05 October 2012

The Great Brea Oil Tank Fire of 1926

Early in this blog, in July 2009, there was a post (see here) featuring a real photo postcard of a burning open oil tank in Brea, but there wasn't any specific information given.

This post is about a very similar view of the same incident, but, thanks to the wonders of the expanding information universe on the Web, much more is known about what was perhaps the greatest disaster that befell the local industry.

A real photo postcard by Dietrich Studio of Santa Ana showing the massive fire at the Stewart oil tank farm of the Union Oil Company of California, one-half mile west of Brea, which broke out on 8 April 1926.  Click on the image to see a larger view in separate window.  Image courtesy of Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.

First, the image.  Simply titled "Brea — Oil Tank Fire" and including a stamp from Santa Ana's Dietrich Studios, the view shows a massive plume of black smoke rising from a large open oil tank surrounded by a simple earthen berm.  What was notable through magnification was white rectangular pieces lying along the bottom of the berm and these placed by men who can be discerned there.  Because the card was postally unused, meaning there was no message written on it, information had to be located elsewhere.

Fortunately, there were a few sources found on the Net that appear to identify the scene, which was a horrific one.  Namely, on the morning of 8 April 1926, a lightning strike hit the oil tank farm of the Union Oil Company.  This was west of town toward La Habra and not in or near Olinda, as shown by the following sources.

In the June 2001 issue of the Brea Historical Society's Historical Happenings newsletter, there was an interview by Society members Brian Saul and Kathy Canon with 95-year old Walt Bergman, who moved to the city in 1916.  One of his most unforgettable memories was this incident, namely that "Walt remembers standing, facing west [italics added for emphasis], at the counter of the family's Bergman Garage at the corner of Birch and Brea Blvd . . .  All of a sudden, he saw a 'whole wall' of flame shooting into the air . . . The fire, he said, lasted a week . . . [and] that because of the flames you could read a newspaper on Brea Blvd. in the middle of the night . . .  Even at 2 a.m., Brea was full of sightseers."  Note Mr. Bergman's recollection of facing west from the intersection of Birch St. and Brea Blvd.

And, on this interesting site (click here) called "Brea: Old and New," there is a cool aerial view of what was called the Stewart tank farm (Lyman Stewart being the longtime president of Union), a 1/2 mile west of downtown Brea.

The 9 April 1926 issue of the Prescott [Arizona] Evening Courier had a lengthy article about what was headlined "Brea Oil Fire is Fought by 3000 Workers, 2,500,000 Gallons Lost in Conflagration."  The paper reported on three burning reservoirs at the tank farm, involving what was actually 2.5 million barrels (not gallons--there are 42 gallons per barrel, so we're talking over 100 million gallons!) of crude.  Still, it was stated that the massive crew fighting the fire "claimed a victory in part, for it was indicated that they would be able to save three other huge reservoirs of oil and a number of surface tanks from the blaze."

The extent of the damage was revealed by the fact that "the most spectacular event in the progress of the blaze came late last night when the third tank was ignited as the other two boiled over.  The tan of over 1,000,000 barrels capacity exploded as it caught fire."  In addition, a small refinery and gasoline and oil distillate tanks were engulfed when the overflowing boiling oil jumped the earthen dikes and hit these sites, which "exploded in spectacular fashion, throwing their blazing contents in all directions for many yards."

Concerning the mysterious rectangular items at the bottom of the photo, the Evening Courier noted that the tank farm was "protected by the stiff breeze and dykes of sheet iron and earth [italics added]."  In other words, the above photo appears to show men laying the sheets of iron for prevention of further exposure of other portions of the farm to spreading flammable material.

Interestingly, it was also observed that "a new method of firefighting was given a trial when 20 artificial wind machines were rushed to the tank farm to keep the draft away from the remainder of the storage."  This novel experiment, however, proved unnecessary, because "the wind that held steady through the night proved more satisfactory, however, than its mechanical aids."

