When Williamsburg Erupted

Apr 15, 2014

One of hundreds of cauldrons that erupted in Williamsburg, Michigan in April of 1973 when a nearby drilling rig punctured a pocket of gas under high pressure.
Credit Geology Department at Northwestern Michigan College

Starting with President Nixon in 1973, every U.S. President has pledged to make America energy independent. That same year, 500 drilling permits were issued in Michigan, and the quest for domestic oil nearly destroyed one small village in Northern Michigan.

Williamsburg is about halfway between Traverse City and Kalkaska. It was settled in a place American Indians called the Weesh Ko Wong, or clear cold water, because of the many natural springs that bubble up there. Spring-fed trout ponds and a state fish hatchery were once the pride of Williamsburg.

But in April of 1973, Williamsburg Creek was turned into a milky, muddy ditch. Gerald Dittrich was a firefighter then. Dittrich says the first warning of the disaster came to a ham radio operator in the area who picked up Amoco oil employees talking about problems at a nearby drilling site.

“We did not know if to believe him or not because there was nothing in the papers or anything else,” remembers Dittrich. “That was even before the holes were noticed, because it took a day or two before the holes showed up, before they accumulated enough gas to do the damage.”

Soon the ground began to seep and hiss, and the famed Weesh Ko Wong springs belched gas and mud. The seeping gas created frothing cauldrons all over the landscape. Dittrich watched one boil up before his eyes right next to the fire hall.

“It was just boiling water and gas. The hiss of gas was strong,” he says. “We got a hundred sand bags to throw against the wall to prevent the gas from eating away the footings. When you threw them in there, they just disappeared, could not see where they went. The hole just kept getting bigger.”

A crater opened up under a portion of Highway M-72 between Traverse City and Kalkaska.
Credit Geology Department at Northwestern Michigan College

The village was turned into a disaster site in a matter of hours. Witnesses likened it to Yellow Stone National Park with the geysers and boiling mud pots. One crater opened up underneath Highway M-72.

For days, invisible natural gas came out of the ground, and everyone feared a spark would cause an explosion. Fears grew when a lightning storm approached the area. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled the town on horseback. They covered their horses' shoes to prevent any spark from flying.

Firemen went door-to-door with police encouraging people to leave. Not everyone rushed to evacuate, however. Wayne Hanna was the fire chief at the time.

“Some of them would not recognize that there was a problem, because you cannot see gas,” Hanna remembers. “The meter would move, but that did not mean anything to them. So there was no forcible evacuation. Some of them were left to stay there, and when they went out to get groceries they were not allowed to return. That is how the police handled it.”

Eventually, more than 60 families were evacuated from Williamsburg. They left behind hundreds of craters of frothing mud. Foundations of buildings and trees had toppled into the eroding eruptions. The spring-fed creeks carried muddy water into Elk Lake and from there to East Grand Traverse Bay.

The village was eerily vacant of people and pets. Only a single peacock remained that refused to leave its perch high in a tree as sentinel of the village.

Sediment from the eruptions washed into East Grand Traverse Bay.
Credit Geology Department at Northwestern Michigan College

The source of the problem was Amoco oil well E1-22, a few miles from Williamsburg. Inexperienced well drillers had tapped into a pocket of gas under high pressure. The pressure forced the gas into porous rock that was the source of the natural springs. The gas escaped to the surface along these water pathways.

When the gas started to explode from the ground, workers at the well were trying to fill the well hole with mud. This went on for days. Eventually, the well was sealed with cement, and relief wells were drilled to vent the gas safely.

In October of 1973, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported to Governor Milliken on the short-comings in the construction of the Amoco well. The company drilled a hole more than a mile into the earth with no pipe to prevent the natural gas from escaping into the porous rock. Such a pipe is called intermediate casing.

Rick Henderson works for the Department of Environmental Quality in Cadillac office overseeing wells. He says the report prompted a change of the rules for oil and gas well construction in Michigan.

“Since 1973, they had to have an intermediate casing in all the deeper wells,” he says. “That has prevented a lot of these Williamsburg-type problems from occurring.”

Today, when someone says Michigan has strong regulations for oil and gas development, this is the sort of requirement they might have in mind.

There are more than 3,000 active oil and gas wells in northwest lower Michigan. About 120 sites caused some environmental remediation. However, since the Williamsburg eruptions, there have been no cataclysmic gas eruptions in Michigan.

After the Amoco well was fixed, families were allowed back to their homes. Some were back within 10 days. Others had to wait for months before it was safe.

This pipe still vents gas more than four decades after the disaster.
Credit Geology Department at Northwestern Michigan College

Larry Lake was the Whitewater Township Supervisor years after the event. He says the village never fully recovered.

“It has had an effect on real-estate values,” says Lake. “It always seems to come up at any real-estate transaction as one of the things that is characteristic of this area.”

One memento of the eruption can still be seen in Williamsburg: a green, capped pipe across from the township hall. It still vents gas after 41 years.