Read All About Drilling for Black Gold: An Oil Field in the Suburbs of Los Angeles in “Scientific American” Magazine, 17 July 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The exponential growth of scientific enterprise during the 19th century was truly remarkable and, in the United States, one way for popular audiences to keep abreast of much of the transformation was in the pages of Scientific American, subtitled “A Weekly Journal of Practical Information, Art, Science, Mechanics, Chemistry, and Manufactures.”  Launched in 1845, the publication is the oldest continuously published magazine in America and remains an important avenue for readers to hear about the latest developments in the scientific world.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is the 17 July 1897 edition of the journal and specifically on an article about the burgeoning oil industry in Los Angeles.  There are, however, some other very interesting articles of note in the issue, including the cover story about a highly advanced drawbridge spanning the Harlem River in New York City.  The span was completed a year later, opening on 1 August 1898, and connects The Bronx with Manhattan at Harlem, though the original truss structure was dismantled and sold for scrap in the mid-1950s and the entire bridge rebuilt in 2004.

Another interesting piece concerns “The Future of the Motor Car” with it stated that the failure of many entries in two British competitions, The Engineer and the Motor Car Club, was reflective of changing expectations about “the wonderful rapidity with which, in these days, a useful invention is developed from a crude idea into a practical shape with a positive commercial value” and which “has made us a little too exacting.”  It was added “we are too intolerant of delay” and assume that “when, as in this case, the problem is full of difficulties peculiar to itself, we are apt to condemn it as impracticable, because it is not perfected with the usual rapidity.”


The unnamed writer begged readers to compare the situation with that of the locomotive seventy years prior and that it takes time for successful examples with real commercial applicability to be developed.  In the case of the motor car, “the recent competitions have proved that the perfected car, considered as a commercial product and something more than a mere toy, , has probably yet to be built,” though it was added that “there is no cause to believe that satisfactory progress in the construction of such a car is not being made.”

The piece concluded with the prognostication that

among the certainties of the future are a motor car which shall be light, strong, swift, durable and cheap, which, as a means of banishing the noise and unsanitary filth of horse-propelled vehicles from our streets, and as a means of transportation for freight and passengers in country districts, will be as indispensable to the everyday life of the race as are the steam locomotive and the electric [street]car of our day.

No place would know this as well or as quickly as Los Angeles, which became the car capital of the world very early on.  In fact, it was in 1897 that E.L. Erie of Boyle Heights produced the first automobile in the city and his first passenger was none other than the community’s founder, former mayor (and future city treasurer) and nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, William Henry Workman.


Other articles of note include ones about a bicycle brake, a pneumatic sprayer, a portable stove and oven and other useful, or potentially so, items.  There are some stranger pieces, including one on “A Scientific View of Ghosts” reprinted from The Humanitarian and which discusses such likelihoods as that spirits are “upon the state of the percipient’s mind, and the abnormal development of the senses at the particular time.”

Still, the author, W.E. Ord, concluded by stating that “there is, however, too strong and sincere a conviction in favor of such a belief for it to be dismissed offhand.”  Consequently, “serious inquiry is greatly to be desired, and some theory of the actual occurrences becomes essential.”  Ord hoped then that “an endeavor to explain the phenomena scientifically may help to decide the validity of the belief in their existence, or else prevent that unhealthy state of mind which is too often its sole origin.”

A lengthy discussion of “The Denudation and Recovery of Farm Lands” goes into chemical elements of the soil, erosion. the prevention of the “washing of lands” by proper cultivation, recovering hillsides by reforestation to stem erosion, and using certain grasses and “herbaceous vegetation” in such processes.  An accompanying three-panel rendering shows “How the Farm is Lost;” “How the Farm is Regained;” and “How the Farm is Retained.”


Another timely item was about Japan and how it was claimed to be “A Typical Product of Environment” by a speaker at the United States National Museum, known to us as The Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and which opened in 1881. The claim of environment had much to do with Japan’s geographical position, its climate, the resulting agriculture and industry, and the temperament and habits of its people.  Such claims as “The Japanese have always been a warlike people” stand out because how many societies on the planet have not been warlike during their histories?

The article talks of “the steady development of her people,” yet it was also noted that the past quarter-century, basically since the 1868 Meiji “restoration,” found Japan rising to be “the foremost of Oriental powers” as well as taking its place “in the sisterhood of nations.”  In fact, it has been frequently been noted just how exceptional Japan’s modernization was in the late 19th century and this was only magnified into the 20th.  Otherwise, the country faced the fate of China, which was largely helpless to combat Western imperialism and Japan’s leaders were all too aware of that possibility.

Consequently, a great deal of Japan’s transformation doesn’t seem to be “a typical product of environment” as much as a determination of how to survive, by learning from and, in many cases, developing variations of Western ways to keep the country independent and viable in the face of the expansion of Europe and, to a certain extent, America throughout the globe.


Finally, as to the piece on the emerging oil industry of Los Angeles, it began with the observation that “the discovery of petroleum within the city limits of Los Angeles, California, has so transformed one of the suburbs of that city that as a remarkable spectacle there is nothing to compare with it in any city in the world.”  It was noted that it was “some three or four years ago” (it is strange that a scientific magazine couldn’t be more precise in the dating!) that “a profitable oil-bearing stratum was discovered.”

