by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the State of California’s announcement yesterday that it will require the phasing out of new gas-powered car sales by 2035, the move, whether realistic or not, represents a seismic shift (pun intended) in the Golden State’s approach to combating climate change as well as signaling the end of the widespread use of internal combustion engines for our cars. Again, however, the “devil is in the details” and who knows whether the timetable of a baker’s dozen of years is actually feasible.
When the popular Harper’s Weekly magazine featured an image and a short article on “Oil in Los Angeles” in its 26 August 1899 edition, the era of the internal combustion engine was in its early stages while regional oil production was also in its infancy. Obviously, along with massive coal mining and use inaugurated from early in the century, the rise of petroleum as a fuel source would be an integral driver to productive capitalism, which raised the standard of living enormously in a United States unusually blessed with a wealth of oil and many other natural resources—but this came at an increasingly obvious cost and the struggle now is whether we can address climate change’s worst consequences in time.
William Allen Rogers (1854-1931) was one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making his name while working for Harper’s and expanding on it greatly when he moved to the New York Herald. He was born in Springfield, Ohio and demonstrated his talent at an early age and observed that, when he was in Dayton, he “was “drew the first syndicated cartoons ever published in this country.” Moreover, he did this when he was just 14, with his pen-and-ink drawings made on blocks cut by a wood engraver and his first major effort concerned the presidential election campaign of 1868.
Rogers added that “I was already a recognized cartoonist when I came to New York” to work for the Daily Graphic in 1873 and, four years later, moved to Harper’s, which had just lost the famous Thomas Nast, known for his fashioning of the modern Santa Claus and other iconic work. After a quarter century with the magazine, the cartoonist took a position with the Herald, which lasted two decades, before ending his career in 1926 with the Washington Post.
In its 13 January 1899 issue, the Los Angeles Times briefly reported in its “Personals” column that “the famous illustrator” took a room at the Hotel Westminster “and will remain some time gathering material in Southern California for future work.” Obviously, part of these efforts involved his excellent impression of “Oil-Fields in Los Angeles, California—The Transformation of a Residence District.”
Deposits of brea, or tar, were found in several preeminent locations in our region, including the La Brea Tar Pits west of the Angel City and Brea Canyon at the eastern edge of Los Angeles and northeastern corner of Orange counties, among others. The search for petroleum began in earnest in 1865, just a half-dozen years after oil was discovered in Pennsylvania and inaugurated the American industry, when Los Angeles investors formed the Pioneer Oil Company and drilled a primitive well in Pico Canyon in what became known as the San Fernando district and is in today’s Santa Clarita.
By the early 1870s, other efforts were made in this section, including by F.P.F. Temple, whose Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company drilled a couple of wells in Towsley Canyon, near Pico, using the first steam-powered apparatus and also built a modest refinery nearby to the east where Saugus is.
While some petroleum was produced and, apparently, used in Los Angeles, which also had a natural gas plant across from the Pico House hotel, which used gas for lighting, the big transformation came in 1876, just after the failure of Temple’s bank abruptly ended his oil venture, when the Star Oil Company brought in the first big well in the region, also at the San Fernando field.
Progress, however, was spotty in subsequent years, though William R. Rowland, heir of a large tract from his father on the Rancho La Puente, and his partner, William Lacy, developed, from the mid-1880s, a successful enterprise in the Puente Hills with their Puente Oil Company. The two built a refinery in the new town of Chino to the east, though future developments directed crude in pipelines towards the Port of Los Angeles, which needed major federal expenditures to grow as required from the mid-1890s and afterward.
The next major step in the region’s petroleum prospecting history came when two mining veterans arrived from New Mexico with little money but plenty of energy and ambition. Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny obtained a small claim northwest of downtown and, in 1892, hit a gusher in what became the Los Angeles Oil Field. A well-developed residential section was immediately overrun with new companies and individuals furiously trying to replicate the success of Canfield and Doheny.
That was the area depicted by Rogers, though, by 1899, Canfield found other fields to work and Doheny had the distinction of bringing in a well in partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad at the Olinda Ranch in what became the city of Brea. It happened that railroads were making the switch over to petroleum as the main fuel source for locomotives, so the timing was perfect.
