Fossil Fuels: A Press Photo of the La Brea Tar Pits and Oil Field, ca. 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a previous post here noted, the earliest written record of the famous La Brea Tar Pits, west of Los Angeles, came with Father Juan Crespí’s notes while with the first Europeans land-based travel in California as he observed in 1769 the presence of “pitch springs” in the area, which later included the 4,400-acre Rancho La Brea, granted to the Rocha family and long owned by surveyor Henry Hancock, whose widow, Ida Haraszthy and son Allan maintained ownership, with Allan later making a bundle developing oil and the exclusive Hancock Park subdivision on the ranch.

There were other tar pits or springs in the region, including in today’s Brea Canyon at the east end of Los Angeles County where it meets northeastern Orange County, but the tar pits in west Los Angeles have achieved renown and the La Brea Tar Pits, renamed in 2019 to include the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, is a county-owned site today.

Los Angeles Times, 16 February 1902.

Naturally, the presence of the pits meant the presence of petroleum, as well, and, while early indications of oil were found in the 1890s by Arthur F. Gilmore, whose son Earl developed the Gilmore name in the industry, and Allan Hancock also benefited from the oil found on his portion of Rancho La Brea, the first successful operation to extract crude from the rancho was by the Salt Lake Oil Company, which gave its name to the oil field there and which was formed by business figures with tied to the Utah state capital.

The highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is a press photograph, with stamps from 1918 and 1923 on it, of a portion of the tar pits with oil derricks just to the north. Few structures are found in the image, which features a winsome young woman pointing to the large tar pit and three persons standing on its northern edge. About fifteen derricks are visible in what was mostly grasslands, while, in the distance, is the Santa Monica Mountain range. We’ll focus here on early oil drilling by the Salt Lake Oil Company as well as some of the first excavations of prehistoric animals at the pits.

Times, 22 July 1903.

As the 20th century dawned, the Los Angeles Oil Field, located west of downtown, had been in operation for almost a decade after it was brought into existence by the rudimentary efforts of Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny, both of whom became oil titans in subsequent years. Doheny then partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, which was moving to petroleum to fuel its locomotives, in bringing in the next big field in 1897 out at the Olinda Ranch in Orange County, just a short distance from Brea Canyon. There was also a smaller, but highly productive, pocket of oil in the upper elevations of the Puente Hills on the William R. Rowland Ranch, which was developed in the mid-Eighties.

While it turned out that Olinda was the southeastern extremity of an “oil belt” that ran from Los Angeles through the Montebello, Puente and Chino hills ranges, the next major field was the Salt Lake, originally considered a western or southwestern extension of the Los Angeles field. Incidentally, before it was known that there were large deposits of oil for commercial exploitation and just about the time that Canfield and Doheny made their modest discovery, the Los Angeles Herald of 13 November 1893 saw other potential for the Rancho La Brea, stating,

Between Los Angeles and Long Beach, between Los Angeles and Wilmington and Los Angeles and Santa Monica there ought to be ten or twenty people where there is one now. The lands are notable for their fine soil and productiveness. The Laguna ranch to the south comes up to the city line, and would afford homes for a thousand families. The country towards the Cahuenga pass ought to be in great demand. The ranchos Los Bueyes, La Brea and Buenos Ayres would support a great population, as would the Cerritos and Alamitos towards the south. The Cienega ought to be drained and settled. Until these things are done Los Angeles will be denied her legitimate opportunities for expansion. Much of this territory will undoubtedly soon be subdivided.

The onset of the new century also marked the third major growth boom in greater Los Angeles, following the modest one of the late 1860s through mid 1870s and the greater Boom of the Eighties. So, it was hardly a surprise that the expansion of the oil industry, occurring as well as railroad development continued, the automobile increasingly became common and aviation was right around the corner, boomed, as well.

Times, 31 January 1904.

An early reference to activity in the Salt Lake oil field came from the 16 February edition of the Los Angeles Times, which reported that those who doubted the likelihood of oil being found west and southwest of Los Angeles “need but to view the new well of the Salt Lake Oil Company to experience a change of views.”

The prior week, the article continued, “a landing was made . . . at a depth of 1280 feet” and the well “is now flowing oil” at about 50 barrels a day, with it being of a very light gravity (later accounts pegged it at 18 degrees, about half of what was considered heavy crude. The piece ended by noting that the firm “is backed almost entirely by Salt Lake [City] capital” and that it “started drilling in the field about six months ago, and now has five producers, the last being the best well struck.”

