Drilling for Black Gold: A Blow-Out Gasser with Union Oil Company’s Bell Number 18 Well, Santa Fe Springs, 2 April 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The booming oil industry, along with the greatly expanding real estate and motion picture ones, was a major factor in the enormous growth of the greater Los Angeles economy in the early 1920s. Long before there were any widely expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of fossil fuel production and use, the dynamic increase in production was uniformly celebrated and sedulously pursued throughout the region.

The Temple family’s stunning rise to fortune through the accidental discovery of petroleum and gas on their 60-acre ranch near Montebello by 9-year old Thomas W. II, son of Walter P. Temple and Laura González, took place in the last few years of the prior decade, with the first well brought into production in summer 1917 and many producers following. Through his namesake oil company, Walter tried to replicate the results at Montebello with prospecting at Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Ventura and projects in México, Texas and Alaska.

Long Beach Press, 1 April 1923.

Two of those local locations, Huntington Beach and Signal Hill, were spectacularly successful fields in the early years of the Roaring Twenties, though Temple’s returns were modest and, by 1923, Montebello proved to be a somewhat shallow field with production declining rapidly after the brief, substantial peak before then. One local area that he did not invest in was Santa Fe Springs, not far south from Montebello, and which quickly became an enormously productive field after the first well from Union Oil Company on the Alphonzo Bell lease was brought in in 1921.

Bell was raised in Los Angeles and was the son of James G. Bell and Susan Hollenbeck. It was her brother, John, who encouraged them to migrate from Missouri after he settled in Boyle Heights, recently established by William H. Workman, Isaias W. Hellman and John Lazzarovich, following some two decades in Nicaragua. James Bell, who purchased land nearby on the Rancho San Antonio and where the cities of Bell (his 1876 house still stands there, though moved to its current location) and Bell Gardens bearing his name were later established, was one of the founding trustees of Occidental College, situated just outside city limits in what later became East Los Angeles, and Alphonzo attended the Presbyterian institution.

Press, 2 April 1923.

Alphonzo was a regional tennis champion at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and, at the 1904 Olympic Games at St. Louis, won a bronze medal in the singles division and took silver with partner Robert LeRoy in the doubles competition. He joined his father in managing their ranches, one of which was in Santa Fe Springs and comprised 200 acres dedicated to alfalfa, citrus, hay and oats along with a substantial residence with, naturally, a tennis court.

It was long suspected, given not just the hot springs that gave the area its name (along with its position along a Santa Fe rail line) but the noticeable odor of gas whenever water wells were dug, that oil was in the area. Union Oil took up an offer by neighbor Marius Meyer to drill on his land, but a couple of wells were unsuccessful. After Meyer’s 1916 death, however, another attempt was made and, in 1919, the third well proved to be a producer.

In addition to the snappy, humorous language, note the sale listing at the bottom of the right column, Los Angeles Record, 7 April 1923.

Prior to this, Bell invited Standard Oil, which held the Temple lease at Montebello, to investigate on his ranch, but it demurred pointing to Union’s first two failures on Meyer’s property. Meanwhile, Bell was experiencing financial problems and was rescued when Union decided to give his tract a try. At the end of October 1921, Bell #1 hit a massive deposit of crude and, purportedly, became the biggest gusher in the region to date.

It was later found that about two-thirds of the Bell ranch sat atop one of the largest pools of oil on the planet, with enormous yields for Bell. This also included some “gassers” in which pockets of natural gas were hit leading to explosions that included massive fires, ruined wells, and sent fragments of wooden derricks, iron material, oil, water and sand skyward and then landing in wide swaths of nearby territory.

Press, 7 April 1923.

One such “blow out” took place with Union Bell well #18 on 2 April 1923 and the featured artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a real photo postcard of the enormous dark plume emitted from the well after it hit gas at about 3,700 feet. The image was taken by a La Habra photographer identified in the inscription only as “DAD.” The card was unused, so there is no other information on it other than what was inscribed on the negative: “BELL No. 18 UNION OIL CO. / BLOW OUT APR. 2 1923. / SANTA FE SPRINGS, CALIF. / PHOTO BY DAD LA HABRA.”

Fortunately, there was a fair amount of media coverage about the dramatic incident. Preceding the explosion, the Long Beach Press of 1 April wasn’t fooling when it ran a headline for an article proclaiming “Santa Fe Springs Startles Oil World by Sudden Gain.” The paper observed that “shattering all previous production records, Santa Fe Springs again set the oil world agog with its phenomenal increase in production for the last week,” which included new producers of 8,000 and 10,000 barrels a day along with seven others that pushed total yields to over 190,000 daily, about a quarter higher than two weeks prior.

Long Beach Telegram, 2 April 1923.

In three days the previous week, the nine wells were completed and, just before that, experts predicted the field would peak in June at about 200,000 barrels per day and, while it was felt that was substantial, that figure looked to be “small in comparison with the present standing and future possibilities of the field.” Among those bringing in a large figure was C.C. Julian’s well #1 on the Meyer lease, with that 8,000 barrel level recorded. Julian, a colorful and controversial figure went on to much infamy, covered previously in this blog in a series of posts—an excellent discussion by D.J. Waldie for KCET was published just a few months ago.