The other transformative transportation element at the time was the “horseless carriage,” or the automobile, with Los Angeles experiencing its first experiment in this arena with J. Philip Erie’s vehicle. While that project failed, there were soon these primitive autos plying the streets of the Angel City and vicinity, which became the car capital of the world in short order, not to mention elsewhere in America and in the world.
So the rapid increase in oil production served the growth of the auto, the airplane (the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight in North Carolina was four years away, in 1903) and ships and boats, not to mention a vast number of other uses for petroleum-based products. The early development of the oil industry by 1899 could not anticipate what was the come over the next three decades as an explosion of prospecting took place in such major regional locales as Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Santa Fe Springs and others.
Rogers’ evocation of the Los Angeles Oil Field was, not surprisingly, substantially sanitized with the grime, pools of oil, dust and debris carefully omitted amid the forest of wooden derricks, tanks and associated sheds and structures. In the lower left corner the remains of a house are artfully positioned as symbolic of the destruction of residences in favor of the aforementioned components of the well-drilling process. A couple of laborers carrying a cast-iron pipe on their shoulders along with small pieces of drilling material.
Rogers also penned a short description of “Oil in Los Angeles” for the magazine and began by noting that “nothing more fair and beautiful can be imagined in the way of unpretentious homes, than those of Los Angeles.” Notably, he acknowledged the impressive scope of the upscale neighborhoods “where the houses are large and of imposing architecture” and were accompanied by gardens with palm, pepper and eucalyptus trees.
The cartoonist, however, added that “the little houses covered with roses and moon-flowers nestle under the trees in a homelike fashion that suggests even greater comfort.” Yet, one of those areas that comprised these modest and inviting residences was where “on a high hill . . . an army of black oil derricks has made an invasion.”
Rogers continued that “to see a little vine-covered cottage overshadowed by a grim, ill-smelling tower of blackened beams is a most incongruous sight.” Palms and oil tanks and grocery wagons and oil-hauling vehicles stood side-by-side. Gardens that formerly graces the pretty little houses “are full of stationary engines working the pumps, and a forge for repairing drills stands in one pretty front portico.”
The artist even asserted that:
No peaceful Roman village was ever more suddenly or ruthlessly overwhelmed by the Goths than was this quiet nest of little homes in Los Angeles in the summer of 1895.
He cited an unnamed “inquisitive citizen” who drilled more than 1,000 feet under his property and, rather than say the owner hit it big, Rogers preferred to aver that “the oil struck first, and blew drills, derricks, and men high in the air.” Purportedly, within a week-and-a-half, all he dwellings in that section were “overshadowed by a derrick” while quickly installed tanks were being filled with 200-400 barrels of crude a day from individual wells.
The cartoonist’s synopsis concluded with the assessment that:
The field is rich and productive at present, and will probably advance into other parts of the city; but many of the wells now yielding will eventually run dry. Then the derricks will come down, and the roses and the date-palms will once more assume full sway.
Not long after the passage, in 1879, of California’s second constitution the California State Mining Bureau was established and it was tasked with administering the bureaucratic oversight and regulation of an industry subject to a great deal of flux, due in large measure to the inherently risky and speculative nature of mining of all kinds. Around the time that Rogers paid his visit, some of the the earliest detailed maps of the budding oil empire were published by the Bureau, two of which are shared here.
Though these were labeled that the geological sketches were “under the direction” of Governor Henry Gage, who was a local, being an attorney who married into the Lugo family of the Rancho San Antonio and whose adobe house, built by his wife’s ancestors, is nestled within a Bell Gardens mobile home park, with Augustus S. Cooper as state mineralogist (he held the position from 1896-1901), the work was done by William Lord Watts, denoted as the “assistant in the field.”
The largest of the maps covers the “Territory Between Los Angeles and Santa Ana River.” A belt of wells ran from just south of Elysian Park on the east to about where the Rampart Village neighborhood is now on the west, with a few wells a little beyond the main group. There are also several test wells indicated on the Rancho La Brea, where the tar pits are situated and which became a major oil producing area as Rogers noted would soon be the case. Other test wells are indicated in what is now the Mid-Wilshire and Miracle Mile areas and just to the north of the Baldwin Hills.
This latter would later become another rich source of petroleum and the map shows the hills to be within the Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera with the Rancho Centinela adjacent to the southwest. In the 1870s, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were among the owners of these tracts, purchased as part of a townsite project called Centinela, of which Temple was president. The map also shows the Santa Monica Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad running just south of a test well and north of the hills—this was the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, whose first president and then treasurer was Temple.
