13 December 2013

The Brea-Olinda Oil Field in 1925

An interesting description of the oil belt described as the Brea-Olinda field appeared in the May 1925 issue of Union Oil Bulletin, the magazine of the Union Oil Company of California.  Union, as has been described here before, was founded in Santa Paula in Ventura County in 1890 by Senator Thomas Bard, Lyman Stewart and William L. Hardison by merging several smaller companies together.

In early 1894, Union acquired some 1,200 acres of land from the Stearns Ranch Company and inaugurated their exploration for oil in Orange County, which started at Olinda with Edward L. Doheny, discoverer of the first well in the Los Angeles field, bringing in the still-operating well at the Santa Fe lease in 1897.  Hardison's brother-in-law, William B. Scott, was a founder of the Columbia Oil Company, which had ties to Union as well as having its own property at Olinda and Scott later was one of the "three brothers" (along with former Los Angeles County sheriff and owner of the Puente Oil Company, William R. Rowland, and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler) who bought much of Tonner Canyon for their "Tres Hermanos Ranch."

Union became such a major player in the Brea-Olinda area that they later established a large facility at the northeast corner of Imperial Highway and Valencia Avenue.  This was razed within the last decade or so and the land is now being developed as the La Floresta subdivision of homes and commercial space.

Before that, the company's property a short distance west at Imperial and Kraemer Avenue was developed into the Union Plaza shopping center.  Now, that active oil drilling is slowly disappearing from the field--in fact, wells are being dismantled and capped consistently these days--the visual reminders of the long history of oil prospecting in Olinda and its vicinity are yielding to residential and commercial development (after, of course, a considerable amount of cleanup and reclamation of the properties.)

In any case, the 1925 article, "The Brea-Olinda Field:  A Phenomenal Producer Reserve," by F. W. Lake and Robert W. Phelps gives an interesting overview of the then-thriving field, not long before that known commonly as the "Fullerton Oil Field," though several miles northeast of that town.  The article described the field as extending five miles long by one wide from Brea Canyon on the west to "the town of Olinda" on the east, though some have objected to referring to Olinda as a "town."

This map, drawn by M.E. Baird from geology work by Robert W. Phelps and F. W. Lake, appeared in an article by Lake and Phelps in the Union Oil Bulletin, May 1925.  Click on the map to see it in an enlarged view in a separate window. 
Courtesy, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.
The authors noted that the large asphalt seeps which lie in the field  have been known since the early explorers passed through the country and are mentioned in all their reports and diaries."  Presumably this means the Spanish explorers, who arrived in the area as early as 1769, but, of course, the true "explorers" were the native aboriginal Indians who had been here thousands of years before.

Regardless, Lake and Phelps also observed that "names of topographical features, such as Brea Canyon and Carbon Canyon, indicate that the existence of the asphalt deposits has long been known."  Moreover, they continued, "in early times the asphalt which slowly oozes down from the hills was used in roofing the houses in the vicinity and as fuel."  This was, indeed, the case, with the adobe houses of the Spanish, Mexican and early American periods, when the mainly flat roofs were coated in tar to protect the interiors from rain (though hot summers would cause the tar to liquefy and cause some problems with the furniture and furnishings!)  The world-famous La Brea tar pits served the same function.  Fuel was collected by digging the asphalt and, in some cases, "pits were dug from which the asphalt was collected and mixed with manure and used as fuel under the boilers in the small industries in the neighboring towns." 

The authors went on to report that, between 1880 and 1895, some shallow wells were drilled but produced nothing of substantive value until Doheny's strike and that "this first activity was centered around the town of Olinda in the east end of the field."  Later, these wells were attempted further to the west in Brea Canyon and then the intervening areas were explored and prospected.  According to Lake and Phelps, "the development has been and continues to be slow and conservative and this fact is probably one of the reasons why the area is so productive and has enjoyed such a long life."

Much of the article goes into technical detail about the geological forces that created the conditions for oil deposits within the field, specifically that production was mostly found in tar seeps on a monocline, where the layers of subsurface strata are inclined in the same direction and, in the case, of this field the dip is "overturned at the fault to about forty degrees along the southern limits."  Reverse, or thrust, faults are at right angles to the main "Puente fault" running through the district.

Drilling turned out to be difficult and expensive, requiring heavy tools and rigs, because of "the hardness of the conglomerate strata and the steep angle at which the strata are inclined," as noted above with that forty degree overturning.  In 1925, wells varied from a few hundred to over five thousand feet in depth, very shallow compared to some of today's wells, which, naturally, used highly-advanced technology (now further complicated by such methods as fracking and horizontal drilling.)  The nature of the field and its steep strata inclinations "make it extremely difficult to keep the hole straight," which, in turn, meant that "a number of the wells in the field had to be abandoned before completion because the hole was too crooked and the tools and casing were stuck and lost."

