Drilling for Black Gold: A Press Photo of the Signal Hill Oil Field, October 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The horrific and unfolding tragedy of the offshore oil pipeline spill at Huntington Beach is yet another reminder of the fragile interface between petroleum prospecting and our local environment. As noted on the website of the California Coastal Commission, the last half-century or so have included several major disasters of this general kind, including the 2015 spill at Refugio State Beach north of Santa Barbara; incidents at San Francisco Bay in 1971 and 2007; and, most infamously, the offshore drilling rig blowout off the coast at Santa Barbara in 1969 that spewed a staggering 4.2 million gallons and wreaked enormous devastation. Offshore at Huntington Beach in 1990 an oil tanker spill involved over 400,000 gallons of crude oil.

There is, of course, the broader impacts of the burning of fossil fuels on our worsening situation with climate change and efforts to reduce or ban drilling in many areas of the country, including Califonria, have ramped up significantly in the last several decades. How the latest calamity will affect the future of petroleum prospecting will, of course, be something to observe, but there has already been a significant decline in land-based drilling in greater Los Angeles, while offshore platforms continue to operate but there are renewed calls for them to be shut down.

Long Beach Press, 1 July 1921.

According to the California State Lands Commission, there are eleven offshore oil and gas leases in operation today from the sixty that were originally issued. Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to the state’s coffers from oil and gas production come from these offshore leases and, notably, the first such arrangement was approved in 1921 with the first drilling taking place off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

That year also saw the opening of another of the incredibly productive and valuable oil fields in greater Los Angeles, contemporary with such lucrative fields as Santa Fe Spring and Huntington Beach, this being at Signal Hill. This area got its name because the indigenous people of the region used the elevated location to signal each other. It was part of the massive 300,000-acre Nieto land grant of 1784, made in the early years of the Spanish colonization of Alta California.

Los Angeles Express, 12 July 1921.

When the Nieto ranch was subdivided, one of the new properties was Los Cerritos, which, in 1843, was purchased by Jonathan Temple, whose Santa Barbara-born wife Rafaela Cota was related to its previous owners. The following year, Temple built the two-story adobe house that is the centerpiece of today’s Rancho Los Cerritos historic site (and which, it is believed, was an inspiration in general layout for La Casa Nueva, the residence built by his nephew, Walter, at the Homestead during much of the 1920s.)

The Temple family’s interests in oil prospecting was first pursued by Jonathan’s half-brother, F.P.F., who intensively searched for crude at what was known as the San Fernando field and centered in the mountains west of today’s Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita. F.P.F.’s Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company actually produced small quantities of oil in shallow wells using primitive equipment, but the financial crisis of 1875-76 that included the failure of his Temple and Workman bank abruptly ended those efforts (though a nearby discovery in 1876 by Star Oil Company was very successful.)

Press, 14 October 1923.

About forty years later, F.P.F.’s son, Walter, acquired some 60 acres of land on the Rancho La Merced that was lost by his father to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who foreclosed in 1879 on his loan to the bank and then took possession of tens of thousands of acres of greater Los Angeles land once owned by F.P.F. and his father-in-law William Workman, including the Baldwin Hills, which turned out to be an enormously successful oil-producing section.

Whether Walter was gambling on the likelihood of oil being found in the La Merced property, which he could not buy outright from the Baldwin estate so arranged for payments made over time, is not known. There certainly was, though, the possibility of an “oil belt” from Los Angeles through the Montebello Hills to the Puente Hills (where the Whittier, Puente and Brea Canyon fields were located) and out to the edge of the Chino Hills range where the Olinda field was sited.

An early notice of Walter P. Temple’s efforts at the Los Cerritos extension of the Signal Hill field,
Whittier News, 8 January 1926.

In any case, the deal with the Baldwin estate was reached in October 1912 and about a year-and-a-half later, in April 1914, Walter’s son, Thomas, accidentally found oil indications while roaming the hills with friends. A lease was signed the following year with Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, and, after a test well came in successfully on the Baldwin section of the hills in late 1916, the first Temple lease well was drilled soon afterward. In late June 1917, it came in as a producer and was followed by some two-dozen wells, including quite a few producers and some gushers.

The one-eighth royalty made Walter Temple a wealthy man very quickly and he rapidly made a move into both real estate and independent oil ventures, this latter through the Walter P. Temple Oil Company. From the late teens onward, the firm worked on drilling projects in many areas, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Ventura, and Signal Hill, including the latter’s extension called Los Cerritos.

Los Angeles Times, 17 March 1926.

Temple’s major push in this area was several years after the Signal Hill, which incorporated in 1924 to avoid the oil tax imposed by Long Beach, field burst into prominence and also came the year that he took out bonds to finance his real estate projects, including commercial office building construction in Alhambra, where his family lived from 1917 to 1923, and at the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928.

