Signal Hill

A view of Signal Hill just North of Long Beach, CA in 1930.
The “forest” you see are oil derricks, all drilled in the 1920’s.

Many people may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 100 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Like oil reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, a hint of what lay beneath the surface could be seen in the many above ground oil seeps. These seeps had been known by Native Americans for thousands of years. In 1543, Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo noticed the native people using the naturally occurring tar, or “pitch”, to waterproof their canoes. These seeps were also responsible for the tar pits of La Brea (Spanish for “pitch”), which had, over many thousands of years, trapped unsuspecting animals and their predators looking for an easy meal.

In 1865, only 6 years after “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s monumental discovery in Pennsylvania, California’s first productive well was drilled by the Union Matolle Company in California’s Central Valley. This area, east of San Francisco, became the scene of much of the drilling activity through the rest of the 1800’s. While none of these wells were considered major strikes, they did provide enough oil for the nearby market of San Francisco, by far the largest population center in California in the late 1800’s.

It came from over there….

But the largest fields lay undiscovered, near the sleepy seaside village of Los Angeles. The first well to strike oil in Southern California was drilled in 1892 by Edward L. Doheny, an unsuccessful gold and silver prospector, and Charles A. Canfield, his old mining partner. According to legend, Edward L. Doheny was in the downtown area of Los Angeles when he saw a cart whose wheels were coated in tar. When he asked the man where the substance had come from, he pointed to the northeast. Doheny and Canfield examined the area and soon discovered the Los Angeles Field after drilling to a depth of 140 meters (460 feet) at the corner of Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard, near present day Dodger Stadium. It was drilled using the unlikeliest of instruments: a sharpened end of a eucalyptus tree. Within 2 years of the find, 80 wells were producing oil in the area bounded by Figueoa, First, Union and Temple Streets. By 1897, the number of wells increased to 500.

Rise to Fame

Doheny would eventually become a millionaire, and gain enough renown to challenge for the Democratic nomination for Vice-President of the United States in 1920. And although he was cleared of any wrong-doing, he would later become a central figure in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920’s which brought disgrace to the presidency of Warren G. Harding. Not surprisingly, oil was at the center of the scandal.

The Oil Queen

A local music teacher, Emma Summers, was one of the most successful investors in the first years of the initial boom, and by 1900, Summers controlled half the production in the original Los Angeles Field. For obvious reasons, Summers became known as “California’s Petroleum Queen.”

The oil boom in the early days attracted some interesting characters, including prostitutes, gamblers and con-men. The population of the city of Los Angeles doubled between 1890 and 1900, then tripled again between 1900 and 1910. Later, wells in the 1930’s and 40’s were soundproofed with vinyl-coated glass cloth with one-inch sheet fiberglass filling to decrease the noise, as the drilling activity began to conflict with the exploding Los Angeles population. Camouflage was also used, a technique that was eventually moved to offshore fields as well.

In 1900, the state of California produced 4 million barrels. In 1910, this had jumped to 77 million barrels. In spite of this increased production, many of the fields were beginning to see slowdowns in their production rates in the late 1910’s, and California’s wondered if their oil boom was reaching an end. But before that would happen, 3 major fields were discovered in rapid succession – Huntington Beach (1920), Santa Fe Springs (1921), and the biggest of them all, the Signal Hill, or Long Beach, Field in 1921.

Signal Hill

Signal Hill

Signal Hill, California – 1932

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.

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.

*Photos taken with permission from the Los Angeles Public Library and the Atlantic Richfield Company.