Drilling for Black Gold with the Union Oil Company of California “Bulletin,” November 1922

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Unocal Corporation, also known as the Union Oil Company of California, with headquarters in El Segundo, became, in 2005, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron Corporation, formerly the Standard Oil Company of California.  The latter dates back to 1879 and the creation of the Pacific Coast Oil Company, which acquired the assets of the defunct Star Oil Company, which brought in a well at Pico Canyon in modern Santa Clarita three years before.

This was then known as the San Fernando oil field, where prospecting began in 1865 with the Los Angeles-based Pioneer Oil Company crudely (!) drilling California’s first well at Pico Canyon.  Within the next decade, a host of other small firms were working the area, including F.P.F. Temple’s Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company, which briefly brought in a producing well and built an early refinery in the area before the collapse of his Temple and Workman bank brought an end to his endeavors.

Pacific Coast Oil was purchased by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in 1900, though retained its name and operations until it was merged with another Standard concern as Standard Oil Company (California).  After the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed, the Standard conglomerate was broken up in 1911 and Standard Oil Company of California operated independently.


In October 1890, three small Ventura County oil companies merged into the properly named Union Oil Company of California, with headquarters in Santa Paula.  Thomas Bard was a rancher and politician, serving as a county supervisor and from 1900-1905 a United States Senator.  His partners were Wallace Hardison and Lyman Stewart, veterans of the oil fields of Pennsylvania, where the American industry began.

When Rockefeller aggressively moved into the region and acquired control of its oil fields, Hardison and Stewart left for California in 1883 and formed their Hardison & Stewart Oil Company.  Within a few years, they were doing very well and then joined forces with Bard to create Union.

Hardison sold his interests and went into mining, while Bard was not as deeply involvement in management, but Stewart served as the company’s president for twenty years, from 1894-1914, during which time, in 1901, Union relocated headquarters to downtown Los Angeles.  He was also widely known for his Christian philanthropy, including the founding of the Union Rescue Mission and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now BIOLA and located in La Mirada.


By the early 1920s, Stewart remained as Chairman of the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of Union and its president was his son, William.  Another key player was the Executive Vice-President, E.W. Clark, a major figure in California’s oil industry for many years.

Among the firm’s directors during the early part of that decade were W.W. Orcutt, a prominent grower in Ventura County; businessman William R. Staats of Pasadena; banker Henry M. Robinson, a major finance figure in Los Angeles; prominent attorney Henry O’Melveny; and A.C. Balch, a utility and street railroad executive.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is the November 1922 issue of the Union Oil Company of California’s Bulletin, a monthly publication for stockholders that, along with its counterpart, the Standard Oil Bulletin, is a good source of information about the oil industry during the period.


The main article is the first of a two-part travelogue about the South American nation of Chile, which was increasingly exporting Union OIl products since arrangements were first made to ship petroleum-based items there sixteen years prior.  Another longer piece concerned the career of George Weir a Union foreman, in charge of work at a company tank farm at San Luis Obispo, but also about the 1911 Simplex car that was bought new and still being used by Weir and which had logged nearly 270,000 miles.

A shorter item of interest is titled “First California Producer” and concerns what appears to be that Star Oil Company well brought into production at Pico Canyon in 1876.  It was noted that, “although records are somewhat vague . . . , the well is one of the first, if not the first ever drilled in this state.”  That wasn’t true, as noted above, the 1865 Pioneer Oil Company well was the first, but it was the case that “after forty-seven years it is still yielding more than enough to justify its continued operation.”

Another error, though, was in printing a photo of the Plaza area of Los Angeles and stating that the image was taken the same year, 1875, that the Pico Canyon well was drilled.  The problem is that the photo is at least six years earlier, because the Pico House hotel, which should be at the lower left of the image, was not yet built.  It is also notable that the article claimed that “from a little known and practically unpopulated wilderness the entire State of California has grown to what it is today within the life of this one well.”  Obviously, this is also untrue!


The main article of note from the publication was the “Life Story of Meyer No.3—Santa Fe Springs Discovery Well.”  The Santa Fe Springs field was a wildly successful one during the 1920s and the piece by F.F. Hill, Manager of Field Operations, details the story of how the field came to such prominence.

Hill noted that, in 1907, Union secured a lease from Marius Meyer with the first well started there, even though it would not be years before the field became well-known.  That first well had to be abandoned because of too much water-filled sand and gravel.  A second well was also given up at just 350 feet of drilling.

In February 1917, Meyer #3 was started and the art of drilling was much more refined (!), so that the well could be carried down to well over 3,000 feet, though there were a couple of instances in which the project was stopped for technical reasons that are a little involved to recapitulate here.  Much of the problem had to do with damage to the cement casing in the well and the unparalleled effort to remove a massive section.


With those efforts successfully carried out, drilling continued to over 4,500 feet, at which some light oil was encountered.  Again, however, difficulties were encountered with water, more problems with the casing and other issues.  As Hill expressed it, “the tense situation at the well and the endless procession of obstacles which so often beset the pioneers who strive to open new oil territories can be appreciated at this point.”  So much of oil exploration is dealing with problems and the decision whether to abandon or continue a drilling project.

After more lengthy descriptions of the technical nature of the problems involved with Meyer #3, Hill noted that an accident opened up the well’s possibilities as a 3800 feet section of tubing dropped down the well and its tremendous weight caused enough pressure at the bottom to allow for a new casing to be created down to 4,600 feet where “the well started to flow at the rate of approximately 3000 barrels per day.”

Water, unfortunately, broke in and forced the shutting off of the well and, while that issue was solved, the result was that “the greater part of the oil production was lost,” so that it brought in just 150 barrels per day after that, diminshing gradually to some 30-40 at the time of writing.


While it took nearly three years for the well to be finished and “its relatively small production failed to cause great excitement,” the overall rsult was that “it accomplished the proving up of the Santa Fe Springs District and claims the distinction of being the sensational field’s discovery well.”

Alphonzo Bell’s first well which took two years to complete and then was brought onto production in fall 1921 was such that it made “the attention of oil experts of California to be turned to Santa Fe Springs” with its yield as high as 4400 barrels per day, with a present production of 2700.

Overall, Santa Fe Springs, at the time of writing, was producting 700,000 barrels per day with about 120 new wells underway.  Hill stated that “in point of prolific production, high gravity oil and proven area this field is considered by many to be a contender for first place in the California oil fields.”


His article, however, was a cautionary tale, warning readers, “don’t think that its discovery and development was so simply and lacking in risks and chances of failure,” given the three long years of work on Meyer #3 for paltry production, though it was the discovery well of the field, and the two years at Bell #1 that tried the patience of even the most hardened oil operatives.

There are other features to the bulletin, including short items of interest in the oil industry and the Union Oil firm under the “News of the Month” heading; summaries of new industry-related articles; dramatic photos of the grounding of the company tanker “Lyman Stewart” on the rocky shoreline near Point Lobos by San Francisco; and a “Refined and Crude” page of proverbs and humor, including the casual and common use of stereotypical “colored” jokes and an image of a caricatured black man talking to young black boys.


The Homestead’s collection of bulletins from Standard and Union are a significant part of the holdings the museum has on the oil industry, of which the Temple family was involved from the 1870s through the 1920s.

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