Large-diameter Dug Wells
It is a pleasure to share experiences with the readers of National Driller.
This morning's news reports that Baby Jessica was married last Saturday. Baby Jessica McClure of Midland, Texas, fell into an 8-inch diameter well on October 14, 1987. The 18-month-old daughter of Reba and Chip McClure, 17 and 18 years of age, respectively, got hung up at a dogleg just beyond 20 feet. If the well had been straight, the 20-pound little lady would have gone beyond, perhaps to the bottom of the 90- to 120-foot well. She was rescued 58 1⁄2 hours later after drillers ran a parallel hole alongside and tunneled back up under Jessica.
This follow-up report brings back some memories.
As we ventured farther and farther from the safety of home, we found a rather large feedlot, which was out of the normal range of 5- or 6-year-old boys on bicycles. To see a couple hundred Herefords lined up at the feed bin was interesting enough to prompt another visit.
On one such visit, we came upon a major commotion - quite a number of people, all standing around looking down into a rather large hole. We kept our distance and watched as the crowd jimmy-rigged equipment and ropes to retrieve one of the steers that had fallen in. As far as we could tell, the steer was none the worse for wear. That evening, I told my dad what we witnessed and after catching hell for venturing so far from home, we found out that the big hole was, in fact, a shallow, large-diameter hand-dug well that furnished water for the herd.
Four or five years later, I recall one of my brothers reporting to my dad, the boss, that his hired man disappeared during the day and he had no idea where he was. I remember vividly as my dad questioned - interrogated - my brother. He explained that they had just cleaned out the drill cuttings and he had resumed drilling. They were rock drilling with a cable tool, and, having some time on his hands, the hired hand wandered off. It was in the fall of the year. Wally was the kind of fellow who enjoyed the outdoors and the apparent beauty of nature at harvest time.
On his way home, my brother stopped and asked folks along the route if they had seen Wally. In addition, my family called and asked acquaintances, we called family, and we called the county sheriff. It appeared he had disappeared from the face of the earth.
The next day, a search party was assembled. Sheriff, deputies and a large group of volunteers were on hand. I remember teams combing the rows of ripe corn. I remember people spreading out in all directions trying to find a trace. After some time had passed, one of the searchers summoned the sheriff to a broken cement slab obscured in long grass and adjacent to a stone wall, which was covered with ripe grapes. The broken cement slab prompted further investigation.
A probing tape measure showed that there definitely was something of dimension on the bottom of the well. One of the deputies was lowered in a harness fashioned out of the lowering rope. He made the conclusive discovery that Wally indeed was found. A second rope was lowered and Wally was hoisted to the surface. The deputy struggled underwater long enough to initiate chatter from those in attendance. The rope tightened and the rope-knotted foot and ankle rose up out of the water. Some turned away.
The customer said, “The water did get a little roily yesterday afternoon.” I speculated it perhaps was about the time Wally wandered away from the rig.
Putting the findings together, they concluded Wally had walked across the cement slab with the intention of sampling the ripe concord grapes. The cement slab covered a large rectangular shallow well. The slab snapped as Wally walked across. The suction pipe extended into the well. The coroner's conclusion was that Wally struck his head and was unconscious when he hit the water. Right or wrong, we hung onto that conclusion.
Wally was a single man with a love for nature. He was a good employee, a well-liked, fun-loving fellow who enjoyed an occasional brew and was a friend to all. We missed him.
Some years later, I was active in the business, and a lady called with a complaint that her water quality had deteriorated, that the taste and odor left a lot to be desired and that this was out of the ordinary. I visited the property, located her well, removed the cover and found some unappetizing rodents floating in the well. I reported to the lady that she must quit using the water. I advised her to drill a well and abandon the existing. She asked what I found and was adamant to look. She was one of those gotta-see-to-believe types. Reluctantly, I showed her and immediately realized the sight was more than she could handle. A new well, abandonment of the old well and the passage of time cured her upset stomach.
By now, you are aware that this article is about large-diameter open wells, often referred to in this part of the world as dug wells.
Twenty or 30 years ago, we received a call from a rural resident who merely said he needed a new well. Upon investigation and site visit, a sad story unfolded. A toddler, a son of the owner, had fallen into their dug well. As his mother, alone and helpless, looked down into the well in horror, screaming, the little body became lifeless. A new well and proper abandonment were initiated immediately, but I am sure the passage of time did little to erase her images of that day.
