Up through Los Angeles came a bubblin' crude: Southern California was the Kuwait of the Jazz Age, turning a religious piano teacher into an oil baroness
November 19, 2012 9:43 PM   Subscribe

"In 1925, California supplied [much] of the world’s oil (Google quickview, original PDF) and much of it came from pumps in the Southland (quickview, PDF). To date, around 9 billion barrels of oil have been produced in the Los Angeles area. There are still over 30,000 active wells here pumping around 230 million barrels of oil a year, making Los Angeles County the second most productive oil county in California (although the quality of the oil here is somewhat low by today’s standards). There are 55 known oil fields in the Los Angeles area and 11 of them are located in a very urban context. This setting makes the oil extraction process in Los Angeles unique." Things to do in LA: Urban Oil Wells In Los Angeles, Part I and Part II.

Though they missed the initial California oil boom of 1865-66, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield are the two names most closely associated with the history of oil in California, when in 1892 they were the first to drill an oil well in the city of Los Angeles, striking black gold 200 feet down with a sharpened 60-foot-long eucalyptus tree trunk. It wasn't until 1916 that a really productive well was drilled on Signal Hill, leading to the nickname Porcupine Hill, for the sheer number of oil derricks. Between the first well dug by Doheny and Canfield and Porcupine Hill, there was the deeply religious piano teacher-turned-wildcatter, Emma A. Summers.

Summers invested $700 she had earned from teaching piano for a half interest in a well just a few blocks from Doheny’s producer. When that first gamble paid off, she bought more wells, until she 1901, when she was operating fourteen paying wells of her own and leasing others, and even owned forty horses and ten wagons to distribute her oil, bypassing local oil brokers. She even had her own blacksmith shop to maintain her 10 four-horse teams, and the shop did custom work on the side. This sort of business acumen was remarkable for a women of that era, earning her an article in the San Francisco Call, which wrote
If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does to-day, control the Los' Angeles oil markets. And such a modest, shy and very womanly woman Is this California oil queen!

A man In her place would enjoy success better with all the world looking on, but Mrs. Summers hides away from the lime-light and shrinks from the gaze of the public eye. The names of men who have made fortunes since a sea of oil was discovered under California's crust are known the length and breadth of the state and beyond. But this woman who handles a good fourth of the output of the Los Angeles field is scarce-known as an operator except by those with whom she deals and her own personal friends.
Her empire grew greatly with the increased oil demand in World War I, earning her the credit of being one of the largest and most successful operators on the Pacific coast (Google books; Archive.org). With such wealth, she ventured into real estate, including theaters, apartment houses, several San Fernando Valley ranches, and the Summers Paint Co. She moved to the new "suburbs" out Wilshire Boulevard in 1909, though soon moved to a mansion on Wilshire Place. In the 1930s, she lived in a home on California Street, which she turned into an elegant and profitable hotel appropriately called the Queen, and lived there for a while. Summers lived out her remaining years at the Biltmore and Alexandria hotels, though by 1940 she moved to a nursing home in Glendale, passing away November 27, 1941. She was 83 years old.

The Los Angeles oil industry outlived Emma Summers, and was recognized as an integral part of the County of Los Angeles in 1957, when the County seal was updated to include oil derricks alongside emblems for culture, agriculture, dairy, fishing, engineering and construction, and the county's Spanish history. Oil production peaked in 1985 at 424 million barrels, 13 percent of the U.S. total production. It was at this same time that Signal Hill, no longer covered with spines of numerous visible oil derricks, shifted from an old oil town and blue-collar enclave into an upscale neighborhood. Dropping production and falling gas prices lead to decreased pumping, until 2005, when prices were high enough to bring long-quiet derricks back to life. But with the increased development and density in Los Angeles, the new and newly active wells are generally quiet, if at all visible.

