Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Snake Magee's Rotary Boiler

 From The Life Treasury of American Folklore

(Grammar and spelling as the text, some paragraph breaks added)


"I hear it spread around in some fields that the reason a rotary rig uses four boilers while cable tools only use one is because a rotary got so much more work to do, all of which is a fundamental lie. It taken four boilers for a rotary because none of them is any good, as to which no man in the country is in better shape to testify than I am.

I only work with one rotary boiler in my time. It was not a rotary rig otherwise - just good old cable tools - and I would not have working with it if I knew what it was. The first intimation I got that anything was wrong was with the safety valve. You taken a good cable-tool boiler and hang a six-inch bit on the safety valve, and you got a head a steam that pulls a mile of hole right up on top of the ground and pulls the derrick right down where the hole used to be. But this rotary boiler - I didn't know that was what it was - didn't react properly.

I hang a six-inch bit on the safety, and she goes to jumping up and down, like a walking-beam on soft structure. And I hang a Stillson wrench, a sledge hammer, a short piece of 15-inch pipe on the safety, and the results was alarming. The pressure gauge only showed 380 pounds to the square inch, but them boiler plates begin to wiggle and squirm like mustard plasters on a itchy back, and the whole thing to jiggle like a little boy when the teacher can't see his hand.

We only making about 1,400 feet of hole a day, so my tool-dresser been staying in town until I need him. But I work with tricky boilers before and I need no help. I do not even need to put the fire out. It was a secret of mine, but I will tell it to you in case you should need to fix a boiler when the fire is going.

Take and jump into the slush-pit where the mud is fresh. Then, before the mud getting hard, think of something that throws you into a cold sweat. The cold cause your body to contract, and the first thing you know is there is a wall of perspiration between your body and the mud. This keeps the mud pliable and easy to work in, like a big glove, and the sweat keeps you from scorching, when you step into the firebox.

How do you keep from breathing the flame? Wel, I will tell you another secret. Most people taken breath from the outside and breathe in; when you are working in the fire, you taken a breath from the inside and breathe out. You can do this, when you know how, because the body is 99 per cent water, and water is nothing but H2O. Besides, water purifies itself every 15 feet and all you got to do is keep moving and you always get a fresh supply of air.

I leave the rig to run itself because we are not making more than 1,900 feet of hole a day, and there is really not nah-thing to do. Then, I take a Stillson, a bell-peen hammer, a acetylene torch, and a new set of flues and go out and climb into the firebox. Right away I says to myself, "Magee", I says, "this boiler is uncommonly frail. I would almost suspect it of being a rotary boiler. We have only 436 pounds of steam and the heat indicator only shown 1,197 F., but there is every evidence of inferior materials. Something must be done with expediency."

I see there is no use putting new flues in the old can, because the plates have begun to melt and will not hold a flue, so I think rapidly. If I have had my sky-hoooks there, I would have flipped the boiler over so the pressure is against the bottom instead of the top, but I loan them out that very morning. I finally see the boiler will have to be reversed, so that the outside of the plates, which is cool, will be turned in. This is just like turning a coat wrong side out, and I have done it many times. But just as I am pulling the smokestack down through the fireox this rotary boiler explodes.

When I wake up I think I am in jail, like I have sometimes seen pictures of men of, because there is bars all around me. But then there is nah-thing beneath my feet or over my head and I am sailing through the air at terrific speed, and I remember what happen. "Magee," I says, "these are the grates that are wrapped around you, and you are in the air because the boiler blown up." 

I worry somewhat because I am a law-abiding citizen and do not have a license to fly, but then I begin to see that I am slightly hurt. The mud protecting me some, but I have six broken ribs, a fractured back, concussion of the brain, a ruptured appendix, a busted nose, both arms and legs broken in from three to twelve places, and a slight headache.

"Magee," I says, "you have excellent grounds for a damage suit against the rotary manufacturing company. When you are through there will be no more rotaries and wells will be drilt with cable tools as God originally intended."

I do not think anything very long, of course, because I am travelling faster than light which is 42,000 foot-pounds per second, and before I know it I am back in town 16 miles away and dropping down in front of our boardinghouse.

I holler for my tool-dresser Haywire Haynes, who is still sleeping, to come out.

"Are you hurt, Magee?" he asks.

"Only slightly," I says. "I doubt I will be incapacitated for more than 30 or 40 years. But I am going to sue the rotary manufacturing company for every cent they are worth. When I am through there will not be a rotary left on the face of the earth."

He shaken his head. "You can't do that Magee. You been blown back here so fast you arrived before you got started. You can't sue because you ain't been to work yet this morning."

I thought a moment and seen he was right. "If that's the case," I says, "I might as well make up my mind to get well, right now.""


From the text; Snake and his fourth-dimensional adventure with the rotary boiler illustrates how a mans infatuation with a highly-technical job and its equipment can spawn bizzare stories. Drillers in West Virginia oil fields were commonly called "snakes" because the rock formations there are so hard and complex that, it was said, only a snake could wiggle through. The rotary drill was a replacement for the older cable drill, and each required its own kind of boiler. Men who had worked all their lives with the cable drill were deeply loyal to it and despised the new invention, which explains Magee's belligerant attitude towards a rotary rig and any driller who would use it. An average boiler could take only about 100 pounds of pressure, and a good days work, with both driller and tool-dresser going hard at it, was about 100 feet of drilling.

Originally from 'A Treasury of American Folklore. By Jim Thompson. Edited by B.A. Botkin.


  1. I can't decide if the paragraph in the end is necessary because without it I didn't understand anything, or completely out of place because without it I didn't understand anything

  2. That made my afternoon, thanks for sharing!