My recollection is that the well was about 40 feet in diameter with an oval shape. The neat stone perimeter attested to the caring craftsmen that laid the stone. This was a circular stone wall that would have graced any property had it been visible to passersby. Seems it was about 60 feet deep with the water level about 40 feet. There were two line-shaft turbine pumps in the well, discharging through the wall of the well in the direction of the old Marshfield Brewery. The brewery was closed years ago, and Marshfield Lager Beer, one of Central Wisconsin's favorites, was a thing of the past.
Whoever covered the well went through some thoughtful performance, installing heavy steel beams spaced evenly across the top of the hole. On top of the beams were perpendicular heavy oak planks covered by 3 feet to 4 feet of earth and the parking lot. I wondered how many cars over the years had parked on that exact spot.
Being part of the medical community and part the day-care center project, I considered the interest there might be in such a historic discovery. I contacted the president of St. Joseph's Hospital with the request that I get the newspaper over there to do a story on what I thought to be one of the largest wells in the territory and perhaps the United States. Although sympathetic to my cause, after a moment of deliberation the president said, “No.” He speculated, partly in jest, that the “save the well” folks might come out of the woodwork and delay the project.
I explained the proper abandonment procedure to the contractor, and the well disappeared from history without much fanfare.
Then there was the farmer who was plowing in the middle of an open field when his tractor dropped significantly. Unassuming, he was motoring across the field when the rear of the tractor dropped, stopping with a jolt. “What the hell?” he wondered. He had the tractor lifted/towed out of the situation and probed around enough to realize that the time-weakened wooden cover of an old dug well had finally given way. He was glad the well wasn't any bigger than it was or the outcome might have been much different. We explained the proper abandonment procedure, and another potential hazard was eliminated.
Some Central Wisconsin communities were served by large-diameter dug wells. Some were adequate by virtue of the reservoir provided by the size of the hole itself and some actually encountered an aquifer that produced significant water.
One such well, serving the Village of Stratford, was remodeled, equipping it with a stainless steel screen and casing extending above grade. The casing and screen were centered in the large hole. Surrounding the entire lower section of the well to a point above the screen was an appropriate gravel pack, a layer of fine sand, a layer of cement and fill placed above the impervious layer. The well still is in service.
Investigating a large-diameter well in the Village of Withee with the consulting engineer, we accessed the well and examined it firsthand from a steel catwalk and stairway spiraling down along the wall into the well to the water level. I never was claustrophobic, afraid of heights or depths, but the old steel stairway and the cool, clammy atmosphere prompted us to leave that environment and discuss the potential rehabilitation topside. This well was similarly equipped with casing and screen, surrounded by gravel pack appropriately filling the large annulus with impervious materials. This one also is still in service.
We walked around the farm and came upon a large circular cement slab about 25 feet in diameter. I asked if he knew why it was there. He did not, but commented that he often drove his Jeep onto that slab to wash it. We looked it over. There was no apparent clue. A doghouse graced the edge of the slab. Upon closer examination, lifting the doghouse off its foundation, we found a 2-foot-square concrete plug fit tightly into the large slab. After some prying and wrestling with the plug, we managed to lift it to open the access to what was a large-diameter dug well.
As I explained what needed to be done to decommission the well, I advised Doc that no one should be allowed on the slab, much less his Cherokee. I'm sure he swallowed hard as he pondered what might have happened to him and his Jeep.
I recall another with some astonishment. I stopped to examine a water supply at the request of a young Amish farmer. As we discussed the whys and why nots of dug wells, he leapt into the well like a mountain goat, knowing exactly where each foot had to land. I watched in awe as the young man showed me how he serviced his own pumping equipment. I don't recall right now if it was an air, jet or centrifugal engine-driven pump. I am certain it wasn't electric, and I am certain I didn't follow him into the well.
When you find unused wells, dug or drilled, take whatever time is necessary to advise the property owner of the proper disposal.
By the way, Baby Jessica married a guy 32 years old and she gets a million bucks inheritance when she turns 21.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the individual writing the column. Individuals are not speaking for the National Ground Water Association, its voluntary certification program or the master ground water contractor (MGWC) designation.