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Oil Production in Santa Clarita Valley, 1876
Excerpt from "Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies"


Webmaster's Note. Los Angeles was undergoing rapid change when Ludwig Louis Salvator, Archduke of Austria, visited in 1876. Los Angeles County (which included Orange County) already had four(!) banks; the most lucrative and promising export was wine and brandy, and the biggest import was building materials. Salvator collected all manner of data, from agricultural production to ethnography, and transformed it into a narrative that he published in Prague in 1878 while he was back home in Zindis near Trieste (which wasn't yet part of Italy). His work, "Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies: A Flower from the Golden Land," was translated into English from the original German in September 1929, in a limited edition of 900 copies.

Salvator stayed in L.A. long enough to know about the linkage of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads at Lang Station in present-day Canyon Country in early September 1876, but he doesn't appear to have known about Alexander Mentry's success with oil production at Pico Canyon later that same month. His observations of oil production are nonetheless important inasmuch as they revalidate the date of 1874 for a fledgling refinery in present-day Newhall (at Lyon's Station) and tell us, among other things, who filed oil claims in the area and in what order; what document gave Pico Canyon its name; who thwarted attempts at claim jumping — and Salvator informs us that both Andrew's Station and the refinery near it (the Pioneer Oil Refinery) were up and running during his 1876 visit, which is particularly interesting in light of other records giving 1877 as a completion date for the newer refinery.

Editorial notes: Salvator refers to the oil fields east of present-day Newhall (Pico, Rice, Wiley canyons, etc.) as the San Fernando Range. What he calls the Santa Clara Valley is now known as the Santa Clarita Valley. "Mexicans" are people originally from the interior of Mexico and "Californians" are people of Castillian Spanish stock who may or may not have married native Americans; or their issue. (Although not referenced here, in the vernacular of the day, the other two groups are "Americans" — people from other U.S. states — and "foreigners," i.e., immigrants from other lands.) The correct name of what he calls the "Star Oil Working Company" is Star Oil Works Co.; it's unknown whether this minor error should be attributed to the author or the translator. This excerpt is from pages 92-95 of the 1929 edition.



"Main Street in Los Angeles" from &Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies" (1929 edition, reprinted from the 1878 edition). Click image to enlarge.

The greatest mineral wealth of Los Angeles promises to be petroleum. The Pennsylvania oil-fields being already on the decline, a new field promises to open up out on this coast. About half a mile from the shore, in the general vicinity of Ventura and Santa Barbara, the ocean is covered with a thin film of oil about 10 miles in length and stretching far out to sea. This, which is ascribed to submarine oil-wells, is highly significant, as is the steady seepage from hidden oil-sands near the shore which discharges into the ocean. The oil region in the Ventura district stretches westward from Ventura and, paralleling the coast, reaches the ocean at Ortega Hill, finally striking off in an easterly direction to Santa Paula Creek, forming the oil-lands of the Sespe Mountains and the San Fernando Range. By doing so it embraces three counties, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura, and Los Angeles, and extends for 100 miles. The San Fernando oil-fields, however, are alone of importance in this narrative as falling within Los Angeles County.

The district of San Fernando lies in the northwest corner of Los Angeles County. On the north it borders San Francisquito; on the west, the Sierra of Santa Susanna; on the south, Rancho Simi; and, on the east, Mission San Fernando. It also adjoins the foothills on the northeast slope of the San Gabriel Mountains where, toward the north, stretches the Santa Clara Valley.

In a lone spur of the San Fernando Range about 35 miles from Los Angeles, oil was discovered in February, 1865, by Mexicans who, while out hunting bear, became thirsty and began to search for water. Finding a brook that emitted a strange odor of petroleum, they struck a match which immediately ignited. Cognizant of the importance of their discovery one remained on the ground to establish possession while his partner hurried off to Los Angeles to inform some of the most influential citizens — among them General Andr&etilde;s Pico, Dr. Vincent Gelcich, Colonel Baker, and Messrs. Wiley, Leaming, Stevenson, Rice, Todd, Lyon, and Andere — of this discovery. These men decided to go out and stake claims measuring 1500x600 feet apiece in conformity with the mining laws, and instruct the discoverers how to protect their claims.

The first claim was named Cañana Pico (General Pico's holding, later owned by the Star Oil Working Company), the second was called Wiley, the third Moore, the fourth Rice (this is now owned by Dr. Gelcich), the fifth after a man named Leaming, the sixth for Gelcich, and the seventh for Todd. Toward the close of 1865 the district was incorporated and several companies formed. In 1867 Macpherson and Scott of the Pennsylvania Company of Philadelphia vainly sought to acquire possession. Dr. Gelcich had, however, realized the importance of these holdings and had drilled a well on the adjacent high ground. In 1873-74, Dr. Gelcich purchased all claims in Rice Canyon from the owners, paying considerable amounts. Recently squatters have come in, but through the efforts of Mrs. Gelcich, a member of the Pico family, the wells were released despite her husband's absence.

The main shale body can now be traced, and reveals a stratum 400-500 feet wide running northwest and southeast for about 6 miles near sandstone deposits 32° southwest. The crude oil has a gravity of 40° Baume. None of the wells yields paraffin.

In 1874, Dr. Gelcich started a refinery that will soon produce 300 barrels a day. The crude is 80 per cent pure oil. Even with a refinery capable of handling 1500 barrels a day, the capacity would be inadequate to handle the total daily production of the wells. In the beginning, the problem of transportation proved difficult; now, however, the railway is only 6 miles away and at the Andrews Station, two hours out of Los Angeles, wooden tanks have been erected for storing oil. Furthermore, the Star Oil Working Company has established a refinery which is running at full capacity. Of crude oil, 60 per cent goes into an illuminating oil of high gravity with 120°-130° fire test, 25 per cent is extracted as a lubricating fuel; the balance is fuel.

Closely associated with these oil-wells are the numerous valuable asphalt deposits which are found throughout the county. Oil, as a matter of fact, flows out from strata of slate and sandstone; where the shale is penetrated flowing oil emerges; where, however, the upper strata are formed of rock, the oil is found in the form of tar, that is, oil that has been transformed into asphalt through oxidation. This, as it seeps out, resembles a black, tar-like fluid which hardens upon striking air. In cool weather it becomes extremely hard; at 75° it becomes soft; at 85° it becomes liquid. The principal deposits and springs are in La Brea Canyon, Los Nietos, the Santa Susanna Mountains, the San Pedro Hills, San Juan Capistrano and the plains near Cahuenga Pass, lying about 7 miles from the ocean and a similar distance from Los Angeles. The latter are very large, rich deposits that extend out over a considerable area. Major Hancock's asphalt works, that prepare from 2 to 3 tons daily for the markets, are located nearby. Here the raw asphalt is boiled in huge kettles for twelve hours over a hot fire. The sediment thus having been precipitated to the bottom, the slack is then removed. The asphalt is next poured into forms made of sand where it is shaped. Of the total, one-third is slack and sediment, especially the latter which is saved and utilized in its entirety for food.

The asphalt is largely used for roofs and sidewalks. For the former purpose it is in common use on many of the Californian houses in Los Angeles. It is also in demand for the manufacturing of glass.

LOS ANGELES IN THE SUNNY SEVENTIES (Excerpts)
Ludwig Salvator 1878

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SCV Oil Production

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