The next day’s edition of that paper reported that federal government chemist and geologist A.J. Bollinger, after making an unofficial review of the area, stated “a few months ago people doubted this pool and believed that the Santa Fe Springs field was what is termed a freak field” and added that, with recent spectacular successes, “in my opinion the field has just been touched.” Bollinger also approved of the practice of prospectors in drilling past the Bell sands into the Meyer, where the deeper deposits were situated, and then returning to the former when the latter was depleted.

Telegram, 3 April 1923.

Bollinger continued, though, that, with the high gravity of the crude being extracted, smaller wells should not be disdained and advised that, with the quality meaning that prices of a half-dollar higher per barrel than elsewhere were realized, “it will behoove operators and developers located here to take oil from both sands at the same time.” This would allow for intensive operations that would not quickly drain the sands of their supply and “a long lived field will result from this practice.”

The same day’s Long Beach Telegram (the two papers would later merge into today’s Press-Telegram) reported:

Roaring gas at the rate of 18,000,000 to 20,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day, demolishing the derrick and shooting rocks and mud 150 feet in the air, Union Bell No. 17 well at Santa Fe Springs, broke out as a gasser from the 3700 foot level early this morning.

Pressure mounted to up to 600 pounder per square inch when the blow out took place and, within a couple of hours, it was stated that the flow of gas reached that upper limit and “a big crater excavated around the well opening.” The next day, the paper recorded that the well was “still roaring defiance to man after 30 uninterrupted hours” and concerns of a widespread fire led oil companies “to take heroic precautions to prevent the outlaw well from breaking into flames and spreading fire and disaster over the wonder high[-]gravity field of the west coast.”

Whittier News, 3 April 1923.

Guards were stationed around the site and it was added that debris was thrown 200 feet in the air and there were worries that rocks hitting the well’s casing could cause a spark and lead to a conflagration that would threaten hundreds of wells worth many millions of dollars. By the previous evening, there was no signs of the blow out abating and it was added that “the force of the escaping gas has ruined the hole and will make necessary the drilling of another well alongside the mammoth gasser.”

The Whittier News, also of the 3rd, commented that the gasser exploded “with a roar to be heard for several miles” while it added “thousands of people from all of the surrounding towns have driven to Santa Fe Springs to see the giant gas well.” It also observed, as other papers did, that a similar situation took place at Bell #1 a half-mile away a year or so prior “and caused a great amount of trouble at that time.” Finally, it observed that “the country side for hundreds of feet is covered with a thick layer of mud and water from the well” and might continue to be for two more days, according to oil experts.

Los Angeles Express, 3 April 1923.

The Los Angeles Times published a photo of the well with the heading of “Showers Sand on Countryside” while an article repeated much of the information contained in the Long Beach and Whittier sheets and noted that there were no injuries even as there were several workers engaged in cementing the well at the time of the explosion. The Los Angeles Express briefly referred to the incident and cited F.F. Hill, Union’s operations manager for the field, as saying that a new derrick would be constructed and drilling again undertaken once the gas dissipated.

In its edition of the 4th, the Telegram stated that the emission of gas “continued at a late hour tonight with apparently the same degree of force as when it started.” The derrick continued to be degraded by the continuing shower of mud, pebbles, sand and water and was anticipated to fall to pieces that night. While the intensity had not changed and even, at points, “developed more power than before,” it was thought a subsidence was imminent “and shutoffs can then be attempted.” It added that, at the time of the event, the drilling was still in the Bell sand, but the expectation was to delve deeper into the Meyer sand and it was felt that the crew hit “a freak gas pocket.” The risk of fire had diminished and it was concluded that losses were estimated to be between $100,000 and $125,000.

Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1923.

Meanwhile, two more producing wells came in (including one by Standard, which finally joined the ranks of prospectors at Santa Fe Springs after its early rejection), as reported by the Press of the 5th, so that daily amounts of crude surpassed 200,000. Later, on the 9th, the Times revised that figure down to 195,000, but this still meant that the field surpassed all other high-gravity ones in the world and it was expected that, within two months, 40 new wells and a total of a quarter million barrels were to be extracted . It added that daily payouts to owners of leases, like the Bells and the Meyer families, was not far below $310,000, while nearly 30 new wells were in process and it was opined that “there are greater pools yet to be uncovered.” As for the blow out at well 18, it was estimated that 160 million cubic feet of gas was wasted and the damage estimate was pegged at $140,000.

Notably, the Los Angeles Express was the first of the regional papers to correctly identify the well as Union Bell Number 18, as the others referred to it as Number 17. The paper’s Ellwood J. Munger added that the blow out caused three other Union wells to go down in the field and there were some hopes the well could be salvaged if it could be sanded up.

Express, 6 April 1923.

