Hughes McKie No. 1
Oil Well Explosion
Navarro County, Texas


Oil Industry Index || Photographs of the fire
On May 8, 1923, the J. K. Hughes-McKie No. 1, on the east bank of Chambers Creek, blew in as the first prime producer at 2,850 feet, spewing 8,000 barrels of oil per day high over the crown block, located one mile and a quarter southeast of the discovery well.  Tragedy struck in less than twenty-four hours after the McKie well came in.  A spark ignited the oil and gas as crews were changing and thirteen men were burned to death.  Two escaped with bad burns and later died.

The heavy black smoke looked like clouds, and at night the glare from the hissing inferno was visible at Hubbard and other communities.  Steam boilers, dynamite and other explosives were used in unsuccessful efforts to snuff out the blaze.  On May 20, D. L. Kelly finally turned off the oil and gas with a valve.  The lost oil and gas was valued at $150,000.  The Hugh-McKie No. 1 defined the main pool and opened the development.  Mildred, Navarro, Providence and other communities boomed and were overrun by the oil fraternity, and Three-Way-Filling Station, Tuckertown, and old Mildred teemed with thousands of people.

Livestock and chickens were attracted to the huge blaze while the McKie well was burning and stayed awake at night grazing at the giant torch reaching into the sky.  They grew poor for lack of sleep and owners verified the truth of the statement after we had written a feature story to that effect.  Sam J. Little and I had the only passes into the drilling area and particularly to the burning well.  Visiting editors and reporters from out-of-town were required to get their information from us., and we did rather well financially.


  • This article is a partial excerpt of an article written by Paul Moore who for many years, was a reporter and sports editor for the Corsicana Daily Sun.
  • The article appears in full in the Navarro County History, Volume I.


Twelve Others Missing After Volcano-Like Eruption of Texas Gusher.

Spark Caused Tragedy

Flames Shoot 100 Feet in Air and Instantly Envelop Workers on Derrick.

KERENS, Texas, may 9 - Thirteen are known to be dead and twelve more may be added to their number following an explosion of an oil gusher ten miles from here today.  The well was known as McKie No. 1 and was being developed by the G. K. Hughes Development Company.

W. A. Hicks, a prominent oil operator, of Wortham and S. P. Allen, field superintendent for the Hughes company, are reported to be among the dead.  All of those killed have not been identified and other bodies are believed to be in the wreckage.

The explosion and fire which followed instantly caught every workman on and around the derrick platform.  They had no chance.  The sheets of flame caught them as a sudden dust storm might envelop a group of travelers.  Twelve of the victims met instant death.  Another died in a hospital soon after he was snatched from the caldron of burning oil.

Tonight the fire is under control, but from 2 o'clock this afternoon until 6 o'clock this evening 1,000 barrels of accumulated waste were on fire and the full flow of the well 5,000 barrels a day - continued ignited.

Often, in operating an oil well, it becomes necessary to set a control valve alongside the gusher's casing.

The Hughes gusher came in last night, flowing wild at 5,000 barrels and exceeding 20,000,000 feet of gas.  Nor had either of these diminished as its owners and the working staff viewed throughout this morning what meant millions to them.

Just before 2 o'clcok a workman approached the casing and put a control valve along the side of it.  As he was doing this his hammer struck a rock.  There was a spark, such as a boy might make when he cracks two rocks together building an "Indian fire."  Instantly there came a roar of flame and the detonation of exploding oil and gas.

The well is the third one which has been completed in what is known as the Powell field and the liquid stream spurted when the drill hit sand between 2,942 and 3,000 feet.

The bodies of five men had been removed at 5 o'clock this afternoon.  Two other charred bodies had been located near the well, but could not be reached so intense was the heat.

Five other men belonging to the crew are unaccounted for.  A roustabout crew of twenty men which came from Mexia this morning has not been accounted for.  This crew was working near the well when it caught fire.

At present the known death list is as follows; L. C. Cook, M. O. Turner, S. P. Allen, --- Hicks, Jack Cooper, Fred Craig, L. P. Sheck, Dan Phillips, Jim Phillips, E. C. Cooper and Francis Owen.  The last named died in a hospital here.  Two other men, whose names have not been learned, are said to be still in the ruins.

A man named Simmons, who was on the derrick floor with the crew, escaped by running.  A 15-year-old boy escaped with him.

Emmet Bird of Corsicana, brought to the hospital here, stated that there were between eight and ten men on the derrick floor at the time of the fire and that he thought he and Owen were the only two who escaped.  At the present there is no way of getting a complete list of the dead.