VICE video from 2009: Oil of L.A. (Alt: YouTube). (8:58)
When we first heard L.A. being described as an oil town, we went around looking for evidence of it. It's the 3rd largest oil field in the country. We expected pumps, drills, something that would tell us that oil was here.... We found out that L.A. oil is still thriving, it's just gone underground.
The Center For Land Use Interpretation's Urban Crude project hosted a bus tour in 2010 of various oil-related sites in the LA basin. An extensive write-up of the tour is online, complete with locations and photos of the sites. The Los Angeles Times has another, much shorter, write-up on a 2010 petro-tour. Both mention the La Brea Tar Pits, probably the most famous oil-related place in L.A. Still, some long-abandoned oil wells are staying dead, capping an era of L.A. oil exploration, and affordable apartments will replace the old restaurant, butcher shop and office building that were adjacent to a now-plugged oil well.
posted by filthy light thief (42 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
This post was a collaboration with the man of twists and turns, who might yet have more to add.

Two parting links that didn't make it in to the post: The Oil Drum (discussions about energy and our future): Tech Talk - The Oil under Los Angeles and Wikipedia category: oil fields in California
posted by filthy light thief at 9:44 PM on November 19, 2012

Yessssss. The hidden oil wells are one of my favorite little subterranean quirks of living in L.A.
posted by mykescipark at 9:48 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here in Costa Mesa I can hear them in the very early morning. Every other place I've lived it was trains, here it's the pumps.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:54 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great piece. The idea that what look like office towers in central LA, like Cardiff Tower (Pico and Doheny), are actually just skins surrounding very productive oil derricks, even today, is one of the many things about LA that just blows my mind.
posted by Fnarf at 10:19 PM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Well, that was a lot better than what I wrote. I'm taking notes.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:33 PM on November 19, 2012

I just checked his map again; I think the pumps I hear are in Huntington Beach at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. I don't think they care if anyone sees them.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:37 PM on November 19, 2012

Not sure if this is in the links, but I googled a bit out of curiosity over Cardiff Tower and found this page, which has a ton of photos. I've driven by so many of these and had no idea! So that's what that weird thingie with the flowers painted on it is!

Great post btw, fascinating stuff.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:50 PM on November 19, 2012

I grew up in Orange County as did my mother. Oil derricks, onshore and off are so very normal to me — I actually miss them. (In Huntington, where we were there were horse pumps on PCH and beach tar when you got out of the waves. What a thing to be nostalgic for. )
posted by dame at 11:24 PM on November 19, 2012

I first discovered that LA has oil fields when flying into LAX and seeing the Inglewood Oil Field (location) sticking out like a sore thumb. A black scarred wasteland amongst all the buildings, roads, and trees.
posted by zsazsa at 11:27 PM on November 19, 2012

Google image search.
posted by dame at 11:29 PM on November 19, 2012

I went on the Center for Land Use Interpretation tour, which was a lot of fun. Some photos I took: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallofhair/sets/72157623033409608/with/4206968797/
posted by jjwiseman at 11:50 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I see the oil derrick next to the mall built to wrap around it almost every day.
posted by linux at 11:50 PM on November 19, 2012

A while back I asked Metafilter about the interesting vents near my mom's house in LA, finding out that they were probably methane vents, and after looking up more about methane vents in LA, I learned about the 1985 methane gas explosion at the Ross Dress for Less on West 3rd Street, caused by old oil well byproducts (mentioned in the "Part I" link). I shared my new internet research with my mom, and she said "Oh yeah, those are methane vents. I remember the Ross explosion - our old apartment was near there. I heard a loud sound and went to look outside, and I saw that sidewalk on fire." Lesson learned: ask my mom! Here's a newspaper article confirming what she saw: "The gas fueled flames that danced several inches high along the sidewalks on two sides of the demolished building, sometimes leaping several feet into the air through cracks and fissures."

Things found by looking up those vents: here's a methane vent near Park La Brea (close to that Ross) and a 2001 article about underground methane in LA. The Belmont Learning Complex near downtown had bad construction problems due to being built over another old oil field. Some cities in the UK had a different kind of gas problem - sewer gas - and they invented the neat sewer gas destructor lamp (some examples in context).
posted by dreamyshade at 11:51 PM on November 19, 2012

In 1925, California supplied [much] of the world’s oil

With their own version of The Sheik.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:57 PM on November 19, 2012

Interesting to consider if the oil had been found after it was a city.
posted by bystander at 11:58 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're in Signal Hill, you can eat at Curley's, a hangout of oil men. Looks like it is still going strong.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:02 AM on November 20, 2012

I'm not sure if it was in Norwalk or Santa Fe Springs, but there used to be a refinery close to where the Norwalk Metrolink station is now. It was a couple miles from where I grew up, and I remember seeing a flame from the refinery off in the distance as a kid (late 70's/early 80's). The land is now a business park-type place.
posted by luckynerd at 12:05 AM on November 20, 2012

The Center For Land Use Interpretation's Urban Crude project hosted a bus tour in 2010 of various oil-related sites in the LA basin.