In its issue of the 8th, the Times ran a lengthy feature by state railroad commission gas engineer Harry L. Masser titled “Natural Gas Demands Exceed Supply” and which began with the note that the natural gas industry in California was initiated on a large scale when huge deposits were found in 1910 at the Midway field in Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley. Three years later, the same year the Los Angeles Aqueduct began delivering its precious cargo of water from sources 230 miles away in the Owens Valley of Inyo County, a 12-inch pipeline built by Midway Gas Company of not quite half that length brought gas to Los Angeles (actually, the western edge of Glendale) over what we now call the Grapevine route along Interstate 5.

Masser added that this pipeline found a ready market as Los Angeles grew in population for domestic and industrial needs, while noting that “because of heavy domestic requirements it has never been possible to furnish straight natural gas to the consumer” so there was a mixture with artificial gas. Moreover, domestic use obviously was less in the warmer summer months, which allowed more supply for industry and inventories were sufficient to allow for the region’s industrial sector to grow significantly.

Times, 9 April 1923.

In 1915, Midway Gas completed an 8-inch delivery system from the Coyote Hills of northwest Orange County, near Fullerton and La Habra where Standard had excess volumes well beyond what it needed. During the World War I period, increasing demand was countered with growing output from Coyote Hills, so a second 8-inch line was built and Masser noted that Southern Counties Gas provided service to some Orange County cities with gas from local oil fields, such as Richfield in today’s Placentia and Yorba Linda, though the inventory was rapidly diminishing to date. He averred that the study of what was going on in Coyote Hills was important for determining the possibilities of gas production in newer fields like Signal Hill and Santa Fe Springs.

The official also observed that

In the latter part of 1917 the Standard Oil Company started drilling on its Baldwin and Temple leases at Montebello, and considerable quantities of casing-head gas were developed. About 5,000,000 cubic feet of this gas was piped to the company’s refinery at El Segundo [literally, “The Second” as in the firm’s second facility following the first at Richmond in the Bay Area] and the balance consumed by lease operations and sales to the Southern Counties Gas Company.

By May 1920, Montebello provided some 20 million cubic feet, though the total in April 1923 was down about 35%, reflecting deeply declining production of oil in that field, as noted above. The San Joaquin Valley region, however, was producing about 150 million cubic feet of gas daily, with more than half going for domestic and industrial use including a substantial majority to Los Angeles, with another 12-inch pipeline completed southward in 1920 and delivering 30 million cubic feet of gas each day.

Times, 8 April 1923.

Signal Hill was proving to be very important for the issue of natural gas production and use because Masser reported that the new field “is now yielding half of the natural gas developed in this State,” but, as with Montebello, this was “casing-head gas” which meant that, being produced along with crude, it could not be saved for the future, so there was a tremendous among of waste—fully three-quarters of production. Most of Signal Hill’s operations were on small leases and producers were fixated on extracting crude quickly before others crowded in, so the huge amounts of natural gas simply was “being blown into the air.” Still, Long Beach received all its supply from there and new lines would soon deliver product to Los Angeles.

With regard to Santa Fe Springs, the situation was the same concerning “casing-head gas” being the only type produced there. A new delivery system to Los Angeles was just finished by Midway Gas delivering 25 million cubic feet a day, though more could be delivered, and there was total gas production at the field of triple that amount, with just under 50 million feet sold to distributors. Huntington Beach, also relatively new, generated 35 million feet, while Ventura produced 7.5 million and Santa Maria and surrounding areas about 9 million.

Times, 8 April 1923.

Masser noted that, while natural gas production and conservation in California was generally good, this was not true for the new fields of Huntington Beach, Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill and the latter recently became the highest generator of gas in the state. Another issue was that these field included gasoline absorption plants in which that fuel was removed from the gas, with the latter released. Notably, the official added that Montebello had almost no such plants because there were virtually no gasoline vapors in the gas extracted there.

Masser went into some detail about the significant costs of investment in the construction of gas pipelines and the marketing of the product for domestic and industrial consumption for delivery by the major firms: Los Angeles Gas and Electric, Southern Counties Gas, and Southern California Gas, which combined had over 4,400 miles of line in operation. He pointed out that “gas must be sold to the consumer at a price materially higher than the actual cost in the fields, but this point has not always been seen by many when told of enormous gas wastages in the oil fields.”

To date, there were nearly 400,000 household in and around Los Angeles using about 165 million cubic feet of natural gas each day, more than that of the rest of the state combined. Industrial use was about 35 million cubic feet during the winter, but was expected to be around 75 million daily in the ensuing summer. The problem going forward that estimates were a demand of 250 million cubic feet for winter 1923-1924, while supply was anticipated to only be about 160 million feet—clearly conservation in those new fields was critical.

So, this photo is not just reflective of a dramatic incident with this one well, but is related to a wider issue of natural gas production, conservation and use at a time when demand was going to soon easily outstrip supply. A century later, intense and heated (!) debate continues in the Golden State, as well as elsewhere, about the future of fossil fuels, including natural gas, given accelerating climate change. How we manage this vital question given recent warnings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from its report of its 58th session held in Switzerland from 13-19 March becomes of increasing concern.

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