This was the find beyond Bunker Hill, near today’s intersection of Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, close to the interchange of U.S. 101 and Interstate 110, of oil by Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, who used a modest sum and crude tools to discover a remarkably productive field dubbed the “Los Angeles Oil Field.”  It was added that, because the section was already well developed, drilling moved rapidly as property owners acted quickly to develop their land or sell out to those who did the prospecting.

The result, the piece noted, was “a picturesque residential district was very quickly covered by the huge, unsightly derricks and tanks” like those seen in the accompanying engraving.  The transformation meant that “pretty cottages with their surrounding lawns and shrubbery were soon incongruously intermingled with all the unsightly paraphernalia of hundreds of modern drivewells.”


Too many wells, however, resulted in a rapid decline in production for the field as a whole, so that “the work of recovering the oil might have been done more economically” if property owners had worked together to sink one well among several lots.”  In some cases, redrilling deeper did result in further yields.

A little bit of history was included in the piece, with the observation that “the early Mexican residents of Los Angeles were aware of the fact that there was petroleum in the formation underlying the city, and they used the asphaltum residue of the oil which they gathered at the outcropping for roofing their adobe houses.”  It was added that “in those early days the commercial value of the oil was known” and, typically, the article stated that “the Mexicans made no attempt to utilize” the petroleum.  It should be understood, though, that the remoteness of Mexican Los Angeles from markets and the lack of capital even if there were practical ways to reach them were barriers that could not be breached.

Erroneously, however, the piece claimed that “the first boring for oil was made about four years ago,” though the first efforts at drilling for petroleum were, in fact, over three decades prior.  In 1865, just six years after the American oil industry began in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles interests formed the Pioneer Oil Company and initiated very basic drilling in the mountains north of the city in modern Santa Clarita in what was known as the San Fernando oil field.


By the mid-1870s, there were several parties prospecting there, including F.P.F. Temple, whose Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company was able to produce modest amounts of crude from its well in Towsley Canyon where Ed Davis Park is now, just west of Interstate 5.  He also formed the Lesina Oil Company to drill in a nearby location and built what was reputed to be the first steam-powered refinery, a small brick facility nearby that was taken over by later firms and part of which is now a state historic landmark.  The failure of the Temple and Workman bank in early 1876 brought a stark, sudden end to Temple’s efforts and, later that year, Star Oil brought in a gusher in the area.  Temple’s son, Walter, thanks to a happy accident that brought him an oil fortune in the late 1910s and afterward, also embarked on a career as a prospector, though he, too, experienced financial failure by the Great Depression years.

As to the Los Angeles Oil Field, the article noted that there were some 500 wells in an area just a mile from east to west and just 600 feet north to south, though, in the preceding nine months, some wells were drilled outside that limited area.  Not mentioned was the Doheny brought in a well that year on the Olinda Ranch in northeastern Orange County, which inaugurated the oil industry for that county.  That well is still pumping as part of the Olinda Oil Museum.

Also observed was that, unlike in Pennsylvania where the quality of the oil was better suited for illumination, that of Los Angeles was thick, black and of low gravity and “is said to be the best fuel oil that has even been discovered.”  Doheny’s partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was to develop oil resources for powering locomotive engines.  The article added that the oil “is used for the manufacture of lubricants, paints, printing ink and various other commercial products.”

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There was also some discussion of prices per barrel, the formation of a “Co-operative Oil Exchange,” and an increase in prices as oil began to be used more for railroads and factories.  So, a low of 35 cents per barrel was reached, but the recent uses for trains and industrial development brought the price up to $1.50 per barrel, still making it a cheap alternative to coal, which was about $5,50 per ton in Los Angeles.

Daily yield fluctuated from 4 barrels per day at the older wells to about ten times that much in newer ones at the western edge of the field.  The piece reported that “at the present price, this represents a total output valued at $1,250,000 per year.”  Despite the promising financial forecast for the industry and, naturally, later massive development absolutely made these early efforts look minuscule in comparison, the article concluded with more about the conflict of suburbia and the mania for finding black gold:

It was natural that the development of these fields within the city limits should meet with considerable opposition from citizens who object to see the suburban section of Los Angeles rendered hideous by such a forest of grimy derricks . . . and the opposition has been particularly strong since wells have been driven in the direction of the handsome residence section surrounding Westlake [now MacArthur] Park.

Consequently, the city council recently decreed that no wells could be drilled within 1,600 feet of the park “and it is likely the disfigurement of the city will be confined to the strip of land to which reference is made above.”  That prophecy, however, proved to be woefully premature.


Over 120 years later, however, oil wells and their attendant derricks, pumps, sheds and other infrastructure are rapidly disappearing as production continues to decline and the push for other forms of energy production in the face of climate change grows in California.

This article, then, represents a notable early reference to the early days of an industry that is slowly disappearing and other contents also are of interest concerning the scientific endeavors underway in late nineteenth-century America and elsewhere in the world.

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