Drilling for Black Gold at the San Fernando Oil Region, 1873-1875

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

“Drilling for Black Gold” is a new series of post on this blog focusing on oil prospecting, which was a major part of greater Los Angeles’ economy for many decades and which the Temple family actively pursued over two generations from the 1870s through the 1920s.

Within just a half-dozen years of America’s oil industry getting its start out in Pennsylvania, petroleum prospecting began in greater Los Angeles,  In 1865, the Los Angeles Pioneer Oil Company drilled the region’s first well, albeit in crude (sorry) fashion, in Pico Canyon in the rugged mountains north of Mission San Fernando.

The firm was headed by Phineas Banning, “father” of Los Angeles Harbor, John G. Downey (who had recently completed a term as California’s governor), viticulturist Mathew Keller, surveyor George Hansen, rancher and former Los Angeles mayor Benjamin D. Wilson, Dr. John S. Griffin, and Richard M. Heath.

While the Pioneer’s attempts were unsuccessful, renewed efforts in the “San Fernando Oil District” commenced several years later, as a handful of companies tried their hands at drilling in the area during Los Angeles’ first development boom, which lasted from about 1867 to 1875.  One of these was the Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company, which was incorporated in 1873 and whose president was F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of the Homestead’s founder, William Workman.

This 1880s print from the Homestead’s collection shows oil drilling in the San Fernando district, probably that of the Star Oil Works in Pico Canyon in modern Santa Clarita.

Temple’s efforts were largely confined to a steam-powered well drilled in Towsley Canyon, south of Pico Canyon.  In June 1874, the Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company began drilling and, in early August, the Los Angeles Express reported that oil was found eighty feet down with yields of three to four barrels of crude a day.  By January 1875, though, the Los Angeles Star stated that 40 to 100 barrels a day of oil were being extracted from the company’s well.

Meanwhile, the company also built a small, simple refinery, California’s first, at Lyon’s Station to the east in what became Newhall (west of today’s 14 Freeway).  Completed at a cost of $3,000 in April 1874, the facility consisted of a single 15-barrel still with wooden flumes carrying crude oil delivered from Pico Canyon wells owned by Robert S. Baker and, presumably from Temple’s Towlsey Canyon well, to the still and water was brought via a pipeline tapping a nearby spring.  Processed oil was then taken into Los Angeles and sold at the store of M.W. Childs.

By early 1875, though, the refinery was closed for unstated reasons.  One problem was that an attempt to find a quick refining process led to a quack, Rodolfo Carreras, promising remarkable results from his proprietary method.  After a good deal of money was poured into fronting his process, it proved to be a sham.  The refinery’s remains are now a state historic landmark.

Temple also became treasurer, in July 1874, of the Lesina Oil Company, which proposed to drill for oil in Leaming Canyon, south of Towsley, though it does not appear any activity to search for oil took place here until later.  He also had interests in the Citizens Gas Light and Oil Refinery Company, the Los Angeles Gas Company, which was founded in 1867, and the Los Angeles Boring Company.  The latter, of which Temple was treasurer, had a well drilling in the San Fernando region, and it was said in the Los Angeles Herald in early July 1875 that the company reached 100 feet in depth and was ejecting a great deal of water.

This detail from a map from a 1913 state oil and gas report and also in the museum’s holdings shows the San Fernando oil district, including wells at Pico and Wiley canyons and the Newhall area.  F.P.F. Temple prospected near Wiley, in Towsley Canyon, from 1873-1875 and experienced some success before the failure of his Los Angeles bank brought it all to an end.

Booms go bust, of course, and Temple’s oil enterprises, along with his many other business endeavors, came to an abrupt half when the California economy crashed in late August 1875 due to the effects of silver mine speculation in Virginia City, Nevada.  When the news reached Los Angeles and a panic erupted, the bank of Temple and Workman, used to finance projects like the work at the San Fernando Oil District, was drained of much of its meager cash reserves.

Despite a loan from “Lucky”Baldwin late in 1875, those funds were quickly drained by depositors wanting their cash and the bank failed early in 1876.  Within two weeks of the loan, the Herald reported that the drilling materials at the Towsley Canyon well were pulled up.  Nine months after the bank’s collapse, the Star Oil Company brought in a successful well at Pico Canyon and took over the Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company’s shuttered refinery to develop its crude.  Towsley Canyon is now part of Ed Davis Park (click here for information).

Temple died in 1880 with his dreams of oil prospecting success shattered, but nearly four decades later, his son, Walter, was the beneficiary of a stunning and unexpected discovery of oil on his Montebell0-area ranch by his nine-year old child, Thomas.  In late June 1917, Temple well #1 was brought in by Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, which leased the 60-acre ranch from the Temples.

More on that next year when the centennial of the Montebello Oil Field’s opening will be highlighted here!



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