The Story of W. Alton Jones and ‘The Big Inch,’ America’s First Pipeline
By Ken Zurski
W. Alton Jones was one of “Ike’s Millionaires.”
Ike, of course, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and “Ike’s Millionaires” was the term used mostly by the Washington press to describe the President’s closest friends.
The men who made up this elite group, including Jones, referred to themselves as “The Gang.”
Jones, a Midwestern farm boy who became the CEO of a large oil corporation, certainly fit “The Gang’s” profile. Wealthy, powerful, and influential, Jones joined the ranks of others whom the President socialized. Among them was a newspaper publisher, the president of a distillery, a Washington lobbyist and perhaps most fitting of all, an investment banker who happened to oversee the nation’s most storied golf course, Augusta National. Oftentimes, when Eisenhower asked, “The Gang” would travel, some great distances, and usually on a moment’s notice, to play golf.
That’s why on March 1, 1962, Jones boarded an American Airlines flight from New York City bound for Los Angeles. He was set to rendezvous with his buddies in Palm Desert, California, beckoned by Eisenhower, of course, who was now in semi-retirement. A year before, after serving two presidential terms, Eisenhower relinquished the office to a young Massachusetts Senator named John F. Kennedy who defeated Ike’s vice president at the time, Richard M. Nixon. Now removed from the rigors of the White House, Eisenhower was looking forward to a visit from his old pal Jones for a week of golf and a planned fishing trip.
Jones had a history of appeasing a president’s demands. Twenty years earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt faced an international and homeland crisis, Jones was instrumental in planning and constructing an ambitious pipeline project named “The Big Inch” that even by today’s standards is considered to be the most “amazing government -industry cooperation ever achieved.”
The culmination of his efforts came on Feb 19 1943. That day, as newspaper cameras clicked, Jones gripped a nearly foot-long steel gate valve and gave it a firm push. An unseen stream of crude oil moved effortlessly from the stationary end of a long pipeline to the holding tank of a nearby train car. The gathered crowd gave the gesture a hearty round of applause.
It was all symbolic, of course.
The oil which snaked through the newly built and ambitious pipeline from Texas to Norris City, Illinois had arrived the previous month. A pipeline extension east to Pennsylvania, which was currently being built, was still several months away. But for now the first part of the plan – to move the precious commodity from the oil fields in Texas to a rendezvous point in the Midwest – was complete. Norris City was chosen for its connections to other rail lines. The significance of “turning” the handle the papers noted “started the first flow of oil from the Texas-Illinois pipeline into tank cars for shipment east.”
Norris City is in the far southeastern part of Illinois and nestled in White County which borders Indiana to the east. In the early part of the 19th century, many migrants traveling west ended their journey just across the Ohio River. The gateway across the Ohio was just 25 miles from Norris City, in Shawneetown, Illinois. In nearby Carmi, the county seat, just 13 miles to the northeast of Norris City, the new inhabitants settled, thanks to its proximity to the resourceful Wabash Rivers. Lacking a river through or near it, the land that would become Norris City would have to wait for the railroads to come before it prospered. Settled in 1871 it was incorporated in 1884. Today there are just over a thousand people who call Norris City home.
In 1943, however, it became the oil center of the Midwest.
You might say that the person who indirectly put Norris City on the path to this distinction, was a German U-boat commander named Reinhard Hardegen.
In April of 1942, under Hardegen’s command, two U.S. oil tankers were sunk off the coast of Georgia, near the coastal community of St. Simons Island. Hardegen waited for just the right moment before giving the order and unleashing torpedoes that spit from the water and locked on its target. The tanker Oklahoma went down first followed by the slightly smaller but equally vital, Esso Baton Rouge. Both were filled with oil. Both took direct hits.
It’s not as if the captains of these ships were forewarned of the danger. President Roosevelt had feared the large transports would be easy targets, especially the tankers, and issued a national emergency for the industry and citizens alike to be on the lookout for any suspicious activities. But efforts like antisubmarine patrols were sporadic at best and calls for community vigilance fell mostly upon deaf ears. Residents who lived off the Georgia coast either forgot or flat-out ignored requests for “nighttime” blackouts.
Then the strikes began.
Dozens of ships were being taken out, one by one; a Norwegian transport ship here, a Swedish cargo ship there, and so on. The Germans had a name for the successful missions, which also described the rising tensions created by the U-boat’s presence near the American coastline. They called it Operation Drumbeat.
Washington took notice. Roosevelt ramped up government efforts to arm the ships with Navy guns, especially the larger ones, but it didn’t come soon enough. Shortly after the order was issued, Commander Hardegen took out the two tankers.
This time, the drumbeat was felt on land too.
The concussion from the torpedo blast rattled windows in homes on St. Simons Island, disrupting an otherwise peaceful night for the shore dwellers. In the darkness, the two wounded tankers limped along until their hulls scraped the shallow bottom. The cargo of oil, tons of it, spilled like blood out of a wound into the open sea. Two dozen crew members lost their lives in the attack and dozens more were rescued by Coast Guard cutters, or private yachts.
For the Germans it was a good night. “The last hours have passed,” the ecstatic Hardegen telegraphed back to his superiors, referring to the ships hit, and the two tankers, he explained, that “lie at the bottom, sunk by the drum beater.” He claimed to take out 12 ships total that night, although it was later believed to be 10.
The quick succession of U.S tanker strikes were more than enough for an already irate Roosevelt. With strict orders to the Commander in Chief of the Navy U.S. Fleet, the tankers were forbidden to move north of the Florida straits.