It appears that his efforts at the Los Cerritos extension were among his most ambitious and most needed, given his rapidly changing financial picture, almost exactly a half-century after the problems experienced by his father and grandfather, and which was exacerbated both by dramatically increased spending at Alhambra and Temple City, as well as the building of La Casa Nueva, and the declining revenues from the Montebello lease.

Long Beach Press-Telegram, 5 May 1926.

Temple jumped into the Los Cerritos area in early 1926 with the execution of leases on property located just about a mile-and-a-half from his uncle Jonathan’s ranch house. Within a couple of months, the California State Mining Bureau issued drilling permits and work began on Linden Avenue south of 36th Street and over to Atlantic Boulevard just to the east. By early May, the first well was reported to be producing a modest 150 barrels per day, with wells two through four drilling at depths between 4300 and 4750 feet and the latter said to be at “the top of the oil sand.”

A month later, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that “something in the nature of a miracle was worked in the Walter P. Temple No. 2 well . . . when it came in yesterday between 800 and 1000 barrels.” The only other well in that vicinity that had as high a gravity of crude was brought in by the Julian Petroleum Company, which would soon become enmeshed in a level of scandal and corruption that set it apart in an industry rife with both. The Los Angeles Express of 11 June added that the well was “one of the first in the field to drill to the deep sand.”

Times, 11 June 1926.

The paper continued that “the miracle lies in the fact that the Temple well was very wet [filled with water] and is now very clean.” Credit was given to the well cementing company, the petroleum engineer, the geologist and the Temple oil company’s superintendent, Norman E. Guthrie, an experienced oil field worker who was married to Marguerite Rowland, the daughter of Temple’s sister, Margarita.

With these two successes, Temple, according to the Express of 5 August, “is of the opinion that there is a third oil sand zone in the northwest extension” at Los Cerritos and “has selected his Los Cerritos No. 5 for the geological test of the field” with over 5,000 feet drilled. The paper added that “Temple’s work will be watched with great interest as there are possibilities of developing a third sand, and if he does Long Beach, the most wonderful oil field ever discovered in the Los Angeles basin, will add another laurel to its long list of wonders and surprises.”

Whittier News, 13 October 1926.

By late September, it was decided, after reaching not far under 6,000 feet, to try another production test and Guthrie told the Press-Telegram that water was rising from the bottom but gas was also present. A few weeks later, the Whittier News reported that the most recent test only revealed a great deal of water and “it was thought that the company was satisfied and would abandon” the well, but another hole was located and, this time, drilling reached further than 6,000 feet, though “the deeper drilling has not improved the outlook.”

Finally, in mid-November, the Los Angeles Times stated that “the Walter P. Temple Oil Company is definitely giving up its search for a possible third producing zone in the northwest extension of the Signal Hill field” after getting to about 6,100 feet. Meanwhile, nothing was located about whether those initial producing first and second wells had anything beyond a small initial yield. In any case, by early 1927, Temple’s attention was redirected to Ventura, where he had leased and drilled aseveral wells on the road to Ojai, now State Route 33—though success there proved elusive as well as his financial situation continued to deteriorate.

Times, 12 November 1926.

As for this photo, it was taken by The Aerograph Company, a firm based in South Los Angeles and the history of which was covered in a previous post here higlighting an aerial photo of downtown Los Angeles taken in 1925 from a balloon. The photo was then filed on 8 October 1923 in the Reference Department of the News Enterprise Association with a title of “Signal Hill oil field at Long Beach, Cal” and a warning that “this photo must carry copyright line by Aerograph Co.” It now being over 95 years since then, the photo is in the public domain.

The image looks to have been taken from a derrick and overlooks a major road running from the lower right toward the top left, a dozen derricks on both sides, along with the usual tanks, sheds, tents and other structures found in fields and at least one house, partially obscured by dark green trees at the left of center. In the foreground at the left are well-spaced trees, perhaps walnuts, from former usage of the area, while there are hillsides with plenty of trees in the background and a few derricks emerging above them at the upper right, not to mention a curved pedestrian bridge over the road.

This Aerograph Company view shows the Signal Hill field in October 1923 when it was at a peak of production and about three years before Walter Temple invested heavily in drilling a quintet of wells in the field’s Los Cerritos extension about a mile-and-a-half from his uncle Jonathan’s Rancho Los Cerritos adobe residence, which still stands and is the centerpiece of a historic site.

This photo is an excellent view of one of the largest and most productive of the many successful oil fields in greater Los Angeles during the early 1920s and also a document of an era of relentless development of the petroleum resources of the region. There were occasional discussions about the deleterious effects of oil spills and fires, but nowhere near the scale of what goes on today.

In California, the move away from oil extraction and refining has obviously become more pronounced because of environmental disasters, like the Huntington Beach tragedy, as well as the worsening climate change situation. There could well [!] be a time when the only oil wells to be seen in our area will be with photographs like this or in the highly unusual example of a stained glass window in the master bedroom of La Casa Nueva where Walter Temple was proud to show a well site as representative of his family history.

3 thoughts

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