Hundreds of persons were near the well when the explosion came, and it is almost a miracle that more were not killed.  A number of automobiles near the well are said to have been destroyed.

Word of the tragedy was telephoned to Corsicana with urgent calls that all available physicians, medical supplies and ambulances be rushed to the scene.  The injured were taken to Corsicana.

Everything within several hundred feet of the well caught fire.  All the trees and shrubbery around the well were saturated with oil and the ground was quickly burned clear.  The flames shot 100 feet in the air and resembled a volcano in eruption.  A great pool of oil near the well continued to burn an is now flowing wide open with the flames darting high in the air. - May 10, 1923


Washington Expert Urges Stopping Still Mounting Flames with TNT Explosions

CORSICANA, Tex., - May 10. - Fifteen known dead and possibly three more was believed to be the total casualties of the fire at the J. K. Hughes Development Company oil well on the McKie lease yesterday.  The number of dead and missing varied slightly during the night, due to the inability to get reliable information as to how many men were working near the derrick and how many escaped.

A recheck after daylight showed ten bodies in morgues here and six men known to have been at the well to be missing.  Five charred skeletons could be seen near the well as it continued to burn today.

B. B. Simmons of the company owning the well estimated it would take two days to set and successfully use the twenty boilers being taken to the scene to extinguish the flames by steam.  Oil and oil-soaked debris surrounding the well for several hundred feet had all been burned this morning and the flames were fed by the stream of oil and gas issuing from the well. - May 11, 1924

Port Arthur News
10 May 1923

CORSICANA, Texas, May 10 – Eleven known dead still stood this afternoon as the toll of the fire which last night swept the field on which is located the latest gusher of the J. K. Hughes Development Company, after a spark had ignited the well.
Two others are unaccounted for, and these will bring the total dead to thirteen, it is believed. Officials of the developing company emphatically deny, however, reports emanating from the field that sixteen are known dead and others are believed to have perished. Seven bodies are held in a morgue here and four skeletons can be seen in the flames, beyond the reach of workers.
A revised list of the dead and missing follows.

The Dead:
Emmett Byrd, Corsicana
W. M. (Ban) Phillips, 35, Kerens [Obituary]
Fred E. Craig, Corsicana
L. P. Sheek, Dallas
W. A. Hicks, Wortham, head driller
Travis Owens, Kerens [Obituary]
(identification somewhat doubtful)
Including those in flames:
L. C. Cook, Powell, Texas
S. P. Allen, Wortham, field manager
James E. Phillips, 32, Kerens
M. O. Turner, Norris, Miss.
Max Meismer, 30, Kerens
E. C. Cooper, Corsicana

It is impossible to ascertain which of the missing are those in the flames.



KERENS, Navarro Co., Texas, May 10. - Business houses were closed here Thursday afternoon and a pall of gloom hung over the town during the funeral services and burial of Travis Owens and Ban Phillips, who lost their lives Wednesday afternoon in the Hughes-McKie oil well fire near Powell.  The body of Jim Phillips of Kerens, who is reported missing, has not yet been identified.

The body of Mr. Owens was buried in the Kerens Cemetery at 3:30 p.m.  The services were conducted by the Rev. Joe Everheart, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church assisted by other local pastors.

The body of Ban Phillips arrived from Corsicana at 5 o'clock Thursday afternoon and was buried in the Long Prairie Cemetery at 6 p.m.




A spark from a hammer or a rock as the control valve was being changed this afternoon at the Hughes-McKie gusher ignited the oil and gas from the monster producer and caused ten or twelve lives to be snuffed out with the twinkling of an eye.

Twelve are known dead in the big blaze at the Hughes-McKie well, and the number may reach 25 when the final check of the dead are made.

The bodies of five men had been recovered at 5:00 o’clock this afternoon. Two other charred bodies had been located near the well, but could not be reached so intense is the heat from the blaze.

Five other men belonging to the same crew are positively unaccounted vor. A roustabout crew of 20 men which came from Mexia this morning has not been accounted for. The crew was working in the near vicinity of the well when it caught fire.

At present the death list is as follows:

L. C. Cook, M. O. Turner, S. P. Allen, ___________Hicks, Jack Cooper, Fred Craig, L. P. Sheek, Dan Phillips, Jim Phillips, E. C. Cooper. Two other men the names of which have not yet been learned are said by the survivors of the crew to be still in the fire.

Those recovered are so badly charred that identification is impossible.

Mr. Simmonds, who was on the derrick floor with the crew, escaped by running. His clothing not being oil soaked did not ignite. A fifteen year old boy escaped with him.