Still, the Brea-Olinda Field proved to be highly productive and lucrative.  The authors observed that "the proven acreage of the field amounts to about fourteen hundred acres of which eight hundred and fifty or sixty per cent are producing."  This is striking (!) because a sidebar at the front of the article  stated that Union owned or leased "approximately 8200 acres" with "the latest acquisition being the Olinda tract of 2795 acres."  In addition, "a remarkable feature of the field is that the bulk of production up to the present time has come from the upper sands, and that the lower zones with an estimated greater productivity have scarcely been scratched." 

This fact made the Brea-Olinda field "a valuable reserve" because on the untapped deeper sands--areas that were reached in subsequent decades as drill bits became improved (Shelley Stoody, discussed here recently relative to his ranch in the Chino Hills portion of Carbon Canyon at what is now the Western Hills golf course, patented a more durable bit that greatly assisted drilling in difficult areas like Olinda) and other elements of drilling at greater depths made more successful.

Lake and Phelps reckoned that total production to the beginning of 1925 at Brea-Olinda totaled 90,000,000 barrels of crude with 360 wells currently drilling on the 850 producing acres and yielding some 377,000 barrels per month.  In addition, another two dozen or so wells were "shut in," or closed, but still producing, to avoid dangerous blowouts, or gushers, of uncontrolled oil or gas.

As for the future, the authors were careful to explain that, while the field was remarkably consistent and still had a great deal of untapped crude because only the first two of four oil sand zones had been explored, estimates were to be very general.  Still, they concluded by observing that "a conservative estimate of the future production recoverable with the present means of production [italics added for emphasis] for the entire field would be about twice the production recovered in the past."  In other words, the estimate was that another 180 million barrels could have been available for future production, if technology was to remain constant, which, of course, it would not be.

The first page of the Lake and Phelps article, which has much technical data on the geological qualities of the field, but also material on its history, production to date, and conservative estimates of future production, which were, indeed, significantly eclipsed as technology allowed for deeper and more efficient drilling and extraction of crude oil and natural gas.
In fact, a 1963 industry report, stated that peak production at Brea-Olinda was in 1953 with the advent of greater drilling and recovery technological advancements and that, by 1957, the total number of barrels extracted from the field totaled 258,000,000 with another 79,000,000 in reserve, figures much higher than the 1925 report.  Additionally, the proven acreage jumped three times to 2,415 acres and the number of producing wells mushroomed to over 630.  In 1957, the total extraction was some 6,900,000 barrels.

The image above is a map included with the 1925 Union Oil Bulletin article and which was made in April from geology analysis by the authors.  The defining geological feature is the Puente Fault, the dark line running from the upper left to the right center.  Brea Canyon Road emerges from the town of Brea at the left and turns into the southern end of Brea Canyon, with substantial activity by Union, Brea Canyon Oil (another Doheny enterprise), Fullerton Oil, Columbia, General Petroleum and Birch Oil Company (A. Otis Birch, namesake of the company and of Birch Street in Brea, with his family having a street and park named for them in Santa Ana, made a fortune on his relatively small property. 

Union was the dominant firm extending eastward from Brea canyon to the southern end of Olinda, with that latter portion being land formerly held by the Olinda Land Company, created by William H. Bailey, the developer of the Olinda Ranch in the late 1880s.

At the north end of Olinda were other major players, including Shell; General Petroleum (which also controlled large, but not heavily producing, lands in lower Tonner Canyon; Fullerton, West Coast, and Chanslor-Canfield Midway Oil (CCMO), which ran its operations on the Santa Fe lease, owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway originally.  That is why the spur line of the ATSF comes up from the bottom right of the photo off the main line parallel to Orangethorpe Avenue in Placentia at Atwood and terminated at the CCMO lease to transport oil out by rail.

Also of note, toward the bottom, is the line of the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar, which terminated at Yorba Linda, and the right-of-way of which still exists (and, in Yorba Linda, is now a multi-use trail).  See also "Brea-Olinda Boulevard" which is now Birch Steet, as well as Carbon Canyon Road which then curved sharply as it headed westward and then south to what is now Valencia Avenue.  Unconnected to it then, but now its westward extension is what became Lambert Road, but which was, in 1925, a private oil field road. 

The dashed and dotted line running top to bottom through Carbon Canyon Road, as it angled south and which separates the Shell Oil land from the CCMO property in Olinda is the boundary line for the historic Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana, with the land to the right or east constituting "public land" available for common grazing by the neighboring ranch owners.  The San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana's north boundary turns at the north end of the Shell Oil Company holding and heads west before angling northwest into Brea Canyon and further west to meet the Rancho La Habra.

No comments: