by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most productive oil fields in greater Los Angeles during the 1920s was at the Long Beach Oil Field, which included the Signal Hill area. The area really took off with the discovery of [Royal Dutch] Shell Oil’s Alamitos #1, which was brought into production in 1921. The rush was on and what the City of Long Beach refers to as the broader Wilmington field, the third-largest in the country and some thirteen miles long from Wilmington to Seal Beach, has over 6,000 wells and a recovery output pegged at an estimated 3 billion barrels of crude.
The Homestead has many photographs of the general Long Beach/Wilmington field, including the accompanying view of a gusher at General Petroleum Company’s Black Drake well #1, which was near the intersection of Willow and Walnut streets in Signal Hill and which began production in November 1921.
On 21 January 1922, the well came in at about 2,300 feet in depth, but with a significant problem, because it did not only contain a huge amount of petroleum, but had a great deal of gas, as well, causing a major issue when the gusher broke loose a little after 8 a.m.
As explained in the following day’s Los Angeles Times, the gusher involved “saturating the landscape for blocks in every direction and causing damages estimated at more than $250,000 to handsome Signal Hill homes.” The paper went on to note that “homes ranging in value from $5000 to $50,000 were ruined by the clouds of oil that rained down upon them.” Oil splattered out a mile in some cases and could be found six or seven inches deep up to 2,000 feet from the well.
During the gusher, estimates were that some 1,000 barrels of crude per day and some 10 million cubic feed a day were escaping from the well. Among the residences damaged was that of H.W. Green, which had a huge piece of rock crash through the roof, plunge through a dressing room closet and land in the living room below. The owner estimated damage to the house was roughly $20,000. The home of W.J. Wightman, said to be “a palatial residence, valued at more than $50,000,” was reported to be “practically ruined by a spray of oil throughout the house.”
On the 26th, the Santa Ana Register reported that “claims for damages against the General Petroleum company caused by the getting away of the Black Drake gusher at Signal Hill now aggregate more than a half million dollars.” The paper referred to the “rain of oil” that exposed houses to damage throughout the entire day of the gusher’s break.
The 15 March 1922 issue of the industry publication Petroleum Age noted that the Black Drake disaster was one of four recent “gassers” that emanated from the Long Beach rea recently and the total damage was estimated to be about $1 million.
An article by Ellwood Munger, a reporter assigned by the Times to cover oil developments in the region and who composed the Register piece, attempted a little humor by noting that General Petroleum made hundreds of acres in Signal Hill oil bearing, because even if there wasn’t any crude under the surface, the Black Drake well “put plenty of it on top of the surface.” Munger reported that, although levees were hurriedly built to try and contain the massive amounts of crude oil, but they broke.
Repeating the range and substance of the damage caused by the gusher, Munger stated that “The General Petroleum’s Signal Hill disaster is the greatest in the history of Southern California [oil] development.” Hundreds of acres of land needed cleaning, while “a hundred or more homes will have to be cleaned and repainted” and landscaping replaced to a significant extent. Munger went on to suggest that “the claims are exorbitant and out of reason—some are ludicrous,” giving an example of one man claiming $90,000 “for a little family orchard” and citing claims of $50 turkeys, $1,200 goats and other suddenly very valuable animals.
Of course, there was an inherent problem in oil fields springing up in existing residential neighborhoods, whether in Long Beach, Los Angeles or other portions of the region. Notably, the concern in our time is how to address the buildup of housing tracts, schools, and shopping centers in the midst of still-operating wells or how to cleanup vacated fields to prepare the way for development. This will continue to be the case as existing fields are increasingly closed and the inevitable rush to building on them continues.