William E. Youle might not have a historic oil town named for him, but his name belongs right up there with that of Alexander Mentry, the Pico Canyon oil driller whose legacy is celebrated at Mentryville.
While Mentry was drilling wells in Pico Canyon in 1876-77-78, W.E. Youle was doing the same up north at Moody Gulch in Santa Clara County. In fact, Youle brought in the first commercial well in California from which oil was brought to market. But that initial attempt to exploit the petroleum resources at Moody Gulch was beset with problems — including feuds over oil claims — and it didn't last. So the distinction of bringing in the first truly successful oil well went to Mentry.
Youle would join him at Pico — he'd been there previously, in 1876 — and by 1885, Youle had drilled 10 to 12 wells in the Pico field, by his own account, boosting production to 400-500 barrels per day.
"To Mentry and myself as field men, credit should be given for the locating and drilling of the first wells that looked like a commercial success (in California)," Youle wrote.
By the time of his death in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 1926, Youle had spent 63 years in the oil fields of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Canada, and mostly California. His memoirs were published under the title, coincidentally enough, of "Sixty-Three Years in the Oil Fields."
Born in 1847 in Pontiac, Mich., to an English father and Irish mother who'd come over from the Old Country, W.E. Youle set out at 16 to find his fortune. He never made it to the financial stratosphere, but he did establish a reputation as a top-rate oil driller — which meant a gifted mechanical engineer.
These were exciting and rapidly changing times. Oil had been used primarily as a medicinal curative for thousands of years — for everything from headaches and nausea to skin disorders — until 1859, when somebody thought to use it as an illuminant. That same year, the Drake well came in at Titusville, Penn., and the U.S. oil industry was born.
Youle arrived at Titusville in 1863 and went to work first in the refinery, then as a toolie (responsible for keeping the drill bits in shape), and within months he was a driller, earning $4 a day. It was good pay. Twenty-five years later at Pico, experienced drillers were still making $4 a day, while most unskilled oilers were paid $2.50.
In 1875, an acquaintance from Titusville who was now in San Francisco, D.G. Scofield, wrote to Youle and told him what was going on in California. Scofield had been in contact with a chemist named Vincent Gelcich, who investigated petroleum seepages in Pico Canyon and found them promising.
The timing was right. Youle's drilling contracts were up and he packed his bags for California. Sailing around Cape Horn, Youle and another Titusville driller, J.A. Scott, arrived in late 1876 and went to Pico. Youle found that Mentry was bringing in 30 barrels of oil per day from a well Mentry had punched to 300 feet, so Scott started setting up a new refinery next to the new stagecoach stop in Newhall — Andrew's Station near present-day Pine Street.
Meanwhile, Scofield sent Youle to Moody Gulch. We won't go into that whole story; suffice it to say, disputes over oil claims led to gunfights, and besides, the wells kept caving in.
Both Scofield and Youle wanted Moody Gulch to work — it was much closer to San Francisco than Pico, thus the transportation costs to market were appreciably lower. Youle did punch two wells there, and in 1878 he sold the first drilled oil in California (to the San Jose gas works). But the early troubles at Moody Gulch seemed insurmountable, and by the start of 1879, Youle was back in Pico Canyon.
"I felt (Scofield's) company was right in deciding to drill Moody Gulch first," Youle writes. "Mentry thought it should be Pico. It was proven that Mentry was right, for subsequently he deepened the Pico No. 4 (oil well) and the production was brought up to 150 barrels per day, at about 600 feet. This developed a thick oil sand which made it particularly encouraging as to capacity."
Youle didn't confine his own drilling activities to Pico. He returned to Moody Gulch when things got straightened out there. He also drilled the first wells at what would become the tremendously lucrative Sunset field in Kern County, and he installed the Sunset's first stills that ran on super-heated steam.
Los Angeles, Coalinga and many other places followed. But all of those places were still in their formative years. "Up to 1885," Youle writes, "Pico Canyon was the only production in California that proved a success."
"The extent of this field was only some 300 acres, located in Pico Canyon and hills," he writes. "The sands were thick and coarse grained, and wells were not big producers; they were, however, lasting, and we have produced millions of barrels of oil. They are pumping wells there today (1926) that I drilled about 45 years ago."
For many years, Youle was looked upon not merely as "a" pioneer of the California oil industry, but as "the" pioneer driller. Why Youle and not Mentry? Probably because Youle was both talented and available, whereas Mentry was only talented. Youle was the contract driller you hired to get your oil field started, anywhere in the state. He was his own boss; he had a lengthy client list and a legend that grew as he traveled from job site to job site — in juxtaposition to Mentry, a company man who never left Pico.
To his considerable credit, and with humility, Youle sets the record straight in his memoirs.
"In the early days I was often interviewed by press reporters," Youle recalls. "Several times I read articles giving me the credit of drilling the first producing well ‘in California.' I was sorry to see those articles copied by other journals, with statements not authorized by me.
"What I did say was, I drilled the first commercial well in California, in Moody Gulch, in 1877. This was the first California crude oil shipped to any market. However, to Alex Mentry, credit should be given for drilling the first producing oil well in California — the well drilled in Pico Canyon, near Newhall, in 1876-77. The strike was important as it proved an oil sand and a fine grade of paraffine [sic] oil."
— Leon Worden 2013