Youle Tide: Drilling for Black Gold at Turnbull Canyon in the Puente Hills, 1888

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The prospect of poring through the daunting 948-page tome that is the California State Mining Bureau’s Eighth Annual Report of the State Mineralogist for the Year Ending October 1, 1888 is hardly an enticing one, but, fortunately, for this post, we’re just going to focus on a fractional part comprising the report for Los Angeles County by Watson A. Goodyear and, even then, narrow to a specific segment tied into early oil exploration in the nearby Puente Hills.

Actually, Goodyear, a Connecticut native and Yale University graduate who came to California at age 26 in 1865 and worked in a state geological survey and then spent his last several years with the mining bureau before his 1891 death at age 52, had some interesting commentary in eight-page statement, which he noted took material from notes he made in 1872 and 1874 as well as in the 1887-1888 period. He takes us on a tour from San Diego County northward, “following the old stage road near the coast,” this being where the modern Instate 5 is now, up to the mission town of San Juan Capistrano.

We do have to sift through the highly technical descriptions of the various geological formations encountered by Goodyear on his investigative trip, including those of granite, gravel, sandstone, and shale, along with the character of the hill and mountain ranges he encountered. When it came to San Juan, he briefly alluded to the Agua Caliente mineral springs found about a dozen miles to the east in the Santa Ana Mountains and where, he wrote, the water was said to reach 130 degrees.

He added some comments about a major early event in the history of the mission, writing,

From all that I could learn, it is more than probably that the shaking down of the tower on the old Mission Church . . . by the earthquake of 1812, was not due so much to any excessive severity of the shock itself, though it was undoubtedly a pretty strong one, as it as to the fact that the church was poorly built, and of very poor material. Certainly, if the shock had been a very heavy one, it would not have left the walls of the edifice themselves standing as they do to-day.

Specifically, Goodyear pointed to the “decidedly soft, tertiary sandstone” used while the walls were “most rubble work, only the corners being faced with cut stone.” He did admire the “rather handsome bluish, micaceous sandstone” used to corners and pilasters in the church interior, but noted that this material was also “softer and very weak.”

The problem as that “on top of this poor construction, with exceptionally bad materials, were placed a tile roof, and a very heavy bell tower of considerable height.” Given this situation, which, however, was also a function of the limited resources available in a remote Alta California in the early 19th century, “the whole building was thus most admirably adapted to serve as a deathtrap in case of an earthquake.”

Noting that there were up to 40 persons, according to the priest who spoke to Goodyear, who perished in the collapse, the visitor concluded that “if the shock had been anything like as heavy as some which have been experienced by the present writer, they, too would have crumbled into a confused mass of rubbish.”

After visiting Cyrus B. Rawson’s portion of the Rancho Niguel on Los Alisos Creek, Goodyear moved west and “crossed the Cañon de la Laguna,” climbed into the hills and roamed along the San Joaquin range, describing the formations, and the party came across some fossils, which a Dr. Cooper identified as being from the Miocene era (roughly from 5 to 23 million years ago), while others were located and pegged to the Cretaceous period of 66 to million years ago.

Another tidbit of note was Goodyear’s observation of “two of the most prominent landmarks visible in this region from long distances in all directions, both at land and sea,” including what is now known as Saddleback Peak at the top of the Santa Ana range. He recorded, however, that when California state geologist Josiah D. Whitney, namesake of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, and a party ascended the peak in early 1861 and measured it at 5,675 feet—it is now officially fourteen feet higher—it was “then by them named Mount Downey, in honor of J[ohn] G. Downey, then Governor of the State of California.” It was added, though, that geographer Dr. George Davidson advised Goodyear that the older name was Santiago Peak.

The account continued to describe the length of Santiago Canyon and the hill range associated with it before turning to the matter of artesian wells drilled in the canyon by William H. Spurgeon, who was the founder of the town of Santa Ana, as well as alluding to the purported deposits of coal, “which statement seems doubtful, Goodyear added, though he “saw in Santa Ana some very impure specimens of ‘coal’.” He mentioned Coal Canyon at the north end of the Santa Ana Mountains and it and Carbon Canyon to the northwest in the Chino Hills range are remnants of the 19th century belief of significant coal deposits in the area.

The writer also observed that

In the Santiago Cañon there were in 1872 some of the finest groves of vine-clad oaks, wreathed with magnificent wild grapevines loaded at that time of the year with blossoms, that I have ever seen.