Los Angeles Express, 23 July 1904.

In April, the Times recorded that Salt Lake Oil “is one of the few successful operators that have tried to unearth oil in the southwestern extension of the local oil field” and quoted from a Salt Lake City mining publication that the company’s president John D. Wood returned from Utah after an inspection of the 1,000-acre tract the firm owned. Wood told the journal “his people have five of the finest flowing wells in that section and that the oil is of excellent quality.” Just one well was flowing, however, and the others were plugged “pending the making of contracts for the sale of the product.”

Two months later, the paper noted that the distance of the wells posed a problem for delivery of product and so it was looking to build a refinery on site. This plan was shelved when news came of a proposal to build a pipeline to the field from Whittier, where extensive drilling was taking place. Meanwhile, Salt Lake manager Fred Phillips told the Times that “the deeper we go, the lighter the oil gets” and that the third well looked promising, though he added “at present there is no market for oil, and very little is being produced, but we could easily supply a large demand from the wells already drilled.”

Times, 1 December 1904.

By early 1903, the paper stated that “a new era of development is dawning” and that “new wells are being drilled as fast as the bit can be sent in” while existing ones were averaging from 55 to 90 barrels per day. Northwest of the Salt Lake site, the La Brea Oil and Asphalt Company was drilling at shallow depths of about 500 feet and coming up with heavier crude “that is so rich in asphalt properties that it finds a ready market at local refineries, where it brings close to $2.50 a barrel.” While the two firms were the only operators initially, it was added that there were eight new wells by new unidentified operators, though later in the year, a company called Sterling was identified as active in the area.

In the summer, the Times reported that new Salt Lake president Simon Bamberger visited the field and decided to expand operations beyond the half-dozen wells it was already working. Bamberger told the paper:

I am greatly pleased with the showing in the local field . . . We will first install drilling rigs for five new wells . . . We have also completed arrangements for the installing of a pumping plant of the most improved style. Gas from the wells will be used as fuel. Its capacity will be at least fifteen wells.

It was our intention to install a refinery, but this plan we have given up for the present, as there is a good market for light oil, and at present a good demand for the same.

By November, the expansion meant that four of the five new wells turned out to be producers of the same light crude and early in 1904 “one of the most wonderful oil wells ever uncapped in this vicinity, has just been struck,” gushed the Times, on Salt Lake’s operation on the Hancock ranch. At a depth of 1,750 feet, the 21 degree gravity crude was flowing at from 400 to 500 barrels a day, a much larger production than the other wells, and it was proclaimed that “it proves the worth of a territory little prospected.”

Times, 20 January 1905.

In April, it as announced that the Board of Supervisors approved a proposal by Salt Lake to build a pipeline five miles south to the Southern Pacific’s line (built in 1875 by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, of whom F.P.F. Temple was first president and then treasurer) from Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

A few months later, the Los Angeles Express of 23 July reported that the company was seeking a City of Los Angeles franchise for a pipeline to go from Western Avenue and 4th Street through downtown to the Southern Pacific (the Arcade, on Alameda between 4th and 5th) and Santa Fe (La Grande, on Santa Fe and 2nd) stations “in order to avoid the long haul of its products.” How the crude was to get from La Brea to the city limit was not explained.

Los Angeles Herald, 3 September 1905.

By the end of 1904, however, a major change with Salt Lake was announced, as the Times of 1 December reported that “many stockholders . . . have been notified to deposit their stock with the Security Savings Bank . . . and receive the sum of $2 per share.” The reason for this was that “the control of the company is to pass into the Associated [Oil Company] people’s hands, through the new corporation, the Amalgamated, just organized by them to operate in the southern fields.”

In its 20 January 1905 edition, the paper went into more detail about the complex issues surrounding crude oil sales from independent producers to big refining companies as California’s oil industry was continuously evolving. The prior day, thirteen owners of almost 340 wells formed The Southern California Oil Producers, capitalized at a million dollars and it was reported,

The object of the corporation is to get control of 75 per cent. of the annual oil production in this field and sell to the Associated Oil Company. This would do away with the destructive interbidding among local independent producers which has not only made profit-taking almost impossible, but has also resulted in the gobbling up of nearly every big contract by the Associated . . .

