by Paul R. Spitzzeri
From the 1860s, when the oil industry in greater Los Angeles started, development of petroleum has taken place in such major fields as San Fernando (Santa Clarita), Los Angeles, Fullerton (Brea/Olinda), Long Beach, Signal Hill, Montebello, Huntington Beach, and many more.
While an economic boon to the region, the industry also had its share of dangers, including gas explosions and well fires, and probably every field experienced one or both of these occurrences.
Today’s post looks at well fires that took place in close proximity and within a short time of one another in one of the biggest oil fields of the early 20th century, Santa Fe Springs.
Yesterday’s post included discussion of my visit to the grand opening of the Los Nietos branch library. The huge land grant given to Spanish soldier Manuel Nieto was divided into smaller ranchos in 1834 and these remained largely intact until after the Civil War years when cattle ranching was replaced by agriculture.
The Los Nietos township, which only had two dozen Americans and Europeans in the 1860 census, had over 1,100 of them within the decade, many emigrants from the South which was devastated by the Civil War. One of those migrants was Dr. James E. Fulton, born in Alabama in 1827 and who served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army during the conflict.
Fulton bought acreage in Los Nietos and, while drilling for water, discovered a sulphur hot spring. He then developed Fulton Wells, which had a hotel and bathing facilities on the property. The resort remained open for many years, though Fulton was less than happy with a description written for a local directory that called it
a lonely and desolate spot . . . one of the very few places in the county that offers no attractions, either to the tourist or the invalid. The proprietor of the ‘Wells’ stands alone in his majesty of his possessions, shared only with the half-starved jack-rabbit and the unhappy gopher. Rarely, at long intervals, some misguided invalid in the vain pursuit of health drifts towards the Wells, only to lay down his poor bones, there to mingle with the unproductive alkali of the soil.
Fulton sued the publisher in 1883 over this remarkable entry and a jury decided to give him all of $1 (two jurors voted for no amount), instead of the $20,000 he asked.
However, the good doctor was apparently quite successful in other real estate ventures, owning land and a share in a water company in Ojai and building, during the Boom of the Eighties, a three-story office building in downtown Los Angeles. Upon his death in September 1891, the Los Angeles Herald wrote “for years the curative waters of his sanitarium were greatly sought after, not only by our local invalids, but by people in other states.”
By then, the name of the place had changed to Santa Fe Springs, because the railroad of that name built its line through the area, and Dr. Samuel Rogers operated Fulton’s facility for a time. But, the next big product to come from below ground turned out to be oil. The first big strike occurred in 1919, two years after Walter Temple became the beneficiary of an early well at nearby Montebello.
Two of the big names at Santa Fe Springs were Alphonzo Bell, whose family moved to Boyle Heights when their relation John E. Hollenbeck became a big investor there in the 1870s and who founded Bel-Air and other expensive tracts in Los Angeles, and George F. Getty, a Minneapolis attorney who hit a big strike with partners in Oklahoma and then moved to Los Angeles to form his own company. Meanwhile, in 1922, a Massachusetts syndicate looked to capitalize on Bell’s success by forming the Bell View Oil Syndicate and began operations at the field.
The Homestead has an interesting and unusual real photo postcard in its collection that contains two images produced on the single card and showing well fires on the Bell View and Getty properties, almost certainly in November 1928 or shortly afterward. The reason for the card was because these two incidents were widely reported and known and the sender wrote a message on the reverse briefly describing what happened to his grandsons.
The Getty fire, which took place on 16 September, became widely known because it burned for nearly two months. The gas explosion sent a 122-foot derrick flying across nearby Telegraph Road and the heat was so intense that responders could not get within 1000 feet of the site.
The solution was to first drill a 200-foot long shaft to a point about six stories below the fire and extract enough oil and gas to reduce the level of flame. Then, on 4 November, a steel cap weighing five tons was placed on the well by a crane specially configured for the job and that put the fire out.
Five days following the successful dowsing of the Getty fire, the Bell View blowout happened, burning four derricks and causing another four to be dismantled to avoid a spreading of the fire. One Bell View employee died in the disaster and the fire was not extinguished until early December.
As oil fields are gradually closing and the sites, after extensive cleanup, developed into residential, retail and commercial uses, the history of this once-dominant regional industry will be told through remaining artifacts such as these.