Drilling for Black Gold: A Press Photo from the Christening of the Oil Tanker “Larry Doheny,” 12 August 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was one of the most remarkable “rags-to-riches” stories in late 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles as Edward L. Doheny’s rise to the pinnacle of wealth and power in the region’s burgeoning oil industry had no analog.  The Wisconsin-born petroleum titan spent years prospecting with little success in mining in New Mexico, Arizona and California and came to Los Angeles in the early 90s after his former partner Charles Canfield, who made a nice pile in New Mexico, invested heavily in real estate in the City of Angels and then promptly lost his small fortune in the inevitable bust.

When Canfield returned to mining and made a little money, he expended $400 on an idea Doheny had to drill for oil a little west of downtown.  Work began in fall 1892 with a primitive apparatus, but it hit paydirt the following April and launched an incredible ascent for both men.  In Doheny’s case, he brought in the first oil well in Orange County on the Olinda Ranch in 1897 and moved on to a staggering array of projects throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.

San Pedro Pilot, 6 August 1927.

In Veracruz, Doheny hit it big in 1916 and formed the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Company, which hit its stride at a particularly opportune time with the exponential rise in the use of the automobile and the demand for oil in the ensuing American entrance into World War I being just two critical factors in the firm’s stratospheric growth.

With extraordinary wealth came access to power, as well, and the election of Republican Warren Harding led to the appointment of Senator Albert B. Fall of New Mexico as the Secretary of the Interior.  Doheny was an old friend of Fall’s from mining days in that state from days of yore, so, it was hardly a surprise that Fall leased, without public notice or bidding, naval oil reserves in Wyoming (Teapot Dome) and California (Elk Hills).

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Los Angeles Times, 6 August 1927.

Pan-American was the recipient of the Elk Hills lease and it just so happened that not long before that lease was completed, Doheny sent his only surviving child, son Edward, Jr., known as Ned, and who was accompanied by his bosom pal and secretary, Hugh Plunkett, to convey $100,000 in cash as an interest-free loan to the Secretary.  The resulting Teapot Dome scandal, one of the most notorious of its era, led to Fall’s conspiracy and bribery conviction and a one-year prison term—he was the first cabinet member in American history to have that dubious distinction.

As for Edward Doheny, Sr., he somehow managed to escape conviction in two separate trials in late 1926 and late 1929, while Harry Sinclair, whose namesake firm had the Teapot Dome lease, wound up being convicted on a contempt of court charge.  During the scandal, Doheny transferred his oil holdings in California to a new holding company, Pan-American Western Petroleum Company, while he sold much of his assets in American, Mexican and South American oil interests to a subsidiary of Standard Oil Company of Indiana.

Pilot, 11 August 1927.

As part of his divestment in the latter, a fleet of oil tankers Doheny acquired and used for shipments were sold, but he endeavored to build a new fleet for the new Pan-American Western Petroleum Company.  as the 6 August 1927 edition of the San Pedro Pilot reported, “at least two, perhaps five or six, tankers will be bought . . . for operation out of the local port for foreign and domestic ports.”  There was an unnamed tanker purportedly on its way for inspection, while the other was the steamer Foldenfjord, made in Pennsylvania for the cruise ship company, Norwegian American Line and launched in 1921.  It sailed for six years from its home port of Oslo, the capital of Norway, until the summer of 1927 when Doheny acquired it for Pan-American and had it retrofitted for use as an oil tanker.  The Pilot  reported that the ship had 10,570 deadweight tonnage and that the purchase price was thought to be based on the going rate of $75 per ton, or some $800,000.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is a Pacific & Atlantic Photos press image of the rechristening of the ship as the Larry Doheny, named for the oil tycoon’s 9-year old son, who was legally Edward Lawrence Doheny III.  A cynic might suggest that this was a savvy public relations ploy for the aging capitalist, still under legal duress with the Teapot Dome scandal, to have his son, Ned, and two grandsons, including Larry and his brother Billy (William), photographed for the occasion and project an image of the benevolent and loving grandfather with his male progeny.

Times, 12 August 1927.

