Drilling for Black Gold in the Los Angeles Oil Field, 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As mentioned in the first installment of the “Drilling for Black Gold” series, the origins of greater Los Angeles’ oil industry were in the mountains in present-day Santa Clarita starting in 1865.  F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of the Homestead’s owner William Workman, invested heavily in projects in that area with his Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company having limited success before the failure the Temple and Workman bank in early 1876 ended his involvement.

Later that year, Star Oil Company hit a gusher in what was then known as the San Fernando oil field.  A decade later, William R. Rowland, the son of the other owner of Rancho La Puente, John Rowland, and his partner William Lacy successfully located oil wells on part of Rowland’s land on the rancho and launched the Puente Oil Company.

The early 1890s brought two new players into the regional oil game.  Edward Doheny (1856-1935) and Charles Canfield (1848-1913) used an investment of just several hundred dollars to drill for crude in the hills northwest of downtown and hit a remarkable vein of oil, opening the Los Angeles City Oil Field.

This 1890s cabinet card photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows the Los Angeles City Oil Field early in its development, but look at the forest of wells and the lone house still standing among the “trees.”

Both men became incredibly rich and had oil projects in other areas of California (Doheny opened up Orange County’s first oil field with a successful well at Olinda in present-day Brea in 1897), in Mexico, and elsewhere.  Doheny, in particular, was a phenomenally successful oil tycoon, but his bribe of Harding Administration Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall [there’s an appropriate surname given his conviction and 1-year prison term for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal!] tarnished his reputation, though he was acquitted of criminal charges in 1930.

The Los Angeles City Oil Field, which generally ran from about Hoover Street on the west to just below Dodger Stadium on the west, hits its peak activity in the first years of the 20th century and then gave way gradually to residential and commercial development over the ensuing decades.

The field, which tended to be forgotten by most people, sprung back into the public consciousness when the Los Angeles Unified School District began construction in the late 1990s of the Belmont Learning Center, just a short distance from where Doheny and Canfield’s well was drilled.

First Oil Well In Los Angeles 2007.67.1.1
This image, also from the museum’s collection and from 1902, was labeled as showing Los Angeles’ first oil well.  If true (and it is very possible it isn’t!), this could be a later iteration of the Canfield and Doheny well of 1892 with a new derrick and equipment.

Tests revealed  high levels of methane and a public relations nightmare ensued for the district.  After significant remediation for the methane and after an earthquake fault was found running through the site, the project, renamed after pioneering Latino politician Ed Roybal, opened in 2008.

The success of the Los Angeles City Oil Field was followed in successive years by discoveries in north Orange County (in the appropriately named city of Brea, which means tar in Spanish, and surrounding areas), then in Montebello, where F.P.F. Temple’s son, Walter, was the beneficiary of a remarkable discovery on his land in 1914, and throughout the region by the 1920s.

Today, there are still many operating wells in the area, with some cleverly disguised as buildings or hidden from view, though there are also parts of the region that are witnessing the removal of wells and the building of residential and commercial developments in their stead.

RPPC Los Angeles Oil Wells 2010.364.1.1
Here’s another Homestead photo from July 1909 of the field, with a well partially in the street and on the sidewalk at the left.  Note the gents in the horse-drawn cart and the street light strung up over the middle of the intersection.

There seems to be an under-appreciation for just how important the oil industry has been to greater Los Angeles.  Perhaps, like the sand and gravel industry, oil doesn’t have the cachet of defense plants, oranges, or film, but it has been a huge (if environmentally controversial) part of our regional economy for well over 120 years. Canfield and Doheny’s 1892 discovery put a lot of that activity into motion.

The accompanying photos from the Homestead’s collection show areas of the Los Angeles City Oil Field during its heyday from around 1890-1910 and are part of a growing part of the museum’s holdings about the oil industry in the region that will be highlighted further in this series.

2 thoughts

  1. Reblogged this on Back On The Grid and commented:
    Los Angeles and Oil Field. Not two concepts you would put together today, but I do find these old photographs absolutely fascinating.

  2. Hi Al, yes, looking around the densely developed city, you’d have to look hard to see the traces, though there are some disguised oil production facilities at golf courses, schools, shopping centers and other areas of LA. There’s some good material and photos on the web about that. Thanks for the comment and for checking out the post!

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