08 August 2011

Olinda Oil Field History: Origins of Olinda, Part 5

As noted last post, the Olinda Ranch, as established by William Hervey Bailey in the late 1880s, was promoted as an agricultural subdivision and struggled to do so through depression and drought for most of the 1890s.  Fortunes changed dramatically in 1897, however, thanks to the efforts of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and oil man Edward L. Doheny.

Doheny, born in Wisconsin in 1856, became a government surveyor while still in his teens, working in Kansas before leaving the profession to become a mining prospector in South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona.  While living in Kingston, New Mexico, he met Albert Fall and Charles Canfield, who both figured prominently in Doheny's later exploits.  Doheny and Canfield worked together in mining, but did not experience financial success, so the latter went off on his own to another mining area nearby and made a small fortune.  Canfield then went off to Los Angeles about 1887, the same time that William H. Bailey made his purchase of the land that he named Olinda Ranch.  Although Canfield lost most of this money during the ensuing bust of the real estate boom, Doheny caught up with him in Los Angeles, arriving there in the Spring of 1891.

Hearing about the presence of asphaltum in the area, Doheny used a $400 investment from Canfield to hand-dig a primitive oil well just west of downtown starting in Fall 1892.  Within months, the well proved to be successful, though a small producer, and it inaugurated the Los Angeles Oil Field.  Despite his initial success, however, Doheny struggled to keep himself as a player in the rapidly-emerging and evolving industry, until he formed a partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and its local subsidiary, the Southern California Railway.  This latter had a new line which went into Los Angeles through Santa Ana Canyon, passing through the area on what is now the track that parallels Orangethorpe Avenue through much of northeastern Orange County.

Doheny convinced the Southern California Railway that the emerging regional oil industry would allow the railroad to move to oil-powered engines rather than coal.  Because of the success of the Puente Oil Company, a company founded by William R. Rowland, former sheriff and scion of an early ranching family in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, with William Lacy and Burdette Chandler, which, in 1885, made a discovery of oil on the north side of the Puente Hills in what is now Rowland Heights, Doheny looked to nearby areas as possible sources of oil.  It should also be noted that surface appearances of asphaltum or tar were so common in the general area that the canyon dividing Los Angeles from Orange County on the eastern end of the Chino Hills had been known in the Spanish and Mexican eras as Cañon de la Brea, and a Mexican-era rancho of that name was created there.  Local ranchers used the raw brea to cover the roofs of their adobe brick homes long before any thought of drilling for oil was considered.

Doheny settled on the area in and around the Olinda Ranch and worked to obtain a lease for some 3,000 acres of the ranch from Bailey.  By the end of 1896, a test well was started at the hilly northern end of the ranch.  Readers of earlier posts in this series will recall that, in 1888, when Bailey began promoting the Olinda Ranch, advertisements noted the presence of oil in this area, but it was completely untested.  At least, until Doheny and the Southern California Railway entered the picture.  Working with an executive from the Santa Fe, the SCR's parent company, named Almon Maginnis, Doheny sited the well and began drilling.

At 400 feet, a shallow depth, oil was encountered, but the well was deepened to twice that depth.  Although the pump encountered typical levels of sand in the well, there was such enthusiasm for the potential of a major strike that the Los Angeles Times trumpeted the project before it was fully determined to be a producing well.  Indeed, in its 28 April 1897 edition, the paper announced that there were plans to have oil extracted from Olinda taken eight miles by a pipeline to Fullerton and the Southern California Railway line.  Addtionally, it was noted that timber was already being gathered about 500 feet away from the first well for a second one.

Interestingly, the paper wondered whether or not it was accurate to label this newly-discovered oil field as part of the Puente field, which was not only several miles to the northwest, but was part of a different geological setting.  Ironically, it was decided in short order that the new field should be referred to as the Fullerton field, though it was several miles from that small, emerging town.  The fact that there was a plan to send oil from the new wells to Fullerton seems to have encouraged state mining officials and others to refer to the new field by that name.

This is a ca. 1920s photograph of the Olinda oil field, which, upon the April 1897 announcement of the first well dug by Edward Doheny for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad's Southern California Railway subsidiary, was first called by the inelegant name (even for an oil field) of Oil Center.

Meantime, the Times also pointed out that Union Oil Company, which got its start in Santa Paula in Ventura County, had obtained some nearby property for oil prospecting, while, up in Tonner Canyon, a tract owned by the People's Bank of Pomona was involved in negotiations for sale and development for oil, as well. 

In these early days when the geological formations and the science of examining and identifying these was still in a primitive stage, the paper reported that there was some confusion and uncertainty about the nature of the new field's structure. Lacking familiar means such as examining rocky outcroppings, prospectors would have to deal with the fact that "the whole country is upturned," presumably meaning not uniform as to surface indications.  Doheny's first well was sited close to an area in which brea was seeping to the surface and the second well was placed near another like tar deposit, in the expectation "that the rocks slope downward to the north" and thus indicating a direction where oil would be most likely to pool.

Two days later, on 30 April, another article promoted that new oil discovery, particularly noting that the Southern California Railway had its own source for oil, independent of middlemen, for its newly-emphasized reliance on the product for fueling locomotives.  While the first well was described as at 900 feet and not complete, there were already some 40 to 50 barrels of crude being extracted daily.  The railway, which had a twenty-year lease, was planning its pipeline, which, thanks to the geography of the new field, would allow oil to simply flow down to the company's tracks by gravity.

Interestingly, the paper reminded readers that, because oil prices had skyrocketed a few years before, the SCR had switched its use of fuel from oil to coal, but, now that there was every expectation of an oil bonanza at the new site, it was looking to return to oil.  The Times also noted that, as the orange industry comtinued to blossom (!), the need for more trains to ship the product out of the area was becoming more pronounced.  It also pointed out that, unlike in Los Angeles, where oil promoters had to deal with the lease of many small lots, the discovery of oil in the hinterlands of Olinda Ranch meant that developers could lease or buy larger tracts and not have to deal with the smaller parcels that could bring a host of issues.  Finally, the paper also stated that older maps, from the 1870s or so, indicated that the area consisted of "coal lands" because of the knowledge of existing tar seeps at the surface.  Of course, the adjacent "Carbon Canyon" also was part of that earlier identification of "coal lands" for the Olinda area.

By late May, another feature was issued by the Times, which, on the 25th, stated that the first well was still not done, but the output from the current apparatus was yielding some 50-60 barrels of crude per day.  However, the second well was in the process of being dug and "will probably be producing oil before many days."  There were immediate plans to begin the digging of the third and fourth wells, too.  In discussing the desire of the railroad to move back to oil-fueled engines, the paper reported that the advantages included less smoke, no cinders, and the resulting cleanliness of the cab meant "that the engineers can almost wear their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes without fear of getting soiled."  The work of the locomotive firefighter would also be materially easier with oil than coal, while other workers on the cars would benefit from not having "to shovel coal till your back breaks."

As to the very earliest name of this new oil field, the first Times article of late April was eager to note that "this new metropolis has sprung unheralded upon the world, and probably this is the first time its name has been seen in print."  Even though there wasn't yet a proven well on the property, the paper saw fit to note that "yet the possibilities of the location seem unbounded."  Consequently, it was announced, the new name of the field was Oil Center and the by-line was so indicated.

Fortunately, the very direct, but clunky name of Oil Center did not stick and soon the Olinda appelation came to be accepted, even under the broader field designation of Fullerton!

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