Working the Land/Drilling for Black Gold Two-Fer: Oranges and Oil in Whittier, 4 March 1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the many towns to emerge in suburban Los Angeles during the famed Boom of the Eighties, Whittier is a distinctive one in that it did not arise along a railroad or streetcar line, along with the fact that it was established by Quakers.  To this day, its downtown, nestled at the base of the southwestern corner of the Puente Hills, is remarkably distant from major freeways, though the city has expended south and east from its origins, and that relative isolation gives Whittier a distinctive character.

The Rancho Paso de Bartolo (it remains obscure who Bartolo was, though his “pass” presumably was the Whittier Narrows gap between the Montebello and Puente hills chains riven apart by the flows of the Rio Hondo (old San Gabriel River).  Granted in 1835, after the secularization (closing) of the California missions by the Mexican government, to Juan Crispín Pérez, much of the ranch was purchased by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, by 1852.

Pico built a ranch home along what is the “new” (created in floods in 1867-68 following oneof Pico’s irrigation ditches) San Gabriel River at the western edge of Whittier and this is now the Pío Pico State Historic Park.

Yet, Whittier was partially established on public land, which included much of the Puente Hills, purchased by German emigrant and Los Angeles resident Jacob Gerkens in 1868, when these lands, held in common during the Mexican and Spanish eras for the use of nearly ranch owners for grazing stock, were sold.  The Quakers, organized as the Pickering Land and Water Development Company, also acquired land in a canyon between Whittier and La Puente from Robert Turnbull, for access to water.  The town was named for famed poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a fellow Quaker who contributed a poem in honor of his namesake town, which he never saw.

A Whittier Calif View 2012.31.1.1
This real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection, and postmarked on this date in 1909, shows an expansive orange grove and oil wells at the top of the Puente Hills in the distance, near Whittier.

Not long after its founding, Whittier became the site of extensive citrus growing and this was followed soon by oil exploration, which accelerated after the discovery of the Los Angeles field in 1892 and the Olinda field to the east of Whittier in modern Brea five years later.  With a spur railroad line built to the town from the main line of the Southern Pacific from Los Angeles to Anaheim and the coming of the Pacific Electric Railway in the first years of the new century, Whittier did have indirect access to shipping and direct connections to commuter traffic.

Among those items to be shipped were oranges, raised on the slopes south of the Puente Hills, including the prominent ranch of former Detroit lumber magnate Simon Murphy east of town, and oil extracted in the hills above the city.  Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a real photo postcard, postmarked on this date in 1909, and showing an extensive orchard near the hills, on which are some oil derricks.

The card has an inscription on the lower left, reading “A Whittier Calif view,” while, on the reverse is another one that says “orange groves and oil wells at Whittier.”  No further information was recorded, including the location.  Clearly, the orchard was quite large as a substantial ranch house is far from the vantage point of the photographer, who was likely standing along a major road through the area.

In addition to the many citrus trees and the fine residence, there is a wide irrigation ditch quite close in the foreground.  The oil wells are at the top of the hills at the upper right and are partially obscured by the orange tree next to the photographer.

One possible location is southeast of downtown Whittier along Whittier Boulevard and near or at Murphy’s ranch.  His Murphy Oil Company started prospecting for oil in the Puente Hills about this time (Murphy died in 1905 at 89 years) and the first well was brought in during 1908.

Wherever the location, this photograph is a nice documentary artifact showing two of the major economic products of Whittier and greater Los Angeles broadly, as the attractive orange (and its sweet-smelling blossom) contrasted with the aesthetically deficient (and decidedly non-sweet-smelling product) oil derricks.  Yet, both were extremely important to the economy of the region throughout the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.


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