Drilling for Black Gold in the Olinda Oil Field, 1916

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield discovered the oil that opened the Los Angeles Oil Field in the early 1890s, Doheny found one of his next major projects in northeastern Orange County (which had splintered off from Los Angeles County in 1889).

Doheny partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and took up operations on the Olinda Ranch, so named because its owner, William H. Bailey, was the son of missionaries on the island of Mau’i in the independent kingdom of Hawai’i and his family owned a sugarcane plantation called Olinda.  The name actually derives from the famed sugar raising area of Brazil of that name.  The Santa Fe, which had a line running through northern Orange County, was eager to tap into oil production as railroad engines were transitioning to oil from coal.

Bailey purchased the land and inaugurated the ranch during the great Boom of the 1880s and had big plans for a town and subdivision of the property that disintegrated when the boom went bust.  Doheny, however, drilled a well on the slopes of the Chino Hills at the north end of the ranch and successfully brought in a producer in 1897.

As is natural with oil-bearing areas, a rush of activity followed and the Olinda Oil Field became the first field in Orange County attracting a host of oil companies in succeeding decades.  Bailey, too, joined in the action.  Others included the founders of Union Oil Company, which got its start in the Ventura County town of Santa Paula, but later became the major player at Olinda and areas to the west.

Olinda Oil Field Valencia Ave Olinda Bl 2009.107.1.1The image accompanying this post was taken at the end of March 1916, when the Olinda field was in full maturity with hundreds of wells by several major and minor oil companies in operation.  A community called Olinda existed along the newly opened Carbon Canyon Road, which was pushed through to Chino in San Bernardino County a couple of years prior to the photo.  Olinda had stores and an elementary school and its population peaked in the 1910s and 1920s, before the increasing use of the automobile allowed oil field workers to live further from the smells and noises and drive to work.  A few residents remained there into the 1960s, however.

The image, though, was taken on Olinda Boulevard, later renamed Valencia Avenue, by which it is know today, looking north towards the hills connecting the Puente and Chino Hills ranges.  The road curves off to the right in the distance and that was the beginning of Carbon Canyon Road–Valencia Avenue and Carbon Canyon Road now constitute state highway 142 leading through Carbon Canyon and the Chino Hills range into San Bernardino County to the northeast.  About a couple dozen wells and associated buildings, probably including offices, houses and supporting structures for the extraction of crude are in view.

Today, Valencia Avenue continues straight and north up to the hills and leads to the Olinda Alpha Landfill, which is in the upper right of the photo.  The landfill is scheduled to close in several years and become a county park, much as is in the works for the Puente Hills Landfill close to the Homestead.

To the left of Valencia Avenue, there are still a few wells pumping, although their days of reckoning are probably not far off into the future, as housing is being gradually built in the area.  Above the house on the foreground left, there is a building with a wrap-around porch and another structure behind that.  This area is being developed now with single-family and multi-family residences, a sports park and other elements.

In the distance at the far right, as well as to the right, or east, of that is the Olinda Ranch subdivision, built within the last fifteen years or so, and which is the location of the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail, a city museum and park that contains that still-pumping 1897 well brought in by Edward Doheny.  A significant amount of remediation, including special methane mitigation units beneath homes, was done to the property.

For more on the oil museum, click here.

But, concerns linger among residents, most of whom have moved to the former Olinda oil field in very recent years, who sometimes complain about odors in the area.  This is especially true at Olinda Elementary, which moved from a location up Carbon Canyon to the east, to a spot next to a still-operating 70-acre oil field.  A lone derrick is running just a hop, skip and a jump away from the school.  Given the recent situation with natural gas wells at Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley and the continuing repurposing of oil fields into residential and commercial developments, it seems certain that these concerns will continue.

In April, the Orange County Register published an article on this topic, with focus on the Olinda area.  Click here to read the piece.

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