Emmet Bird of Corsicana, and Travis Owen of Kerens, are the injured men brought to the hospital here. Bird stated to a Sun reporter that there were between eight and ten on the derrick floor at the time of the fire and that he thought he and Owen were the only two who escaped. Others say that at least twelve were killed. At the present there is no way of getting a complete list of the dead as the officials of the Hughes Company will have to make a check of the men working. This is being done now. One man stated that the remains of the dead men were where they fell when the blast occurred and as the well was still burning it would be impossible for some time to remove them.

The fire started about three o’clock while hundreds were in the vicinity of the well and it is almost a miracle that more were not killed. A number of automobiles near the well are said to have been destroyed by the fire.

Word of the tragedy was phoned to Corsicana with urgent calls that all available doctors, medical supplies and ambulances be rushed to the scene. The dead and injured were brought to Corsicana. The injured were placed in the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital.

According to an eye witness the crew was on the derrick floor changing the control head when suddenly there was a flash of fire followed by two other flashes, the fire shooting over 100 feet in the air. In a second everything within several hundred feet of the well was on fire. All the trees and shrubbery around the well were saturated with oil and the ground was quickly burned clear. A great pool of oil near the well also burned quickly. The well continued to burn and is now flowing wide open with the flames darting high into the air.

Officials of the Hughes Development Company are already on the ground and steps to extinguish the flames are now under way.

Great thick clouds of ink black smoke, belched forth as the high gravity oil was consumed by the flames. For miles around the location the heavy smoke clouds enveloped the countryside leaving the appearance that a menacing storm-cloud had suddenly descended which was so thick that the rays of the sun could hardly penetrate the gloom.

The cloud of smoke approached Corsicana from the southeast and as it slowly advanced upon the city excited phone calls started to reach the Sun office inquiring the cause. Thousands of Corsicana people climbed high points in the city watching the great cloud as it spread fan-like over the heavens while hundreds of others left for the scene of the conflagration.

The advance of this great big monster of smoke seemed to those who watched at a distance if they were charmed by some unknown power.




Four additional bodies had been recovered from the big fire at the Hughes-McKie well at 3:30 o’clock Saturday. The bodies were brought from the fire zone by K. T. Kinley of Tulsa.

Mr. Kinley experienced oil field fire fighter, arrived in Corsicana, Friday. Clad in a suit of asbestos cloth lined with heavy duck, Mr. Kinley went within 20 feet of the burning crater, picked up the smoldering remains of one body and brought it out. It was wrapped in canvas cloth and brought to the Southerland Undertaking Parlors about 10 o’clock last night, in the roadster car of the Texas Railroad Commission by C. O. Rison, petroleum mechanical engineer. All that remains of this body is a portion of the trunk and head. The legs and arms are gone. There is no means of identification other than a possible chance by the teeth in the half burned away skull. A dentist is making an examination of the teeth with the slight hope of being able to identify the man.

Shortly after noon Saturday Mr. Kinley donned his fireproof clothing and waded in to the fury and succeeded in bringing out three more of the smoldering forms.

One of them is believed to be that of S. P. Allen, field superintendent. The watch taken from the crispy remains of the charred form which had been lying roasting in the inferno for 72 hours, is almost identified as Allen’s. The timepiece had stopped at 2:55 o’clock, the hour of the big explosion. The other three bodies have not been identified.

This brings the total of dead bodies so far recovered up to eleven.

E. F. Edward of Mexia, employe of the Hughes Company and J. C. Richardson of Corsicana, assisted in recovering and bringing the body to town that was found Friday night.

Continues Work.
Mr. Kinley is now attempting to bring out other bodies which he had located in getting out the three recovered today.

N. B. Turner, W. J. Idom and J. Knox Huff, all of Noris, Miss., are in Corsicana making an effort to find the body of M. O. Turner which was recovered the day of the blaze. N. B. Turner is the father of the missing man.

According to information from Powell today Max Meisner, who has been reported on the list of dead is alive. It is reported from Powell that his father talked with the reported missing son over the telephone Saturday. Max Meisner is said to be working on a water well near Dallas. This would leave the total of known dead at 13.

Various and sundry rumors have been afloat that women and children by-standers perished in the fire, and that bodies of men had been found in a partly burned condition in and about the area of the well.

Mr. Rison of the Railroad Commission stated to newspaper men today that those reports are without foundation and untrue. He and officials of the J. K. Hughes Development company stated that the lives of no persons had been lost, except those previously reported, which were all employees of the company.

