The Infamous Burning Gas Crater in Alto, ca., 1928

The Infamous “Burning” Alto Gas Crater – 1928

Copied from the Richland Beacon-News printed on July 2, 1998. This mystery story was written by Jennie Jo Siscoe and published in the Richland Journal in 1985.

In the late 1920’s, Alto was a thriving community with five general mercantile stores, a barber shop,two cafes, two cotton gins, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill, a school, several churches, and two practicing physicians. This was the era of the gas field. Car license plates advertised it as the WORLD’S CAPITAL GAS FIELD.

The gas people have long since moved, there is only one general store, a plant nursery,and one restaurant, but a large productive farming community..a picturesque community with lovely homes and a rich heritage..a peaceful sort of place.

It was not always like this. Today Alto is still known for one of the largest craters left as a reminder of “days gone by”. There are two smaller craters…remnants of the big gas boom.

Only one man can tell the true story of just what happened in the early fall of 1930. The story will unfold in two parts, many know him but only a few know what he did on one particular night in September of 1930.

Mr. X was 19 years old when Arkansas National Gas Co. came to Alto in 1928 to drill. He was working for Sartor and Company at that time. The well in question was drilled and was said to be the largest-67 million cubic feet with 1100lbs. of rock pressure. Shortly after the well was brought in and shut off, it started bubbling below. The driller said,”Better kill it.” But no one seemed to listen. Soon,however, the well had to be opened back up. When it was opened up the noise was so loud that Alto school had to be closed and it was necessary to put cotton in the ears to shut out the noise.

The bubbling continued below ground level with more intensity and the ground around the derrick started caving in. In about 10 days the well began to crater making a hole with a circumference of 30-40 feet.

It was not long after that when the well craterd, loosing derrick,rig, and steam boiler-everything! Offset wells were drilled on the north and south sides to relieve the pressure but to no avail- bubbling continued. The gas company laid a 24 inch pipe to Boeuf River nearby and pumped water into the well trying to choke the well down. This effort only caused more problems. Salt water was boiling out daily killing timber,forming a slush all around and creating a breeding ground for salt water mosquitos. Farmers and residents were plagued with insects. The company’s efforts to alleviate the problem had stretched into approximately 20 months time. This bothered Mr. X (a young man with a troubled mind over the situation)

The well was 2400 feet deep and when it cratered a measurement of 100 feet in depth was taken by the company. This was as far down as they could go. This was a BIG HOLE, a bottomless pit, that was causing more problems than it was worth to families who made their livelihood from farming, mostly cotton.

Mr. X said those mosquitos were not your regular ones, these were great big gray ones that only breed in salt water and their bites were worse than the ones we are plagued with in the summer. Their bites left large welts on the skin. There were no mosquito dope or remedies such as “off” or the like, so you were constantly slapping the insects.

Even though Mr. X was working in a store at the time, he, too, helped the family out at cotton picking time. He knew how awful it was to pick adn try to fight mosquitos at the same time. In fact, he said, it took two people to pick cotton-one to pick and one to fight off mosquitos. “They’d eat you up at night,too.” said Mr. X.

The troubled young man kept mulling over what could be done to ease the problem. No one else was doing anything. The gas company was not getting rid of this infernal burning hole. Everyone just seemed to know that it was there and just talked and complained about it daily. About the only thing that could be done was keep the screens repaired and the mosquito netting handy.

The main topic of conversation seemed to be…”What can we do about these blasted mosquitos” and “I wish they would set the old well on fire.” The latter triggered a plan in young Mr. X’s mind. Talk about the carefully laid plans of mice and men…Mr. X began his plan.

Cars were not prevalent at that time like they are today but he had an old Model T ford that he kept in a barn away from his house. He had collected 11 drums of gasoline that he had caught from the drips coming from the tap on the wells(there were others in the area). The gas company was not doing anything so why not him? The next step was to find him a good stout stick(a peach-tree limb) which he sharpened to a point at one end. What was his plan?

One day Mr. X decided on THE plan. He went out to the barn where he had the car parked and the gas stored. He gathered some corn cobs and got an old iron coffee pot. He filled the pot with the gasoline and placed the corn cobs in it to soak.He knew just what he was going to do. No one else was doing anything, so why not him. What was his plan?

Just before nightfall he began to gather his corn cobs, now reeking with the smell of crude gasoline, his sharpened stick, and matches, he carefully made his way to the field near the well site. His parents inside the house did not see him. He laid down between the rows and waited-waiting for the well attendant to leave for the night. All the time he was waiting the mosquitos were nearly eating him alive. This brought to mind why he was here in the first place. He thought about the comforts of home. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the attendant departed for his home which was in Mangham, not far away.

Mr. X stiff from waiting and stinging from the insect bites, more determined than ever, made his way in the dark over to the site. He placed the soaked cob on the end of the sharpened tree limb, took out his matches, stuck one and it went out. He struck another, the torch was lit. He hurled it out in the direction of the crater and it caught fire and only burned 15 feet across. With bated breath, he lit the second one. He hurled it out and it hit dead center! (He recalled the biblical story of David andGoliath thinking this giant was going to be his.) His mission was accomplished when suddenly, just as he planned.