He briefly referred to “the old Spanish town of Santa Ana,” though it was established just fifteen years prior in the early years of greater Los Angeles’ first boom, and he also noted Downey’s claim that “he was the first one that obtained artesian water in Los Angeles Valley,” this being “near the low hills north of Compton.” There were, however, as early as 1854, local attempts at boring artesian wells, but, as reported, the well sunk by Downey, Prudent Beaudry and James Hayward (Downey’s bank partner) was the first successful one. While Goodyear said he spoke to Downey about it in late May 1872 and recorded that the wells was sunk in October or November 1869, Benjamin D. Wilson wrote to the Los Angeles Star about the finished project at the end of August 1868.

Other areas of the county discussed by Goodyear were San Gabriel Canyon, into which he traveled in September 1874 and which formations were noted as comprised of granite with some areas of gravel not unlike what he observed in the Sierra Nevada range to the north, so that he speculated that the two were of the same geological era. He also commented that the lack of tertiary rocks from the origins of the Santa Ana River in the San Bernardino Mountains range to the western portions of the San Gabriels (then frequently called the Sierra Madre Mountains) suggested an earlier origin than the portions of the San Bernardinos to the east of the Santa Ana headwaters.

In discussing his visit to what is now the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita area, Goodyear also made note, while staying at the Mission Hotel at San Fernando, of a mass beetle infestation that, however, lasted just one evening. He added that Benigno Pico, a cousin of former governor Pío and the late General Andrés Pico, mentioned that he’d witnessed such incidents “and he always considers them an immediate precursor of hot weather.”

Los Angeles Herald, 24 July 1883.

The report then turned to petroleum prospecting in what was long known as the San Fernando field, with seepages in canyons of “black and heavy” oil in a couple of canyons, but not with the success of wells in Pico Canyon, where early explorations commenced in 1865, just a half-dozen years after the American oil industry began in western Pennsylvania. By 1875, F.P.F. Temple was among several prospectors working in that area, and some modest production was obtained before a financial panic included the failure of his Temple and Workman bank.

Another area, however, discussed by Goodyear was inspected very recently, as he recorded,

On May 25, 1888, a locality was visited at Turnbol Cañon, just back of the Greenleaf Hotel, at Whittier, where Mr. W.E. Youle was then drilling a well for oil . . . A little oil was visible here issuing from a stratum which crops for a little distance along the bed of the cañon. The well, when visited, was four hundred and sixty feet deep, the first two hundred feet being chiefly sandy shales, and the rest of the depth in fine-grained sandstone to the bottom.

It was noted that “a few barrels of heavy, greenish-black oil” of 19 degrees was unearthed, “but not enough to pay,” though attempts were to be made to drill deeper “in the hope of striking another and richer oil-bearing stratum.” The writer then added that “about a mile east of here, Mr. B. Chandler was said to be engaged in taking out asphaltum and making preparations to drill for oil.”

Los Angeles Times, 10 September 1926.

The order of prospecting in these two areas is actually reversed and both involved Youle at various points. William Edmund Youle was born in 1847 at Pontiac, Michigan and he began working in the Pennsylvania oil fields soon after the industry began there in 1859. Over about fifteen years he was a driller and well contractor there and in West Virginia before he came west and drilled a well for who Goodyear called “Mr. Mentey,” but who was Alexander Mentry. Youle then worked for the California Star Oil Works, which brought in a well in 1876 considered California’s first.

When San Francisco capital was arranged for the Pacific Coast Oil Company’s formation in 1879, Youle was hired by the firm to work in northern California fields, while Mentry remained at Newhall (Santa Clarita) as superintendent. Youle remained in the north for several years, then drilled some of the first wells in what became the Midway district in the southern San Joaquin Valley and at Pico Canyon at Newhall.

Los Angeles Commercial, 4 August 1881.

Meanwhile, Burdette Chandler, born at Binghamton, New York, in 1837, arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1870s after working as an oil prospector at Petrolia, a little town in western Ontario, Canada, not far from the U.S. border at Michigan. Chandler quickly became a well-known figure in the Angel City, securing election on the Common (City) Council and then, hearing of oil seepages at the crown of the Puente Hills on the land Sheriff William R. Rowland inherited from his father, John, co-owner of Rancho La Puente, began drilling for oil there.