McClintock Here.
W. H. McClintock, experienced fire-fighter, who extinguished the Burton gusher which caught fire in the Smackover field, visited the well this morning in an advisory capacity with Hughes company officials. He expressed the opinion that the blaze could be extinguished with comparatively little trouble. He stressed the matter of preliminary preparation by destroying all stray fire in the area of the well to be able to keep it out once the big torch is steamed off.

Mr. Hughes stated this morning that he thought connections would be completed so that the water can be turned on tonight. He said the flow of water would be continuous for at least twelve hours. This will cool the ground about the heated crater and extinguish lurking sparks and smoldering blazes.

The twelve steam boilers are arranged like heavy artillery preparatory to putting over a big barrage into No Man’s Land. Three big high-pressure pumps are growing running water from the creek into the several pipes.

With the ground clear of all waste fire and submerged with water to keep it cool, steam from three four-inch pipes will be trained on the crater simultaneously from three sides. The action of the steam is calculated to eliminate the oxygen.

Sheriff Walter Hayes took the situation in charge for police purposes today. The snakey trail road leading into the jungle has been closed to all cars and sightseers. Mr. Hayes has an officer station at several different places along the road to keep back the visitors.

The wind whipped to the north today, forcing the big volume of black smoke towards the south.

New derricks are under construction where several offsets will be drilled to the McKie Well. Teams are on the road bearing lumber and machinery to the various drilling sites.

Work of drilling out the cement plug in the Mitchell-Jones-Atlantic well started today. Drilling goes ahead at the Walsh test at a depth of 1,000 feet. Work also continues at the Trapshooter and the Petroleum Producers’ Association well. A number of additional new locations are said to have been made within the last 24 hours, but no definite information can be learned concerning them as yet.





Another body has been rescued from the burning area of the Hughes-McKie oil well, 10 miles southeast of here, bringing the total number of the dead accounted for in the big blaze which started last Wednesday, up to 12. It is said at least one, and possibly two more bodies are yet to be brought out.

At 11 o’clock Monday morning K. T. Kinley, for the fifth time defied the heated flames of the gigantic blow torch and walked within a few feet of it and picked up what is left of one of the dead men. Only the skull, the shoulder blades, parts of the ribs and arm bones remains. The body was picked up almost at the edge of the derrick floor between the engine and the water pump. The only means of identification of the body is by personal trinkets, and overall buttons. Dick, Claunch, member of the night drilling crew, declared he believed the body to be that of M. O. Turner.

Kinley in going near the flames dons a full suit of asbestos cloth consisting of heavy lined overalls, coat, gloves, hood with mica windows for seeing, and perforated air inlets and boots.

The body recovered this morning was brought to the Sutherland Undertaking Parlors, where it is held pending possible identification.

Several crews of men grimy with smoke, heat and perspiration continue to work like Trojans in digging out drain ditches and laying steam pipes into the near vicinity of the blaze. Twelve big high pressure boilers are under steam, and men are testing out the fittings and machinery. Three high pressure pumps are going at full blast pumping water from Chambers creek only a few yards away.

Fire hose loaned by the Corsicana Fire Department, was brought into use Sunday and the ground about the flaming well was flooded. Steam constantly arises from the water as it comes in contact with the heated debris.

It was stated at the well today that it would not be possible to get the steam turned on before Tuesday morning, although some hope was expressed that might be done tonight.

In digging trenches into the burning zone men are protected by a dozen others bearing shields of corrugated iron, dampened by the water flow of the fire hose from the rear. Men Handling the hose are also protected with an iron shield held by trusty fellow-workmen.

Thousands of automobiles from various sections of the state flocked to the scene of the conflagration during Sunday. A danger zone was established and deputies of the sheriff’s department succeeded in keeping back the curious crowds. No one except employes of the Hughes company interested oil men and accredited newspaper men were allowed to approach nearer than 500 yards of the well.

The spirit of the oil industry is typified by the hurrying workmen erecting new derricks almost within the shadow of the burning flame. A new derrick of C. L. Witherspoon, an off-set to the McKie was completed Sunday. The Sun Oil company’s derrick, west of the creek is also complete. One has been completed by the U. S. Tex Company, and another is going up. The Gulf Production Company’s new derrick is under construction today, and the Humphreys interests are erecting three new ones. One is on the Fair tract, one on the McKie and one on the Kent. The McMann Oil Company is also putting up two new derricks. Heavy traffic on the roads has continued every day since the McKie well came in. Lumber, machinery, boilers and every kind of equipment known to the oil field development has been transported to the various locations by the several big companies getting ready to drill.


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Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox