Refined and Crude: An Aerial Photograph of the Richfield Oil Company Refinery, Paramount, 22 May 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Several years ago, the Los Angeles Business Journal, in its annual list of “tops” in Los Angeles County, like top accounting firms, law firms, non-profit foundations, and so on, had one for the highest assessed properties.  Six of the top ten were oil refineries, such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Valero and others, while another was the Anheuser-Busch brewery, which basically is a refinery (notably the number one on the list was the Getty Center and two other spots on the top ten were for the Getty’s administrative offices and vacant land–almost all of which, by the way, was tax-exempt, while the others weren’t).

The list was a reminder, and it may well have changed since the 2013 version I saw, of just how important the oil industry has been to the economy of greater Los Angeles since the 1890s, when the Los Angeles oil field was brought in by Charles Canfield and Edward L. Doheny.  By the end of the decade, Doheny inaugurated Orange County’s oil industry on the Olinda Ranch northeast of Fullerton and the following year the Richfield Oil Company was incorporated and secured a lease from the ranch’s owner, William H. Bailey, son of Congregational missionaries on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Los Angeles Herald, 19 June 1898.

While the deal between Bailey and Richfield soured, the company did have another lease to the southeast in what is now Placentia and Yorba Linda and a town of the name Richfield was platted out, though it did not get too far developed.  When I was in my high school and early college years, having moved from another oil town, Huntington Beach, to Placentia, I lived in a new tract that had been an orange grove and just to the west was Richfield Road where the townsite was situated.

Further east, where my high school, Esperanza, was located in a corner of Anaheim, its address was on Kellogg Drive, which I later assumed (because in high school I didn’t care) had something maybe to do with the cereal magnate, who was actually involved in Pomona where the Cal Poly campus is now.

Los Angeles Times, 8 December 1910.

It turns out that, while the first Richfield Oil Company folded, another one was formed in 1911 with its principal officer being Frederick R. Kellogg.  Born in Quasqueton, Iowa, a town sited along the Wapsipinicon River north of Cedar Rapids, Kellogg, whose father was a lawyer, remained in that area until just after 1900, when he came out to Los Angeles.  He quickly got into real estate and oil and started his namesake oil company in 1910, the year before the second Richfield was started by Kellogg and his two partners from his own firm, along a few other investors.

Just before the November 1911 incorporation of Richfield (Mach II), the Los Angeles Times reported that a new oil refinery was built in the townsite “between Olinda and Yorba,” the latter becoming known as Yorba Linda (and where a certain notorious president was born a couple years later).  The paper stated that, should the venture prove to be successful, “the plant will revolutionize the business of refining in the fields and prove a great boon to the oil industry.”


Times, 10 October 1911.

The Kellogg Oil Company was the owner of the facility at the time, though, once the new Richfield firm was up and running and a few years passed, a merger was effected between the two along with the Los Angeles Oil Refining Company, creating a larger and strong Richfield Oil Company.  With additional drilling sites in the South Bay area, including the very busy Signal Hills field, Richfield built a much larger refinery in the City of Vernon.

The company refined and sold its own brand of gasoline and its formulation made it very popular with the relatively new sport of auto racing.  So, as Richfield, which merged with a parent firm called United Oil in summer 1923, grew in stature and size and, following a devastating fire at the Vernon refinery, it was decided to build a new, state-of-the art facility further south in what was called Hynes (though some sources referred to the site as being in the northern part of Long Beach).  Before the mid-1920s, Hynes was an agricultural community, best known for years for its active sugar beet farming when that product was a source of sugar (other areas that specialized in the sugar beet were Chino and Oxnard).

Times, 29 November 1911.

When Richfield completed its massive refinery, located strategically near Signal Hill, in the summer of 1924, however, it meant the beginning of major changes for that region.  That dramatic transformation is vividly demonstrated with tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection, an image from Spence Air Photos of Los Angeles showing the facility on 22 May 1929.

The image, taken from a low altitude, shows about three dozen various sized oil tanks with the refining portion at the center.  Another tank farm with about eight or so storage units is a little further out in the background.  Otherwise, , as far as the eye can see, the vicinity remained agricultural with a few scattered farm sites (one directly across from the Richfield refinery appears to have dairy cows on it.)

This Spence Air Photos image of the Richfield refinery is dated 22 May 1929.

When the facility opened, there was an effort to rename the area “Rioco” as the Union Pacific, which had a rail station there, denoted it, cleverly reworking “Richfield Oil Company” into the new moniker because Richfield provided the lion’s share of the commercial business at the station, though it didn’t stick.

In any case, the $2 million refinery received quite a bit of attention in the local press.  By then, Kellogg had been retired for a couple of years and the head of the firm was Clarence Fuller, while C.F. Whittier, the president of United Oil Company, was also cited as a key figure in newspaper accounts.

Times, 1 September 1924.

It was reported by the Times that the initial capacity of the plant was 15,000 barrels of crude oil refined into gasoline for the increasingly car-centric greater Los Angeles region, though there was obvious room for expansion as Richfield owned more property adjacent.  United Oil was the producing entity, so its fields at the booming Signal Hill and the highly productive Torrance field were expected to keep the refinery plenty busy.

The plant was also highlighted for its advances in engineering and technology, especially given that Richfield was able to deliver crude to the refinery through its own pipeline system.  There was also a particular type of gasoline produced by the affiliated Signal Hill Gasoline Company from its own plants at that location, while supplies were procured by contract from other area producers.  Moreover, the plant was able to produce oil and gas, the latter piped in directly from company wells.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Sep_1__1924_ (1)
Times, 1 September 1924.

The use of massive turbine-operated electric generators allowed for a home-grown system of power and lighting, which bypassed any issues of a power shortage from an outside supplier.  Moreover, this was a mirrored system, so that, if one set of generators happened to fail, the other would continue to operate and avoid service interruption.  Water was also abundant from wells on the property and provided for a high-pressure steam plant.

The company also had a full complement of its own transportation facilities with spur tracks from the Union Pacific line and company-owned tank cars ready to transport refined gasoline from loading racks conveniently situated.  The tank farm had a storage capacity of about 1 million barrels, an impressive amount for the time.

Express, 3 September 1924.

Given the fire that took place at the Vernon refinery, the new one was said to have a protection system that “is the most complete of any refinery in the country.”  This included the storage of ample amounts of foam, a high pressure water system from an elevated water tower, and a high pressure steam system.  With substantial fire walls and emergency sump pumps and drains at the stills (where most refinery fires were generated), which also sported the latest in vents and evaporators along with specially created vapor-proof release valves, safety was greatly enhanced.

Richfield had refineries at Los Angeles and Bakersfield by this time and the growth of the firm was reflected in the new plant as well as having division headquarters in thirteen cities from San Diego to Reno, including local ones at Long Beach, Pasadena and Pomona.

Pomona Progress, 17 July 1923.

When the Los Angeles Express ran its feature on the new facility, it observed that more than 40% of all cars in California, which, of course, had far more vehicles per capita than elsewhere in the nation, were in Los Angeles County and that “pleasure cars” alone gobbled up 4 million gallons of gas every week.  The paper noted that the company’s rapid-fire growth allowed for the building of the plant and added that “the success of Richfield gasoline on the [wooden] board racing tracks of the United States is without doubt one of the remarkable feats of the industry.”  It noted that virtually all race winners and most of the runner-up and third place finishers used Richfield gas.

The Express went on to report on the intense work done by the company’s engineers and chemists in improving (or, perhaps, refining) the refining process, and “the results of this work appear in perfected form in the new refinery where refined oils are manufactured a definite chemical products rather than indeterminate mixtures.”  Re-distillation some thirty times,  for example, was said to remove virtually all impurities and another process “completely removes any trace of acids or other impurities.”  This not allowed for higher quality gasoline, it was averred, but for other products used by the chemical industry.

Whittier News, 23 August 1924.  Among the service stations listed was the Piuma & Briano one in the Misión Vieja (Old Mission) community, where the Temple family homestead was for over 60 years.  Giovanni Piuma and his brother-in-law, Paolo Briano, leased the Temple’s adobe house on the property for years for their winery and later expanded into the service station business as the area became an oil producing area after the nearby Temple lease brought in its first well in summer 1917.

While much of the Express piece uses the exact wording in the description of the plant that the Times used, suggesting both quoted liberally and directly from a Richfield press release, the paper ended with the accolade that

the completion of this plant is not only a splendid addition to this section industrially, but stands as a lasting memorial to the manufacturing department, engineering staff and executives of the company and will, undoubtedly, add very materially to the earning power of the parent company—the United Oil company.

As state-of-the-art as the refinery was, it continued operations for years, though it was overshadowed by an even larger and more advanced plant in Wilmington after about fifteen years and the firm itself morphed into Atlantic Richfield Corporation, known to us now, as so many firms are, by its acronym: ARCO.

Incidentally, the title of “Refined and Crude” was purloined from the pages of the Union Oil Company of California Bulletin, which called its humor and aphorisms column by that name.




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