The Story of Oil in California
Signal Hill rises up 110 meters (365 feet) behind Long Beach, 32 km (20
miles) south of Los Angeles. Its name is derived from a local Native American
practice of signaling to each other from the imposing hill. Because of
its size, signals could be sent by way of smoke or fire either to other
hills in the area, or to boats out at sea. Oil men first started exploring
the area in 1916 after the successes of other ventures in southern California.
In 1921, Dr. W. Van Holst Pellekaan, Chief geologist for Shell, tried
to stop the drilling at Signal Hill, unconvinced of its potential. He
was too late, however, and the drilling proceeded.
Signal Hill, California, 1932
here to enlarge and learn more about this picture
|Photo courtesy of Atlantic Richfield
The Shell Game
Shell's reluctance to drill Signal Hill was understandable. The company
had spent three million dollars at Ventura in the previous 5 years, and
had no oil to show for it. And only 4 years before, Union Oil had drilled
an unsuccessful well (also known as a "duster") on Signal Hill. But it
was ultimately the tenacity of Frank Hayes and Alvin Theodore Schwennesen,
geologists with Shell, that moved the project forward.
Work began on the Alamitos # 1 well on March 23rd. By May
2, the hole reached 843 meters (2,765 feet) and gave a showing of oil.
Soon thereafter, 21 meters (70 feet) of standing oil was found in the
bottom of the hole. But still, no oil flowed, and the crew, lead by driller
O.P. "Happy" Yowells, began to wonder what exactly was happening. Then
on June 23rd at 9:30 PM, the Alamitos #1 erupted with so great a gas pressure
that oil gushed 35 meters (114 feet) into the air. Unfortunately, the
bottom of the hole soon caved in. Much cleaning of the hole was required,
and on June 25, 1921, the well was producing more than 1,000 barrels of
oil per day. The well would eventually produce 700,000 barrels of oil.
The rush is on....
The discovery created a stampede. While the well was being drilled, the
area was in the process of being subdivided into residential lots. Many
of the lots, though already sold to prospective homeowners, were not yet
built upon, and potential homeowners quickly changed their minds and entered
the business of looking for oil, hoping to get rich quick. The parcels
of land were so small and the forest of tall wooden derricks so thick
that the legs of many of them actually intertwined. Oil promoters were
selling shares of wells that had not yet been drilled. Signal Hill was
to prove so prolific that, almost unbelievably, many of those buyers actually
made money on their investments. The next-of-kin of persons buried in
the Sunnyside Cemetary on Willow Street would eventually receive royalty
checks for oil drawn out from beneath family grave plots.
By April 1922, only 10 months after completion of the discovery
well, Signal Hill was covered with 108 wells, producing 14,000 barrels
daily. By the fall of 1923, 259,000 barrels of crude was being produced
every day from nearly 300 wells.
Signal Hill was the biggest field the already productive
Southern California region had ever seen. In 1923, Signal Hill produced
244,000 barrels, alongside Huntington Beach (discovered in 1920) at 113,000
and Santa Fe (1921) at 32,000. This made California the nation's number-one
producing state, and in 1923, California was the source of one-quarter
of the world's entire output of oil! Even so, fears of shortage were still
very much in the air. "The supply of crude petroleum in this country is
being rapidly depleted", the Federal Trade Commission warned in 1923.
But in that same year, American crude oil production exceeded domestic
demand for the first time in a decade.
Remote location turns into tanker technology
Because of California's remote location relative to the industrial centers
of the east, California oil companies were at the forefront of tanker
technologies. As a consequence, much of the state's market was overseas.
In 1894, the Pacific Coast Oil Company and the Union Oil Company partnered
to build the first true oil tanker on the Pacific Ocean. Named the George
Loomis, its maiden voyage departed Ventura, California in January, 1896,
and a new era was born. The development of California oil also presented
challenges to the geologist that had been seen in no other oil field.
As a result, the complexities of the geology of Southern California lead
to a significantly increased knowledge of petroleum geology and exploration.
By the end of 1938, the Long Beach Field had produced 614.5
million barrels of crude, 750 million barrels by 1950, and over 900 million
barrels by 1980. This made Signal Hill one of the most productive fields
per acre the world has ever known.
Franks, Kenny A. and Lambert, Paul F. (1985). "Early
California Oil: A Photographic History, 1865-1940." Texas A&M University
Press, College Station, Texas. 243 pp.
Yergin, Daniel (1991). "The Prize." Simon
& Schuster, New York. 885 pp.
Rintoul, William (1976). "Spudding In."
California Historical Society, San Francisco. 240 pp.
Lockwood, Charles (1980) "In the Los Angeles
Oil Boom, Derricks Sprouted Like Trees." Smithsonian October, 1980. pp