22 August 2008

Olinda and Carbon Canyon Oral History

A few days ago, I was able to get my hands on a great little publication called Pipelines to the Past: An Oral History of Olinda, California, put out by the oral history program at Cal State Fullerton back in 1978. In it, seven former residents of the Olinda oil area shared their reminiscences of living there, with the timespan ranging from about 1905 to 1965.

From time to time, I'll share excerpts from this little gem of canyon history and will start with my rendering of the general history, based on an introduction by Tom Savage and a reading of the interviews, of this place that was special enough to get its own State Historic Landmark designation with the plaque now at Carbon Canyon Regional Park.

The history of Olinda dates to 1891 and the formation of the Olinda Ranch Company by W. H. Bailey, who tried to promote agriculture for citrus, beets, grains, nuts, fruits and grapes. The venture failed, however, because of the problem of oil seepage into irrigation canals to the fields, as well as into drinking water supplies. Within a few short years, however, matters would change dramatically.

Edward Doheny, who with Charles Canfield, drilled the first successful oil well in the city of Los Angeles in 1892 (a venture for which he was ridiculed), visited the Olinda area and, convinced there was oil there, drilled the first well in 1897. The first well, still operating within the Olinda Ranch subdivision today, was a success, although the initial output of 50 barrels a day was paltry by later standards. Ten more wells were drilled in 1898 and with several major "gushers", the Olinda field became a proven success. Doheny developed a partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (known generally as the Santa Fe) to operate two leases known as Upper and Lower Santa Fe, these now in the area around the Olinda Ranch housing tract. Eventually, the Santa Fe Railroad built a railroad spur line from its main line to the south (paralleling Orangethorpe Avenue). The upper lease went to the Chanslor-Canfield Midway Oil Company, commonly known as the CCMO, co-owned by Doheny's former partner, Charles Canfield. The latter was the Olinda Crude Oil Company, with the lease known as the Olinda Land Company Lease. Eventually, there were other leases in the area known as Stearns, Columbia, General Petroleum, and West Coast.

Hundreds of persons lived and worked in the Olinda field, though whether there was a town or official settlement was a matter of opinion. Bachelors bunked and married men could rent or lease houses or build their own on company land. The work could be hard and dangerous over 12-hour shifts, though oil field workers were well-known for their physical and mental toughness. Because of their relative isolation, the residents of the Olinda area experienced a close-knit community and their oil company bosses maintained, for those interviewed in the book, a sufficient level of support to foster company loyalty among "open shop", that is, non-union, workers. For example, companies sponsored sports teams, built recreation halls, and provided other amenities.

Speaking of sports, Olinda was best known for decades as the home for several years of Walter Johnson, a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher with the old Washington Senators, before leaving to turn professional. A near-mythical event (nearly anyone who lived in Brea claimed to be there) was an exhibition game near the intersection of Brea Boulevard and Lambert Road that featured Johnson and Herman "Babe" Ruth, the legendary New York Yankees slugger. A recent Los Angeles Times article covered that event, which took place in 1924. Another well-known Olinda resident was Major John L. [Jack] Armstrong, a World War II fighter pilot who was a prisoner of war held by the Germans after he was shot down in September 1944. After the war, he became a record-setting test pilot, but his career was cut short in a deadly crash at an air show in September 1954.

The Upper Santa Fe lease, or the CCMO, had the largest settlement and included a Methodist Episcopal Church, a general store, and a barbershop. There were a few small businesses elsewhere, including a food store and barbershop on the Columbia lease near today's Valencia Avenue. While estimates of the population at Olinda vary widely, there were certainly several hundred people living and working at the several leases over the years.

Olinda School was founded shortly after 1900 and the second school location was adjacent to Carbon Creek in what is now Carbon Canyon Regional Park. Although the school was closed by the 1960s, part of the structure was relocated for use as community center in Brea. Moreover, when the new Olinda Village subdivision was opened to the east in 1964, a new school, also called Olinda School, was opened and the original school bell from its predecessor dedicated at the new facility.

According to several interviewees, the death knell of Olinda included advances in technology that led to high speed drilling; the decline of on-site resident workers with the use of the car, a desire for better housing, and increased costs to the company; and, finally, a decline in the productivity in the field. Another issue relative to the physical loss of the Olinda community was the agitation for improved flood control after heavy storms in 1938 caused widespread flooding, property damage, and deaths in north Orange County. After World War II and the post-war economic boom ensued, the movement to dam Carbon Creek accelerated. By 1960, the dam was completed and remnants such as the old Olinda School were replaced. In 1975, after years of effort, Carbon Canyon Regional Park was established on part of the old Olinda community site and a State Historic Landmark plaque erected. Although some production continued in recent years and, to this day, there are still a few pumping wells, the advent of the Olinda Ranch housing tract led to the development of the last major area of the old field. Fortunately, the old CCMO office, the Santa Fe well #1, and other relics were retained as part of the Olinda Oil Museum.

Today, the name is retained in a few places: the 1960s tract called "Olinda Village" and the Olinda school; the more recent subdivision of "Olinda Ranch" and the new oil museum there; and the city high school, still called Brea-Olinda. There are probably few, if any, persons still living who resided at the Olinda oil field and as the derricks and "grasshoppers" are dismantled, the wells capped, the soil "cleaned", and the sites made ready for development, the physical reminders give way to the pages of history. Hopefully, Olinda will continue to be remembered for its important place in an industry that once predominated in the region.
If you like this history stuff, keep an eye out for more in future posts!

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