The situation is this: The Associated has back of it the full crushing force of the Standard Oil Company [later broken up into smaller independent companies by anti-trust actions by the federal government], of which in reality it is a sub-corporation.

The unfair situation of Associated and Standard purchasing the product of independent operators at up to 40% less per barrel forced, it was stated, these well owners to organize the new enterprise, which, as friendly to Associated, would drive out the remaining quarter of independents and keep prices at more fair 50 cents a barrel.

Herald, 16 December 1905.

While Salt Lake was sold to the Amalgamated subsidiary of Associated, it continued to operate under the name. The Los Angeles Herald of 3 September 1905 described the firm a capitalized at a half million dollars and as having “a large advantage over many others in having one of the best oil fields in this part of the state, and that lying only about seven miles from this city.” It was added that “this field is really one of the most remarkable properties in the state of California” and that 70% of southern California’s crude came from it.

It was added that “they have steadily producing and apparently inexhaustible wells” worked by some 75 employees in a field that was considered “susceptible of indefinite development.” Wood was back as president and Bamberger continued as a director, while Canfield was also a director. He was one of five oil company presidents who agreed to merge in the formation of Associated, which was launched with William S. Porter convinced Canfield, Burton Green, William G. Kerckhoff, Max Whittier and John Bunting to “associate” their smaller companies together.

Times, 31 January 1907.

So, it was hardly surprising that in early 1907, the Amalgamated, including Salt Lake, elected its officers with Green chosen president, Canfield selected as vice-president and Kerckhoff and Porter as directors. In turn, Salt Lake and two other subsidiaries shared a set of officers including Green and Canfield in the same executive roles and adding Whittier as a director along with the others mentioned and two additional members.

With respect to the tar pits, it was known as early as the mid-1870s that there were fossils of pre-historic creatures there, but it was not until the onset of the 20th century that major excavations took place. In fact, it was 1901, the year that Salt Lake Oil began its drilling operations, that this work began. Four years later, prominent paleontologist John C. Merriam of the University of California conducted excavations at the site.

Los Angeles Record, 21 October 1909.

In 1907, Los Angeles High School teacher James Z. Gilbert brought students out to do their own investigations and excavations and this led a few years later to the development of a pit with funding from the Southern California Academy of Sciences. The 5 October 1909 edition of the Times reported on a lecture by Gilbert under the Academy’s auspices about “the story of animal life in Southern California, thousands of years ago, illustrated by their bones, dug from the asphalt lake at La Brea ranch, near Sherman [West Hollywood].”

It was added that “a large number of the bones were on exhibition,” while “Professor Gilbert” informed the audience of “the habits and special physical features of the animals of which they were a part.” He illustrated his talk with “stereopticon views” taken at the site and thanked students for their efforts—it was observed that boys did the field work during summer break, while girls cleaned the fossils for exhibit purposes.

Times, 23 January 1910.

Gilbert told the assemblage that “the openings from which the skeletons were taken were located by the bubbles of gas that brought to the surface water, asphalt and sand, forming small cones” and that it took six hours to unearth a two-foot long bone. He continued,

It is a rare opportunity for Los Angeles students to have such a bed of fossil so near the city. The finds on this old ranch consists of the skeletons of the lion, camel, wolf, saber-toothed tiger and many other animals of much interest to modern times. The bones were well preserved, and, for this reason, are of much value. There are hundreds of students throughout the country who would delight i spending their entire vacation digging or these bones.

A January 1910 article from the Times further discussed Gilbert’s work, calling it “some of the greatest scientific discoveries in the world” and praising the science instructor for his “unremitting energy and enthusiasm.” It was added that the public could visit the high school’s museum after 2 p.m. and peruse the collection with Gilbert’s accompaniment.

In 1913, Allan Hancock gave Los Angeles County and its newly opened Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) exclusive rights for two years to excavate at the tar pits. From almost 100 sites, about three quarters of a million specimens were retrieved. About a decade later, Hancock Park (not the subdivision, but the park of that name) was established and donated by him to the county.

The tar pits were designated in 1963 as a National Park Service National Natural Landmark, while the Page Museum was completed in 1977. More history of the site can be found on the La Brea Tar Pits website. This remarkable photo is a great early document of the La Brea pits and oil field, reflecting the connections of one to the other, even if the long-held idea that crude oil comes from dinosaur remains has been long disproven!

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