Last time I was in LA I took a tour of celebrity homes instead of the oil-related sites tour. Now I feel guilty about that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:10 AM on November 20, 2012

Darn, I guess this means the Republic of NorCal will be forced to make armed incursions to secure these petrochemical assets in the post-Peak Oil apocalypse. And here I was hoping we could simply cut off their water supply and leave them to face the Vegan-Aztlan alliance all by their lonesome.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:21 AM on November 20, 2012

Cool, very interesting, thanks!
posted by carter at 4:11 AM on November 20, 2012

As I was contemplating moving to Los Angeles in the midst of my exceedingly complicated it's-complicated, I spent a lot of time visiting, riding my bicycle around my exceedingly complicated it's-complicated's neighborhood. He's living in West Adams, and as I bumbled around the neighborhood on two wheels, I found the house from Six Feet Under and lots of other weird they-don't-have-this-in-Maryland things. The Dr. Seuss trees, the bizarre way everyone stops when you step into a crosswalk, all of it, but I kept passing this odd little fenced-in lot tucked within normal houses that hid what I assumed was a construction site, except for the tall, screened fence on all sides.

Passed by on my way to Ralph's one day and the gate was open, revealing a big pumping facility. Locals probably aren't so fascinated, but man, I was fixated. Complicated explained things to me later, and pointed out that he gets an annual check from the oil companies for the share under his house.

Maybe that's part and parcel of LA, but it was just gloriously peculiar to me.

Then, just when I was getting used to it, I visited a friend in Long Beach and saw the insane sci-fi oil islands there. Oil islands dressed by Disney.

Whole other world out there.
posted by sonascope at 6:33 AM on November 20, 2012

As good as any place to ask: In GTA: San Andreas in East Los Santos just north of Grove across the highway is a collection of oil tower "christmas tree" looking structures that are several stories tall near a pool or depression of some sort. I always thought they were related to oil or tar pits or something but could never tell what what they were supposed to be. Anyone here know?
posted by sourwookie at 6:38 AM on November 20, 2012

The well at Beverly Hills high (and directly adjacent to the Century City business district) has been the subject of controversy. Erin Brockovich (the well known attorney) attempted a lawsuit (started in 2003), but it failed. A book has come out since. More recently, the city council has taken action to prevent operation of the well once Venoco's current lease expires.

Oil and gas under BH high and the surrounding area has been also used as a bugaboo by locals attempting to keep subway lines from coming directly into BH and Century City. (BH High PTA video.) Metro's ultimate refusal to change the propsed route has led to a lawsuit.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:41 AM on November 20, 2012

sourwookie: I'm pretty sure what you're talking about is recreation of the Watts Towers.
posted by zsazsa at 7:16 AM on November 20, 2012

Complicated explained things to me later, and pointed out that he gets an annual check from the oil companies for the share under his house.

One of the terms in the title to the house we bought here in Long Beach, CA is that we DO NOT own the mineral rights beneath our house. Standard Oil does.
posted by notyou at 7:23 AM on November 20, 2012

That's them! Thanks! Carry on with the oil discussion.
posted by sourwookie at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2012

I seem to remember there being oil rigs on the Long Beach Municipal golf course the one time I played there. Am I dreaming this?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:00 AM on November 20, 2012

Dreaming, I think.

We have five muni courses: Recreation Park, Rec Park South (9 holes), El Dorado, Sky Links and Heartwell (Par 3). I've played them all and I don't recall wells on any of them.

The private 9 hole Bixby Village sits atop land that used to be oil fields and there are several pumps still operating nearby. But none on the course as such.

