Drilling for Black Gold with the “Union Oil Company of California Bulletin,” April 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As with so much of our COVID-19 environment, it is stunning to see the effects of the steep decline in oil consumption, the glut of inventory in storage, and the free-fall of prices of crude and refined gasoline.  Naturally, we see cleaner air in our smog-choked cities, wild animals roaming urban streets in ways not seen before, and other after effects that are over and covert reminders of how dependent industrialized societies and economies have been on oil.  There has even been some speculation that current conditions give us a glimmer of a glimpse of a post-petroleum planet, though it seems hard to believe that such a possibility is anything but many, many years away.

Looking back, today’s highlighted historic object from the Museum’s holdings takes us to a time when that dependence was becoming increasingly crystallized and normalized.  The April 1923 issue of the Union Oil Company of California Bulletin reflected an environment of significant growth and confidence in what petroleum could do for an American society and economy becoming more dominant with each passing year.

Even the aesthetics of the front and rear cover illustration reflect the view of the company and others about the place of oil in ascending American economy.  It is a beautifully rendered image by John Didrik Johnsen, who went on to work in animated films for Leon Schlessinger (Tex Avery was a colleague), MGM and Warner Brothers and died in 1974 at age 88.  The view is of the Panama Canal Zone and, amid the tropical scenery, including a thatched-roof hut and some locals is a scene of a factory with smokestacks and a neatly ordered campus of red-roofed two-story buildings that was the Balboa complex that Union Oil operated.


The feature article “At the Cross-Roads of World Shipping” by R.C. Worsley, the shipping manager at the plant, discusses the history and operations of the facility, including its tank storage capacity, arrangements for an oil company for deliveries of oil, and other elements of operations.  Photos show the campus, the tanks, the pumps, ships in the canal, a burning oil tank and others.

Another interesting broad-reaching piece is a tribute to Herman Frasch in both the petroleum and sulfur industries, because of his discovery of ways to remove sulfur from crude oil and dramatically raise the grade of the refined product from Pennsylvania, the original center of the American petroleum industry from 1859, as well as pioneering work to extract and refine sulfur for commercial uses.

Then, there is an article concerning the “mudding” of oil wells, an experimental technique designed to enhance the ability to capture oil through the process of injecting mud-based fluids into the well  to seal off the walls and prevent or limit water seepage.  This was developed as an alternative to the common practice of using cement.


The piece noted that testing on mudding showed that the process did not work well in sandstone formations unless there were fractures or crevices allowing the mud to flow through and do its work rather than being absorbed through the stone.  Union’s Coast Division superintendent E.C. Critchlow wrote of these tests and results and a rendering shows the theoretical and practical components of the process.  Eventually, however, using “drilling mud” became a standard practice to prevent water intrusion as well as to lubricate the drill bit and to keep it cool during the intense drilling process.

Whereas most instances of oil tanker groundings and sinking are environmentally disastrous occurrences, the publication took a lighthearted approach to the example of the Lyman Stewart, a Union tanker named for its founder and long-time president and board chair and which collided with another vessel and foundered on the rocks in the tricky area at Point Lobos in Northern California.  A San Francisco Chronicle article was reprinted about how some 150 young men used the wreck as “dressing rooms, diving platforms, springboards and everything necessary to boyhood’s fondest diversion” in an oceanic version of the venerable “old swimmin’ hole.”

The Lyman Stewart, which was wrecked the prior October, had 70,000 barrels of oil, which were lost in the incident, but this, of course, was a tiny fraction of what modern tankers and supertankers carry.  The Exxon Valdez, for example, which hit a reef off the coast of Alaska in 1989, spilled nearly four times that much oil.  Still, for the time, the wreck of the Lyman Stewart was a major event.


In the “News of the Month” section, there are some notable tidbits, including the observation that March 1923 included a record amount of oil sent through the pipeline system in greater Los Angeles, some 5.1 million barrels.  Another report was that February’s production of crude in the state was just over 16,425,000 barrels, a slight drop from January, but, because it was a shorter month, the production per day was nearly 56,000 barrels more.

The world yield for 1922, as stated by the American Petroleum Institute, was over 850 million barrels, a healthy increase of 11% over the 765 million produced the prior year.  Of that amount, nearly two-thirds was from the United States, which issued forth over 550 million barrels, and “substantial increases in yield in California helped materially to swell the total.”

A helpful chart of California production from 1910 to 1922 showed the dramatic increases in production and consumption as techniques for extraction were improved and the use of refined product for automobiles, railroads, aircraft and many other applications jumped.  In 1910, production stood at below 78 million barrels, while consumption was at 66.