In the Miami [Florida] News of 10 April, progress on dealing with the conflagration was reported as the fire "seems to have been isolated, thus preventing it from increasing the destruction."  Burning oil from the three affected reservoirs  were heading toward a fourth, containing three-quarters of a million barrels of crude, but "with dykes erected around the fourth reservoir and around a nearby pump station, those fighting the fire expressed a belief that the fire would not spread further."

In reporting on the destruction wreaked by the tragedy, the News observed that "the Brea fire . . . caused, if it spreads no further, a loss of about $3,000,000.  Three reservoirs, a small oil refinery, 70 acres of walnut and orange trees, three expensive ranch homes, and several houses on tank farm property were consumed by the flames."

The Milwaukee Sentinel, also of 10 April reported that "three miles of galvanized iron barricades diverted the blazing oil into a pool where it will burn itself out without endangering the town."

Locally, at least one journalistic enterprise found a way, somehow, to make light (pardon the pun) from the disaster.  The Jaysee Torch, the student newspaper of the "Fullerton District Junior College," now Fullerton Junior College, had an editorial titled "Optimism."  In this piece, it was stated that

Last week the famous Brea oil fire burned up two million dollars worth of gummy asphalt.  It is an ill wind that blows no one any good.  In this case it was the flaming youth who profited from the disastrous conflagration.  Sheiks from all the colleges south of San Luis Obispo stepped the beloved to the hillsides adjoining the blaze and proceeded to enter upon the gentle art of caressing.  'Twas indeed a rare sight to behold, when all was illuminated by a sudden burst of flame, the hillsides adorned for miles about with the world's largest collection of petting parties.  The flame ascended neavenward through billows of black smoke like a pale moonbeam shimmering through the rafters of a deceased horse [house?!]; and while the earth was sprinkled with the star duest of romance — he slipped a kiss to her waiting lips.

          Blessings on thee, Union Oil,
          With thy tanks of blazing oil.

Regardless of the quality of the prose (and the poesy), it might help to know that "sheiks" were the hip young dudes of the day and that the "gentle art of caressing" and "petting parties" involved sheiks and shebas (these being the female paramours) going to at least second base in a flivver (car) parked on "Lovers' Lane."  In this case, the orange glow of flame seemed to be a metaphor for the heated passions of the young collegiates enjoying the relaxing social mores of the Jazz Age during the Roaring Twenties.  Wasn't that the "bee's knees" or the "cat's meow"?

Notably, a similar event occurred on a Union tank farm in San Luis Obispo on the morning of the 7th, the day before the Brea event, but the damage there was double, about $7,000,000, of the latter and involved about 8 million barrels of crude.  The insurance payout of some $9,000,000 was the single largest in California since the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of twenty years before.

Of interest, as well, is the fact that more than eighty years later, there are still environmental risks involved.  In San Luis Obispo's tank farm at the southern edge of town, oil was still bubbling to the surface in hot weather and Chevron, owner of the site, was proposing a cleanup preliminary to development of light industrial parks in the vicinity of the tank farm.  Chevron was actually using large nets, propane-powered noise guns and reflective tape (as used in vineyards) to scare away birds and other wildlife from the seepage of the old oil.

The real photo postcard above was obtained courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.


Anonymous said...

My grandfather worked out of Stewart Tank Farm in the early 1960's. They had a standard lock on all the gates - a lock made by YALE and the key a "2000". When they figured it was going to close, he took about 30 locks and hundreds of keys and gave them out to the family as a standard way for us to get into each others backyard or garage. It was an interesting concept that never really worked, but to this day I have 10 locks with 20 keys from the tank farm!

prs said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comment and that's funny about how all those locks and keys were "repurposed".

Anonymous said...
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Autumn Stewart said...

I have a green la vida bottle that is swirly Im wondering value

prs said...

Hi Autumn, there are lots of bottle collectors out there and price guides, so you might try someone who has that expertise. I've bought a few, but wouldn't want to try and guess any value. Good luck!