This location is near where Harbor Boulevard and Fullerton Road meet in Rowland Heights and Chandler began his work there in summer 1881. We’ll go into further depth (!) about drilling operations at what became known as the Puente field in future posts here, but Chandler invested heavily there for about three years before selling his interest in 725 acres of the ranch back to Rowland in August 1884.

Los Angeles Herald, 5 June 1884.

He also recycled the “Petrolia” name, which was used in many places for obvious reasons, when he acquired land at the west end of Soquel Canyon, which comes out of the Chino Hills and meets Carbon Canyon in what is now Brea, early in 1883. Chandler invested heavily in operations there for about three or four years, until just as greater Los Angeles entered into the great Boom of the 1880s.

In neither case, did Chandler realize the returns that he’d hoped. At the Puente field, Rowland and Los Angeles manufacturer William Lacy were, in short order, able to tap deposits Chandler missed, thanks to the efforts of Youle, who as hired as superintendent in October 1885. Petrolia was in just about the right locale, as well, but, it was not until Edward L. Doheny, fresh from success with the Los Angeles oil field earlier in the decade, brought in the first well in Orange County (which was formed in 1889) at what was then known as Olinda, now part of Brea.

Herald, 1 January 1886.

As to Youle, the decision of Rowland and Lacy to hire him to drill on their tract yielded results very quickly, but there may have been a rupture in their relationship. When Quaker investors formed the town of Whittier during the great boom in 1887, the Pickering Land and Water Company looked to the Puente Hills canyon to the northeast, named after Scottish sheep raiser Robert Turnbull, as a possible location for oil.

The 28 March 1888 edition of the Los Angeles Express, quoting from the Whittier Graphic, recorded that

At a meeting of the Pickering Land and Water Company last Friday [the 23rd] an appropriation of $25,000 was made for the purpose of developing the oil and gas prospects in the Whittier [Puente] hills. Mr. Youle, late superintendent of the Newhall oil wells [note nothing was said of Puente], who has had 26 years’ experience, having in that time driven 65 wells, only one of which was a failure, has been employed at a salary of $175 per month to superintend the work.

On the 26th, company president Jonathan Bailey and Youle inspected the area to be explored and “in no less than four places the oil was found oozing out of the rock crevices.” With these promising indications, the paper ended its account by observing that “Superintendent Youle found the formation and prospects very favorable, and is very sanguine of striking oil in paying quantities.”

Los Angeles Times, 28 March 1888.

The 2 May edition of the Los Angeles Herald, in discussing oil prospecting in the region, mentioned that “Mr. Burdette Chandler has been prospecting around Whittier” and claimed that indications were better there than anywhere else he’d seen. It added “Mr. W.E. Youle, who had many years’ experience in the oil business, is boring a well in Turnbull Canyon, near Whittier, and he reports having found unmistakable signs of the near presence of oil at a depth of only 200 feet.”

On 10 June, the paper updated readers with news that Youle and his crew were down to 500 feet, but halted because the casing of the well was having trouble holding up under external pressure. It was, however, noted that there was some production coming from the well and Youle planned to move his machinery and restart work on a second well nearby.

Herald, 2 May 1888.

Quoting the Graphic, the Los Angeles Times of 9 July reported that

On Tuesday eight barrels of oil were taken out of well No. 1, and Mr. Youle, the superintendent, thinks there are 20 or 30 barrels remaining in the well. This well was abandoned two or three weeks ago, at the depth of 507 feet, because of some trouble with the casing and a cave[in] . . . The derrick was moved a few feet, and well No. 2 was started, which is now down 600 feet . . . The prospects are very satisfactory for oil in paying quantities. The engine is now being run with oil from well No. 1.

The effort at Turnbull Canyon did not pan out, though later prospecting in Whittier, especially later in the area to the east, proved to be very successful much later. Youle continued working in the oil industry and, by 1913, was credited with drilling for over 200 wells while then serving as president of a company in Los Angeles. He died in September 1926 and the Whittier News of the 10th noted that “friends recall Youle’s amusing reminiscences of the crude [!] methods used at that time” when it came to his work of nearly four decades prior at Turnbull Canyon.

Times, 9 July 1888.

As noted above, we’ll take a deeper look at the Puente oil field, including developments involving Rowland, Chandler, Lacy and Youle, so check back later for that “Drilling for Black Gold” entry.

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