When the Temple and Workman bank suspended in September 1875 during an economic panic, it was finally reopened in early December with a loan from San Francisco capitalist Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who was eager to seize upon the tenuous position of Temple and Workman, who owned tens of thousands of acres of land in the region. When the bank failed and the loan unpaid, Baldwin foreclosed in 1879 and, among his acquisitions were what became known as the Baldwin Hills. It was not until after his death in 1909 that his daughters Anita and Clara became the beneficiaries of a huge oil discovery in “them thar hills.”
East of Los Angeles are the “Rapetto Hills,” actually named for Alessandro Repetto, a native of Genoa, Italy who married into the Alvitre family of Misión Vieja, where the Temples had their part of Rancho La Merced, including the Montebello Hills. The Repetto Hills, in 1899, had one well drilled by the Arctic Well Company, though the search went cold in that area when it came to finding black gold.
When it came to the Montebello Hills, just to the southeast, however, the story was quite different. Again, this was land owned by F.P.F. Temple and his La Merced co-owner Juan Matias Sánchez (unrelated to the Tomás Sánchez who sold the Cienega ranch to Temple, Workman and others in 1875) but was lost to Baldwin after the bank debacle. In 1916, the Baldwin sisters contracted with Standard Oil Company (California) for a test well on their portion of the hills and it was a success in producing substantial oil, with many more wells adding to their already swollen coffers.
Yet, in October 1912, Walter P. Temple, son of F.P.F. and Antonia Margarita Workman, purchased about 60 acres from the Baldwin estate, though he had to borrow from the estate and then pay it back over time. Whether he had an idea (or his real estate and merchant friend, Milton Kauffman, pondered the question) that there was oil there—its position in a southeastern belt from Los Angeles to the Puente Hills and into north Orange County seemed clearly promising—is not known.
In April 1914, however, Temple’s son, Thomas W. II, who was all of nine years old, was playing with friends in the hills within a short distance of where the Baldwin test well would be drilled, and saw surface indications of oil and smelled natural gas. After the Baldwin well was brought in, Standard drilled Temple well #1 in the hills and it came in as a significant producer in late June 1917.
In the 1899 map, however, the area was bare, though to the east in the Puente Hills, there were operations with Rowland and Lacy’s Puente Oil Company and other endeavors near Whittier. Further east was Olinda and some of the very earliest efforts nearby in what was called Cañada del Rodeo on the “Road to Spadra” which is now Brea Canyon Road leading from Fullerton and Brea to Diamond Bar and the City of Industry near Pomona. A few test wells are shown in the Chino Hills in what is now the city of that name, and that is the extent of oil production efforts as reflected on the map.
The second map is specific to the Puente Hills as well as the Chino Hills range and we can see more clearly from the way the hills (with indications of rock types mostly being of conglomerate and sandstone) are rendered where well sites were. From above “East Whittier” or what is now the Murphy Ranch section of Whittier on the west, to the cluster of wells of the Puente Oil Company, about where Harbor Boulevard becomes Fullerton Road today in Rowland Heights, and then out to Brea Canyon and Olinda on the east, there are several dozen wells indicated.
It is interesting, as well, to see the various small towns or hamlets such as Puente, Lemon (Walnut), Spadra (Pomona), Placentia, Richfields (now Yorba Linda and Placentia), as well as some of the canyons. These range from like Sycamore and Dark at the west end of the Puente Hills to Cañada del Rodeo (Brea Canyon), “Brea Cañon” (Tonner Canyon), Carbonne (Carbon) Canyon, Clapp Canyon (Soquel, considered on the map to be the extension of where Carbon and Clapp merged), and Latranda or Telegraph (now within Chino Hills State Park) at the east end.
The magazine illustration and short article and the two maps are a useful trio of historic artifacts from the Museum’s collection depicting the rapid development and growth of the oil industry in greater Los Angeles as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Nearly 125 years later, we are seeing the gradual disappearance of most of the physical representations of the industry—right now, the last of the Olinda area oil wells are being capped and the derricks and associated elements removed for housing—though how close we will get to the 2035 target date for the end of all new gas-powered car sales will, of course, be very interesting to see.