copper Boys (as they are called in the mining industry) may be interested in the iron at the crater. As an action partly to keep the copper miners out of iron USSR&M Co. accepts Barringer’s offer. Mr. Jennings of USSR&M Co. in Boston will be forced to go against his personal beliefs that the asteroid is shattered and gone; surviving only as small pieces under the crater. He will be one of the officers involved in a lease agreement with Barringer. In the Spring of 1920, they send a newly hired mining engineer/mine superintendent to Arizona.

This is the location today of Sunshine Station. It was the closest train stop to Meteor Crater. Almost all of the supplies, food, gasoline, and everything else came here to be unloaded and transported by truck to the crater. It was where the Postal Service established the official Crater, Arizona Post Office.

It is hard for us who understand crater formation today to grasp the lack of knowledge in 1920. Science was just not at a point then to fully understand the level of energy released in asteroid impacts. Today, we know that most of an asteroid will vaporize when it strikes the Earth.

Barringer, the consummate salesman had been perfecting his pitch for about two decades and though USSR&M Co. could have drilled anywhere for the buried asteroid, they chose to drill first where Barringer believed it lay. Mostly inconclusive the magnetic surveys of the crater had revealed little data about buried iron. There was an anomaly found in the second magnetic survey in the southeastern part of the rim which was to be drill hole number two. Their agreement with Barringer is to spend up to $75,000 and drill up to 10 holes in the search. Even with just a churn drill, they expected that each hole would only take a matter of weeks to complete to depth. If nothing was found they would move the rigs and drill again. At the beginning of the drilling, before the first and arguably the worst disaster of hole number one they drilled down 97 feet in barely three days.

This is an image of the derrick on the top of the south rim of Meteor Crater taken from the center of the crater floor. The white streak flowing down from the derrick is the pulverized rock mud from the drill which is being dumped into the crater. It will eventually be full of ground-up iron from blasted and broken drill casing. It will contain some meteoritic iron shale. This iron content will cause the mud streak to rust and stain the rocks becoming the visible red streak seen today on the south cliffs.

Mid-May 1920, L.F.S. Holland arrives by train at Winslow, Arizona, from his home in Hollywood, California to begin his duties as Superintendent of the new subsidiary of USSR&M Co., Crater Mining Company. He will receive much criticism in future years from the Barringer’s who state he was an inexperienced and poor supervisor. But, that will not be the truth. He was a very experienced and capable mining engineer and geologist. As some might say today, Meteor Crater was not his first rodeo or his last. It was but a single year in a career that lasted over 40 years.

Before the drilling can begin there are a host of preparations that have to be done at and around the crater. Drilling rock even today requires a large and constant supply of water. The dams and reservoirs off at Canyon Diablo had to be repaired and improved. One of the dams was increased in height by a few feet. The water tank at the old north camp was disassembled and transported to the south rim site. There it was reassembled on a knoll to hold the water for both the drilling work and the human needs of the camp. A new pipeline had to be laid which was 15,000 feet long when finally completed. But labor disputes made getting enough new pipe impossible so a portion a few thousand feet in length was salvaged pipe from earlier Barringer work. This portion had to be hauled from the crater walls and floor, it was leaky and unreliable.

This photograph was taken by Mr. Holland. It shows a tractor pulling a plate behind it with men standing on it to provide the weight to scrap the dirt back into the trench of the pipeline. Mr. Holland was not much of a photographer and his images are often poorly processed as well.

Bunkhouses, a cookhouse, and other buildings had to be constructed before much of any work could be done. The buildings cost over $10,000 in 1920 to build. Mr. Holland thought the price was exorbitant and the work poor but the isolation of Meteor Crater limited his contractor choices. He refused to pay in full until some of the poor workmanship was corrected. Initially, workers live in tents. For a short, while no cots were even available for purchase, men were sleeping on the ground. But for an extended project real structures were required with beds and heating stoves. The two buildings and collapsed remains on the south rim slope today are from the1920’s.

Two drilling rigs were purchased. The machinery, lumber, and hardware sat on the property for months until Autumn when they were finally able to erect the derrick and rig enclosure. They will never use the second rig purchased since only one hole will ever be drilled. They would not have been able to build the second rig anyway. The rigs were sent with serious parts shortages. These shortages were immediately reported. But the manufacturer never took care of it in full. The second rig was consumed partially to construct the first. The two drill rigs cost just short of $30,000. Thousands of feet of drill rod, casing, and rope were also required for the work. A gasoline engine was decided upon by the Boston officers for the powerplant of the rig. Barely past experimental, gasoline industrial engines were difficult to operate. The engine was mounted on a concrete structure to bring it up off the ground. The stone aggregate alone for the engine structure cost $300. Everything was expensive in Arizona in 1920. The gasoline came in drums by train. The drums were hauled to the worksite by Crater Mining Company’s Ford truck. The rig engine would ideally operate 24/7, it burned 80 gallons of fuel per day. The cost for the gasoline in 1920 was 38.54 cents per gallon. By the time all the preparation work was done in October 1920, L.F.S. Holland had spent $62,919 of the $75,000. Without a single foot of rock being drilled.

Drill rigs need a level ground surface to be built upon. The rig was to be placed as close to the edge of the south cliffs of Meteor Crater as possible. Months of work mostly utilizing hand labor will be required to remove 5,500 tons of rock to create a 40×100 foot level area for the rig. Finding the workers to perform that feat will prove to be a feat itself. North Central Arizona in 1920 has only a few thousand total residences. Almost none wish to work at an isolated mining camp such as Meteor Crater.

The area where the derrick was erected can still be seen today as a flat spot cut almost down through the red Moencopi Sandstone.

If a person deliberately went out for some crazy reason and tried to find the hardest place on Earth to drill it might be difficult for them to find a place worse than Meteor Crater. The entire project from start to finish is a drama of hardship and trouble. Meteor Crater is so isolated that everything needed had to be brought there. It offered on its own in 1920 nothing other than an abundance of rattlesnakes. There was not even sufficient rainfall that year to support the drilling efforts.

Back a couple of years ago I created a Facebook page devoted to Meteor Crater’s History and wrote a book on specifically the story of the drilling project. As the hundredth anniversary of all the activities come around this year and next year I will be posting in detail what transpired. I hope that those of the readership of Meteorite Times that love Meteor Crater will follow the story of the drilling program as we move through this 100th anniversary year. You can find the Facebook page by the name Meteor Crater History or this link.

Much of the damage to Meteor Crater that can still be seen today occurred as a result of this one project in the years of 1920-22. By the time USSR&M Co. will finally declare the project a bust and stop work over $200,000 of 1920 money has been spent. There was just one following search effort at Meteor Crater that was more expensive. Mr. Holland will only be at Meteor Crater for the first year of the drilling project. He will make high wages for the time and I like to muse that when he is asked to resign there is a smile on his face. It was such a difficult year for him and all the workers for that matter. It is my hope that during this difficult year that all of you will be safe and remain healthy.

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