24 September 2008

Early History of the Olinda Oil Field

Just as the Los Angeles region oil industry began to take off, a book called Petroleum in California: A Concise and Reliable History of the Oil Industry of the State was compiled and published in 1900 by Lionel Redpath. In his chapter on Orange County, Redpath likely became one of the first chroniclers of the new Olinda field. At the time, Redpath noted "the oil fields of Orange county are all located in what is known as the Fullerton district, by which more or less comprehensive name is meant the range of hills lying between the mouth of Brea canyon and the mouth of Soquel canyon, together with the territory lying farther east." In other words, Olinda (which was not yet known by that name) was the only operating oil field in Orange County at the turn of the twentieth century. The two images above come from the Redpath book, the one at left captioned "VIEW IN FULLERTON FIELD. SHOWING WELLS OF COLUMBIA AND FULLERTON OIL COMPANIES" and the one at right, "VIEW IN FULLERTON FIELD SHOWING WELLS OF SANTA FE, GRAHAM, LOFTUS AND FULLERTON COMPANIES."

In recent years, the author continued, "in the territory lying at the mouth of Soquel canyon, where are located a number of different companies, all of which are good producers, at least three valuable oil strikes have been found." While Santa Fe, Graham-Loftus and Fullerton Consolidated had made some discoveries at the west end of the field, 35 degree gravity oil, of a superior quality, had been found by Fullerton Oil and Columbia "a short distance further east."

The origins of the Olinda field come with intense interest in the region after the Puente Oil Company hit some successful pools of crude on the north slopes of the Puente Hills in present-day Rowland Heights during the 1880s. In 1892, the first successful producing wells in the city of Los Angeles were brought in by the duo of Charles Canfield and Edward S. Doheny. The latter used his equity from profits in the Los Angeles City field, just west of downtown (near the intersection of the 110 and 101 freeways) to try his luck in north Orange County. According to Redpath, Doheny's drilling was a mile west of the mouth of Soquel Canyon "in the winter of 1896 and 1897." Continuing, Redpath noted that:

Having found oil, he sold his lease on several hundred acres of land to the Santa Fe Railway Company, retaining for himself a share of the net proceeds. The first venture was rapidly followed by the Graham-Loftus, the Columbia, Fullerton Consolidated, Fullerton Oil, and Olinda companies, in the order named.

By the end of the decade, Brea Canyon was explored and it was written that Union Oil Company obtained almost all of the land between the Santa Fe field obtained from Doheny in what became Olinda and Brea Canyon. Moreover, before Union even began drilling, it was offered $1 million, a huge sum in 1900, for the property. Eventually, Union became the largest producer in the Brea-Olinda area--it seems like ancient history now that the very Modernist style office building for the company stood at the northeast corner of the intersection of Imperial Highway and Valencia Avenue. The only visible reminder of that company today is the Union Shopping Center along Imperial west of Kraemer.

There was a problem, though, for oil companies drilling in Olinda in 1900, before electricity was used to power the drills. Instead, boilers using water were relied upon and the quality of the water found in the field was insufficient. It took a contract with Anaheim Union Water Company, which operated further south to bring water via a pumping plant two miles from the AUWC main irrigation canal to a 15,000-barrel reservoir at the top of the hills, allowing gravity to bring the water to the oil drilling sites.

It is interesting to note that the average well 108 years ago went down 800 to 1200 feet in depth, a pittance compared to today's very deep drillers. The cost of each well was estimated at $3-6,000. Wages for workers averaged $1.75 per day for basic laborers to the more princely sum of $5.00 per day for drillers. In 1900, there were about 250 workers in the Olinda and Brea Canyon sites, with about a third having families living with them in tents and cottages. These numbers would grow significantly in later years as field exploration and production expanded. Redpath noted that "at the mouth of Soquel canyon, the Graham-Loftus and Santa Fe wells are on the north dip [end] and the Fullerton Consolidated wells are on the south dip." Fullerton Oil, Columbia and Olinda explorations were also on the north dip but in a different "strike"; that is, following oil formations further west than the other three companies. Basically, this meant that the formations in the areas were in an "anticline" in which the pattern is a convex one and dips on either side of the high end. Pools of oil would gather in these dips and be the best spot for drilling and extraction. Further east within Soquel Canyon, the Soquel Canyon Oil Company was sinking its first well, at the time of writing.

Redpath explained that, of the several companies working the Olinda area in 1900, the Columbia Oil Producing Company was the most successful in terms of heavy production and gravity quality. At the time, the company held 280 acres in ownership and 620 in lease and there were four producing wells of 200 to 300 barrels per day, a high output at the time, but paling in comparison to later yields in deeper wells. The price per barrel in 1900? $1.80! To show just how profitable the industry can be, production costs were estimated to be from 35 to 50 cents per barrel. It is worth noting that among the officers in the company was Harry Chandler, son-in-law of powerful Los Angeles Times publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, and who would later assume that position and become a major player in Los Angeles real estate, as well as publishing. As for Santa Fe, it was the first to develop the Olinda field and had sixteen producing wells in 1900. Soon after came Graham-Loftus, which had eight producing and two new wells and also had the distinction of the largest gusher to date. Its Well #2, brought into production in December 1899, produced 700 barrels a day from a 1,000-foot deep well. Graham-Loftus was purely in the extracting side, selling the crude to Union Oil Company for refining with the product conveyed by pipe lines over to storage tanks in Brea Canyon before shipment to the refinery. Fullerton Consolidated had two wells in production and two more in process. Fullerton Oil also had two wells producing about 100 barrels per day and planned to drill ten more wells soon. The total production of the Olinda field was then 26,000 barrels per month with Santa Fe bringing in 7,000; Columbia, 6,000; Graham-Loftus, 4,000; Fullerton Consolidated, 3,000; and Fullerton Oil, 2,000.

There was a new player being highly touted by Redpath: the Carbon Canyon Oil Company, which "among the many companies operating in the Fullerton field, none has started in a more substantial, business-like manner, and with more flattering prospects." The company had 160 acres in Carbon and Soquel canyons close to today's Olinda Village. Redpath wrote that "the two canyons, traversing this tract, expose some of the finest formations of shale and sand rock that are to be seen anywhere on the Coast, and if indications are to be trusted, the company will strike a marvelously rich flow." It was also noted that "two wagon roads" crossed the property. The company was also exploring on holdings in the present east Yorba Linda area; in Piru near today's Santa Clarita; and in Whittier. Capitalized at a half million dollars, the Carbon Canyon Company had W. F. West as President; E. G. Judson as 1st Vice-President; J. R. Greer as 2nd Vice-President; C. E. Price as Secretary and General Manager; and directors F. W. Gregg, G. M. Hawley and J. R. Westbrook. Another new joint venture was one between the Fullerton Crude Oil Company and the Cortes Crude Oil Company, each on adjacent 80-acre tracts but drilling the first well together.

Also noteworthy was the fact that the Santa Fe Railroad had already built a spur track from the south to bring crude into tank cars for quicker shipment to refineries elsewhere. This spur track existed for many years and will be the subject of a later post on this blog.

Well, Redpath's Petroleum in California was a very early look at what later became known as the Olinda oil field and there will be occasional posts on future documentation of the first Orange County oil field.

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