A Hermiston man drilling a water well on his property in 1965 ended up with nothing but air — and a hole that inhaled or exhaled depending on the weather.
Carol Northrop, who owned a home and steel fabrication shop on the Hermiston-McNary Highway north of Hermiston, decided to drill a well on his property on October 24, 1965, using a 1928 engine mounted on a 1929 truck he built himself. His bit got stuck in bedrock about 87 feet down, so he decided to blast through the obstruction. After extricating his bit with some difficulty, Northrop lowered 10 sticks of dynamite and filled the hole with water, to direct the force of the blast downward.
Northrop set off the dynamite and stood by with a camera. He was expecting the water to shoot 30 feet or more into the air. Instead, water lifted less than a foot from the top of the pipe, and the rest disappeared down the hole.
On Oct. 25, the well began to emit air with a strong sulfur odor. Two nights later the well inhaled all night. The next day the well was dormant, but resumed inhaling for 12 hours that night. It blew the next morning and then all was quiet. There was no pattern to its breathing.
Northrup was stumped, as was a friend, a former oil well driller and civil engineer. But another man said the phenomenon is not uncommon in Idaho, and that the hole was responding to barometric pressure, “blowing” during times of low pressure and “sucking” during high pressure events.
“Breathing wells” can occur when connected voids exist beneath the surface of the soil. In the Snake River Valley near Pocatello, where breathing wells are more common, an excavation in the 1930s revealed that boulders 6 inches to 2 feet in diameter were found underlying the gravel and cobble layer deposited from the Portneuf River and Utah’s Pleistocene Lake Bonneville. Some of the voids between the boulders were 5-6 inches across.
Northrop wasn’t sure what to do with his well, though he did attach a can to the top of the well Halloween night, scaring trick-or-treaters with the haunting whistle. He briefly considered lowering a camera into the well for flash photos, with a view to opening up any big hole he found to the public for a fee. In the end he decided to try blasting the bedrock again, hoping to find the elusive water table and fill in the voids at the same time.