His mission was accomplished when suddenly, just as he planned, his “giant” fell emblazoned in a fire that lit up the entire area with a flame that reached 150 feet upward into the black sky. Mr. X stared with amazement. He did it! It worked! He had hurled that corn cob from 200 feet away from the center of that old crater.

As if nothing unusual had just happened he carefully found his way home through the nearest thicket, coming around back by the road. “It was light as daylight.” said Mr. X.

By this time cars and people were lined up in every direction watching this spectacular sight. Mr. X didn’t stand around to hear their comments. He wasn’t concerned about what he had just done, but decided to stay away from the public. No one saw him, they were too busy watching the fire. He casually went on about his way home.

When he walked into his house his parents asked, “Where have you been?” He replied, “I’ve been over there setting that old crater on fire.” Without one question of why or how they said. “Oh. “It was never mentioned again because everyone was glad it was on fire.

It is needless to say that the bright fire was the talk of the area. It burned for one year and completely wiped out the mass of mosquitoes as the fire dried up the salt water breeding grounds. The gas officials had just been to the crater earlier in the week and surveyed it so everyone thought they had hired someone to burn it. Little did they know. Even two or three years later when Mr. X revealed that he did it, no one believed him. As far away as Monroe the fire could be seen. It was top news.

And as if out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the birds came and the birds came…..

The mosquitoes seemed to dwindle away but the bright light caused problems for the birds and insects. The birds would fly over and the light would blind them, causing them to lose direction of flight. They would circle the flame all night until the first light of day.

Mr. X said that at times there seemed to be millions of birds for a five mile radius circling, circling. If it had not been at night a great shadow would have been cast below.

Finally, out of desperation and exhaustion, they fell to the fields below. Many didn’t survive, either from the heat and singed feathers or from the fate of the hunters. There were many ducks and geese among the multitude of birds and these were hard times. The birds meant food on the table.

There were hundreds of species of birds as well as insects. Ornithologists said several types of South American birds were found–many small parakeets. This was the season to fly south for the winter. Alto at that time was definitely the wrong path to follow. the fire was so bright that people within a half mile radius didn’t need lights in their houses. Electricity was easily conserved by the brightness and was a welcome relief of expenses by the hard-hit-by- the-depression residents.

Mr. X said the chickens didn’t know when daylight ended so it wasn’t unusual to find them still feeding at 11 o’clock at night not knowing when to go to roost. “It was so bright the chickens laid two eggs a day and a piece of meat to fry with them,” said Mr. X jokingly.

The fire burned and burned, dwindling down to a 40 or 50 ft flame with a 20 foot base. The water began to dry out of the big hole. Transients (commonly known as hobos in that era) were known to seek refuge at night at the edge of the crater where it was warm from the ever glowing fire.

From the store where he worked, Mr.X observed what was happening at the crater. Everyone else was aware of it , too. At different intervals, huge chunks of mud (“as big as a car”) where blown into the air. The explosion rattled dishes and window panes for one half mile radius. Finally after many such explosions within a year, the gas well expelled one mud chunk large enough to seal off the fire. That was the end of a long range effort on Mr. X’s part on that day in early September 1930.

The gas people began leaving Alto about 1935. The three craters in the Richland field had killed the gas boom. Conservation efforts were few and lawsuits were prevalent. The law suits were so prevalent the company gave up and pulled out leaving abandoned wells that still had gas, however. Some landowners took advantage of this. They sold gas to for $3.00 a month to residents on their land just to pay for the pipe they put down to channel the gas. There were no meters. When the lines rusted out the “free” gas was no longer a luxury.

Ironic or not, Mr. X married and living near an old abandoned well, burned free gas for 12 years. He said there is still gas in Alto. Some have drilled and taken advantage of this lingering field.

Mr. X, a respected senior citizen, has vivid memories of the gas days and his part in it. He sits around Gilley’s store, the only general merchandise store left in Alto and reminisces about the past. It is safe to say, few still don’t believe him.

About three years later after the fire, when Mr. Edgar Roberts said he had set that fire, no one believed him.

“I never had any regrets. I never received any thanks. But I’d do it quicker than ever, if the situation was the same.” stated Roberts.

This is a true story related to me by Mr. X – Edgar Roberts of Alto. The crater remains in Alto filled with water and many fish are in there. Many memories are associated with this crater that last and last and THE END OF A NEVER ENDING STORY especially for EDGAR ROBERTS’ ALIAS MR X.

Copied from the Richland Beacon News printed on July 2, 1998. This mystery story was written by Jennie Jo Siscoe and published in the Richland Journal in 1985.

5 replies »

  1. This story is very interesting…I’m in the seafood business and I use to service a restaurant in Alto La. called the Bend of the river. There’s a abandoned building next to it that looks to be a old dry good’s store..I was wondering if someone might have information about this building…When I pass through Alto I always stop and take pictures of the building and the graveyard behind it…Once again I loved this story…

    • I know what building you are referring to; it used to serve as a museum of sorts and displayed old relics from when Alto was a prominent riverboat commerce center. Am fairly certain the building is not used for anything now. I believe the Pardue family owns the building currently.

  2. Very interesting story! My mother grew up in Mangham and Richland Parish in the 30s and 40s and she had heard about the gas well and fire when growing up but she did not know about Mr X taking care of the problem. So this was “the rest of the story.”

  3. I live nearby and would love to see this, Can you tell me the exact location (directions)?

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