I've never played the course at the Virginia Country Club. Maybe there? Google Maps says no (at least as of the most recent satellite photo).
posted by notyou at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2012

Benny, I found this via google maps: https://maps.google.com/maps?ll=33.77632,-118.13199&spn=0.002567,0.003476&gl=us&t=h&z=19 and doggr confirms those are active wells.
posted by jjwiseman at 10:58 AM on November 20, 2012

(The above site is Recreation Park in Long Beach.)
posted by jjwiseman at 10:59 AM on November 20, 2012

By the way, if you're interested in infrastructure or land use, and are near southern California, you should subscribe to the CLUI's "Lay of the Land" newsletter and get on their mailing list to be notified about their bus tours, which happen infrequently but are always amazing. And visit the CLUI HQ in Culver City, which has exhibits and is conveniently located next door to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:06 AM on November 20, 2012

Thank you jjwiseman.

My one time out there was a whirlwind three or four days that involved driving from Vegas to Anaheim/Long Beach and back. Golf was the sole break in the drinking and carousing. I was younger and much hardier then; it's nice to know I'm not mis-remembering in my old(er) age.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:08 AM on November 20, 2012

Great post.

I grew up in LA in a track that was formerly oil fields. There was a capped well under my house.

I grew up seeing the pumps every day and we would often hop walls to explore the pump area. When you grow up seeing them, you can see them everywhere.
posted by Argyle at 11:55 AM on November 20, 2012

Just... wow.


Having grown up in LA, I was always fascinated by the oil wells. My mom was horrified that I might try to play on one of them and lose an arm or something.

Almost in mockery of her fears, there was at least one I remember seeing painted like a grasshopper with long springs from the head like antenna that wagged back-and-forth as it pumped, just begging kids to come play with it! What were they thinking???

I also remember the oil industrial areas in Torrance, El Segundo and Long Beach - huge tracts of land hundreds, maybe thousands of acres, well screened by oleander bushes overgrowing tall chain-link fences.

Fascinating - and a bit scary - stuff.

With any luck, I'll have time this long weekend to follow all these links!

posted by mmrtnt at 12:23 PM on November 20, 2012

Wow, mmrtnt - I was just going to post about my childhood and remembering all the oil wells all over the place. The refineries with their bushes and fences, right next to the fast food joints and supermarkets we'd go to.

We lived in North Long Beach, so anytime we wanted to get anywhere in Long Beach itself, we'd have to go through Signal Hill. So those oil wells were a permanent piece of my childhood, going up and down as we drove by.

My dad used to work at one of the refineries down by the beach - one of those huge ones that were by Terminal Island. And I remember all the giant pipes and smoke and tanks - no wonder Blade Runner feels like home half of the time.

Hey - does anyone remember when that oil refinery used to turn one of their massive oil tanks into a giant pumpkin every Halloween? And you could drive into the parking lot, and see the pumpkin, and they'd give you little Brachs' candy pumpkins (or was it candy corn?), and this was seriously a Halloween tradition for my family.

edit: A-ha! Union 76, and it was crackerjacks.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:03 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well I think I know why I've overlooked those pumps. I slice out of the tee box rather than hook.
posted by notyou at 4:48 PM on November 20, 2012

And FYI: that pool to the left of the wells in that google maps photo is the Casting Pond.
posted by notyou at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2012

jjwiseman: "(The above site is Recreation Park in Long Beach.)"

Whaaaaat. I go past this on 7th every single day on my way to and from CSULB. Definitely never noticed it as it's completely hidden from the street. Thank you!
posted by Defenestrator at 5:56 PM on November 20, 2012

Vaguely related: There's Oil On Them Thar Campuses!
Imagine going to college and finding an oil rig on campus. That's becoming increasingly likely as oil and gas companies use a controversial technique commonly referred to as fracking to extract resources from land underneath campuses across the country.
"The tanks and everything will be underground. I don't think that people will really visually recognize that oil drilling is taking place on the university campus, and if there are any noise problems or odor problems we will discontinue the operation," [Tara Singer of Indiana State University] says.
NPR, All Things Considered (4:25) [Nov 20, 2012]
posted by filthy light thief at 8:09 PM on November 20, 2012

> Does anyone remember when that oil refinery used to turn one of their massive oil tanks into a giant pumpkin every Halloween?

I do now that you mentioned it!

I can't believe I forgot.

posted by mmrtnt at 11:55 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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