The latter nearly overtook the former in 1913, but the gap widened as production jumped and consumption dropped the following year.  In 1915, however, the former slipped  nearly 15%, while the latter declined only slightly and surpassed production.  This disparity remained the case until 1921 and the year after there were 20 million more barrels produced than consumed in the state.

Locally, Santa Fe Springs became the biggest producing oil field for the week ending 31 March at 164,000 barrels, surpassing the Long Beach field, long the highest yielding regional field and which generated 148,000.  Huntington Beach took third at 123,000.

There was even some sports news as Harvey Snodgrass, a Union employee in the comptroller’s office won the tennis tournament hosted by the relatively new Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, defeating professional Bill Johnston, a six-time national champion and a rival of the famed Bill Tilden.  Snodgrass decided to try his luck on the pro circuit, playing at the national championships in Philadelphia that September and losing in straight sets in the opening round.  He returned to the tournament, held in New York, in August 1925 and managed to win the first set before losing the round, also the first.


Then, there was the announcement that “on extensive field holdings of Union Oil Company at Brea has been constructed a nine-hole golf course, the formal opening of which was held March 31.”  Notably, “the course was constructed from funds subscribed by employees of the company in the field and pipe line districts adjacent to Brea.”  This course is still in operation as the public Birch Hills Golf Course and the land, along with an adjacent shopping center is still owned by Chevron, which took over Union’s interests there.  Some of the course was repurposed for housing some years ago, so it may entirely go that route some day.

There is a section of humor and aphorisms called “Refined and Crude” with such gems as “Before finding fault with your luck, look yourself over a little” and “While carrying a burden up a hill don’t waste breath complaining” for the latter and one example of the latter being a car dealer telling a potential buyer, “This machine we guarantee can be stopped in three lengths going at full speed,” to which the latter replied, “Um-m-m!  Which side up?”  Or, you might like, one man saying to the other “why did you tip that boy so handsomely when he gave you your coat?” to which the other answered, “look at the coat he gave me!”

Finally, a local piece of note is a short biographical sketch of Union director George S. Patton, Sr., whose portrait is also on the title page of the publication.  The statement noted that Patton was also a director of the Los Angeles Railway, a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and a trustee of the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens.


He was born in Virginia in 1856, the same year as Old Dominion native Woodrow Wilson, and was the son of a Confederate general who died on the battlefield during the Civil War.  Just after war’s end, he and his mother came to Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of secession sentiment during the conflict.  Patton did return to his home state to attend the Virginia Military Institute and then returned to Los Angeles, where he read law at the firm run by Andrew Glassell and George H. Smith, both Southerners and the latter a wounded rebel veteran.  Glassell, Smith and their partner Alfred Chapman were attorneys for the Temple and Workman families prior to the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876.

Patton was admitted to the bar in 1880 and practiced law with Glassell (whose name is associated with the City of Orange, which he and Chapman helped established, and two major streets there bear their surnames), but he retired from active legal work in the early 1890s as “the beckoning hand of opportunity in the field of horticulture and agriculture appealed strongly to him, and with his characteristic vigor he devoted his energies to the development of the San Gabriel valley.”

What was left out, for some reason, was that Patton married Ruth Wilson, daughter of Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to the area with William Workman and John Rowland in 1841 and owned the Lake Vineyard estate.  Also not mentioned, even though he was an officer in the Army during the First World War, was the couple’s son, George, Jr, who went on to fame and notoriety during World War II.  There was also a daughter, Anne.


In any case, the piece noted that Patton, in 1903, became the vice-president and general manager of the Huntington Land Company, owned by railroad and real estate mogul and book and art collector Henry E. Huntington, who bought the estate left by Wilson to his family that same year.  Patton spent nearly a decade in that powerful position as the land company engaged in much development work in greater Los Angeles.

The article noted that Patton ran in the 1890s for the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, though it had the date for the latter wrong as it was 1916, and was active in his work as a CalTech trustee.  It ended by noting that his residence was in San Marino; in fact, it was part of the Huntington estate acquired from his father-in-law’s property.

Also omitted was that Patton was the first mayor of San Marino, serving in that position for nine years from 1913-1922, and that he was briefly the Los Angeles County District Attorney, serving for a few months in 1887 and resigning for health reasons.  Patton died in June 1927 at age 70 and is interred with Wilson, Shorb and Patton family members at San Gabriel Cemetery just south of his home.


This edition of the Union’s monthly bulletin is one of about thirty in the Homestead’s collection and helps provide useful and interesting information about the thriving oil industry in greater Los Angeles and beyond during a dramatic period of growth in that line.

2 thoughts

  1. Good stuff about the Confederate connections of late 19th century LA.

  2. Hi Ion, yes and it’s remarkable how dominant Southern Democrats were during the Civil War-era and the decade or so before–then again, it was Southern California and migrants from southern states took routes through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to get here.

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