The ban solved the U-boat dilemma for now, and saved further embarrassment of U.S ships being attacked so close to shore, but there was another formidable question to address – and soon. How do you get the oil east?
W. Alton Jones knew oil, especially how to move and sell it. Born to a poor family in rural Missouri, Jones grew up book smart and savvy. He attended Vanderbilt University for business and eventually became an executive at Cities Service Companies, a natural gas and electricity supply company based out of Texas. He rose quickly through the ranks and became its CEO in 1940. When Roosevelt needed a plan to move oil quickly and efficiently inland, he called on the big oil companies, like Standard, Gulf and Shell, among others, to do it. Jones became the president of the hastily organized consolidation of oil conglomerates known as the War Emergency Pipelines, Inc. or WEP for short.
Rail lines were already moving oil across country, but the trains were slow, costly and oftentimes delayed. Pipelines were being used, mostly for gas, but they were small in diameter and traveled only short distances. Pipeline technology, however, was literally growing. Larger steel pipes called “The Big Inch” were introduced that had openings of 12 inches or more.
So far, the bigger pipes were just for show. There was no pressing need. But that would change. With 35-million dollars allotted from the hefty war chest budget, more of the steel pipes were ordered and mass production began.
“No one ever sank a pipeline,” Jones reassured the President.
“The Big Inch” project was on.
It didn’t take long to build either. Construction began in August of 1942 and less than six months later nearly 531 miles of 24-inch diameter pipe was laid from Longview Texas, through Arkansas, Missouri and ending in Norris City. Each individual pipe section was 38 to 44 feet long and weighed nearly 4500 pounds. Eight pipe laying crews of upward of 400 men each worked round the clock. Some dug trenches, some drove the trucks that hauled the pipes, some laid the pipes, and others welded it together. Mile-by-mile they carried on.
Along the way, there were obstacles. Where rivers needed to be crossed, like the Mississippi, specialized companies were brought in to lay the pipe along the river’s bottom. If rock was encountered on the trail, dynamite was used. The pipeline’s route met no barrier it couldn’t cross, following land already used by railroads, and passing underneath roadways and bridges
As construction continued, plans were being made to extend the line from Illinois to Pennsylvania, soon to be called “Little Big Inch.” But until then, the first line would serve its purpose. In April of 1943, when Jones turned the valve and sent the oil streaming into waiting rail cars, the operation could have been described, quite fittingly, as a well-oiled machine.
And not one dissent. From idea to construction, the pipeline was met with little or no resistance. Environmental issues, like the ones being debated today, would have likely halted the project in its tracks – or at least delayed it until all pressing issues were hashed out, agreed upon, or debunked.
But at the time, a need for such a line far outweighed any honest concerns and questions. Like what would happen if it sprung a leak? And how would that disrupt the wildlife, streams, etc.? All these questions would have been time-consuming diversions. A war was on and American lives were at stake. There was no time for debate. “The line is a tool for the quickest possible defeat of our enemies”, said Ralph K. Davis, a spokesman for the government agency handling oil for the war, “rather than a channel for supplying any but the most essential needs of civilian consumption.”
The numbers were impressive: “The oil is flowing through the line at a rate of 50,000 barrels daily and is expected to reach of maximum of 300,000 barrels within six to eight weeks,” The New York Times reported. “In the line at all times will be 1, 525,000 barrels of oil.”
But the contribution to the war effort was the biggest draw.
In Norris City, after Jones released the oil, Davis, the government spokesman, spoke to the crowd. Echoing the sentiments of the President, he said: “The future is scarcely more certain than it was 200 days ago when the first pipe was laid. It was apparent then that the security of America required a new ocean of oil for defense. It is even more apparent today that we need still greater oceans of oil for the crushing attack that can alone insure ‘unconditional surrender’ – the full and complete victory for freedom that we have pledged to the world.”
The pipeline survived after the war ended. It was retired briefly before being leased to a Tennessee company that used it to move gas due to a fuel shortage caused by a coal strike. Afterwards it was sold and used by private petroleum and gas companies. Most of the original piping is still in place and today is listed as a National Register of Historic Places.
In Illinois, the southern town of Patoka may be the oil capital of the state now with the largest tank farm in the region and the furthest eastern transfer point of the Keystone pipeline. But Norris City and “The Big Inch” cannot be forgotten. Remnants of its significance, like the old lines and pump houses, still dot the landscape.
Ironically, Reinhard Hardegen, the U-boat commander whose attack on the two U.S tankers initiated the shipping ban and set the pipeline idea in motion, returned to his hometown of Bremen, Germany after the war and had a long and lucrative career in the oil business. Many internet sites indicate the war veteran is still alive today, at the age of 102. (Note: Since the original publication of this article in 2015, Hardegen passed away on June 9, 2018.)
In contrast, the man who oversaw the building and operation of the pipeline project would later spend his wealth and resources trying to make the world a better and safer place. W. Alton Jones became widely known as the oil man turned philanthropist for his support and contributions to many causes, including environmental activism.
Tragically in March of 1962, at the age of 71, Jones was killed, along with 94 others, when American Airlines Flight 001 crashed shortly after takeoff in New York City. The plane bound for Los Angeles lost attitude and nosedived into Jamaica Bay.
Jones was on his way to see his good friend Dwight D. Eisenhower for a week of golf and fishing.
(Sources: The Big Inch and Little Inch Pipelines – Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, 200; The New York Times, Feb 20, 1943