In any case, the image features Doheny and his son at the rear and the young men sporting matching outfits with high-buttoned jackets, ties, turned-up collars and neatly pressed shorts holding material for the rechristening.  Billy holds a basket with “the personification of good luck, a carrier pigeon” ready for release, while Larry carries a ribbon-festooned bottle of Pan-American petroleum in his right hand and a folder tucked under his left arm, with the bottle smashed by him on the stern of the ship just after the photo was taken.

The Pilot, in its discussion of the rechristening, noted that the ship was being overhauled and painted in East San Pedro at the yard of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation. The Los Angeles Times, in its coverage of the ceremony, observed that “the christening was preceded by the lowering of the Norwegian flag the ship previously bore as Fort MacArthur buglers sounded ‘Taps,’ and the raising of the Stars and Stripes during the playing of ‘To the Colors.'” It used the press photo shown here as the illustration for the article.

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Times, 12 August 1927.

The paper added that the second ship, mentioned in the earlier account of the Pilot, was the Sunoco, built at the same shipyard and at the same time as the Larry Doheny and owned by the Sun Oil Company and under Belgian registry, and which was to arrive in September and pressed into service for Doheny’s firm.  As part of the creation of a new fleet, it was noted that the tycoon had “his Alameda and other developing fields and his great loading station on the main channel [of the Port of Los Angeles], declared the most complete in the world, as justifying a great transportation division.”

That station, moreover, had berths for several craft and a capacity of filling them with some 25,000 barrels of oil an hour.  This meant that some 1.6 million barrels were handled monthly, “a record possibly unexcelled by any company at the harbor.” As for the Larry Doheny, it was scheduled to undertake its maiden voyage with a crew of over forty officers and men as a carrier of gasoline by transporting 70,000 gallons to Seattle the following day.

The Pacific & Atlantic Photos image from the Homestead’s collection of the Dohenys at the ship’s rechristening, dated 12 August 1927.

While this was, of course, a day of familial pride for the aging petroleum magnate, his son and heir, and the two grandsons, there were still dark days ahead for the Doheny clan.  The second trial of Doheny, Sr. loomed, though it yielded the acquittal mentioned above—still the scandal definitely altered public opinion of him.

Then, there was the tragedy of Ned Doheny’s death in February 1929 at the behemoth Greystone estate in Beverly Hills.  The massive and forbidding 46,000 square-foot mansion, built at a cost of nearly $4 million (or just north of $60 million in today’s dollars) was completed in 1928 for Ned, his wife and their children.

Pilot, 13 August 1927.

Hugh Plunkett, who faced legal liability in the Teapot Dome scandal, took care of much of the details in the building of Greystone and who was, consequently, said to be under enormous stress, showed up late at night to the compound. He and Ned conversed in private and so the details of what transpired could never be fully determined, but both men were found dead of gunshot wounds to the head.

The official explanation was that Plunkett shot Doheny, was confronted by the family’s doctor and Mrs. Doheny just afterward and then turned the gun on himself.  Other theories were bandied about, including assertions that the two men were lovers, and rumor was enhanced by a decision of the district attorney not to investigate after there were public statements that an inquiry was to take place.

Pilot, 23 December 1941.

The elder Doheny, approaching his mid-seventies and who’d lost his only other child decades before, was devastated by the disaster.  He memorialized his son, a 1916 graduate, by donating over $1 million to the University of Southern California for what is known as the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library.  The library was completed in 1932 and Doheny died three years later.  His Chester Place mansion, not far from USC and built in 1899 and acquired by Doheny two years later, was left to Mount Saint Mary’s University, a Catholic institution for women.

As for the Larry Doheny, it was sold in 1928 to Richfield Oil Company. It was attacked just a couple of weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack by a Japanese submarine near Cape Mendocino in northern California, but managed to escape, though another oil tanker, the Union Oil Company’s Montebello, was sunk a couple of hours later (its crew escaped even after being strafed with machine-gun fire.)

Times, 11 October 1942.

On 5 October 1942, the tanker was ferrying some 66,000 barrels of gasoline from the Port of Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of southern Oregon and two storage tanks exploded.  Six crew members died and the remainder were rescued by a Navy ship the following day.  News coverage, however, did not provide the name of the vessel, but it was the “Larry Doheny.”

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