Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

The Great Unreported
Pico Canyon Oil Spill.

Published in The Signal, 1-16-2005.

Darryl Manzer, 2004     Imagine it is 1965. You're going to drive out to Pico Canyon on a Saturday to ride up the canyon. Imagine, too, you're driving from "downtown" Newhall. After making a stop at the only stoplight, you turn west on Lyons.
    There's a four-way stop sign at Newhall Avenue, and then it is a smooth, two-lane street all the way to Highway 99. With luck, you can cross all four lanes without stopping. You usually get caught in the center divider of the highway.
    Once you cross 99, it's up a hill with a slight curve to the right, and then back down to the valley floor. Scrub and live oak trees dot the landscape to the right and left, with sagebrush in the hills beyond. An alfalfa field is to your right, and soon the canyon walls start to close in around you.
    You start to wonder why anyone would want to live this far out in a canyon.
    Yet, you drive on. The road curves around a huge, old oak tree.
    They just built the road around it way back when, instead of chopping it down.
    You didn't know they cared about such things in the 1870s.
    The road goes past a small ranch and some cows to the left. Soon you must decide. Do I go right, over the hill, or do I go left? You remember you were told to take the left fork in the road. See the sign?
    "End of county maintained road."
    Sure enough, the road gets rough. Maybe you should have the shocks checked at Sonny and Mel's the next time you get the oil changed. You're not worried about the tires because they already have 15,000 miles on them and it is about time for a new set.
    Someday, tires may last longer. Yeah. Sure. About the same time the Berlin Wall is demolished.
    A couple more curves and you're at a gate.
    I unlock it and let you drive through to park.
    I've saddled a couple of horses and have a canteen for each of us. We mount up and start up the canyon.

* * *
    It has been three years since the fire. Much of the brush has grown back. The horses want to stop and eat on Mustard Hill behind the schoolhouse. We keep them from turning, and stay on the road.
    Past the lower fire pump and tank, we ride.
    The canyon walls get closer. I remind you to listen for trucks and cars. Standard Oil workers are up and down the road all day. There are plans to re-drill some of the wells and recover more oil.
    You can smell the difference between the dusty road and the creek bottom. A pencil-thin stream of water is still flowing on this early summer day. Soon it will dry up and soak into the sand. We pass Minnie-Lotta Canyon on the left, and before long our noses tell us there is a spring nearby. It has a rotten-egg smell. You say there must be a natural gas leak. I tell you it is only a spring with a high natural chemical content.
    Of course, this is right at the picnic grounds. There was an employee party there last night. We stop to dig through the gravel near the poker tables for change that may have dropped. You find almost $3. It should just about fill your gas tank or more, if gas is on sale.
    We remount and continue our ride. The road climbs up the canyon bottom, then crosses the creek. Standard Oil just replaced the bridge with a huge culvert. Up ahead is an oil well on the right and a historical marker of some type. It says it is the first commercially produced oil well in California. There are other wells all over the hillsides. Fallen derricks cover some wells that haven't been pumped in years. A couple of derricks are still standing.
    They drilled for oil with these rickety wooden derricks? you wonder.
    The road doubles back in a hairpin curve and heads up the PCO Hill on the south side of the canyon. The horses work hard as they make the climb up the steep grade.
    We're lucky we haven't seen a rattlesnake today. My horse always bolts at the sight of a snake. I do, too.
    At last we reach an almost-level stretch of road that seems to hang on the side of the hill. It is a few hundred feet to the bottom of the canyon. You and your horse stay to the uphill side, away from the edge. We can now see our first view of the entire Santa Clarita Valley.
    The fields around town are green and lush. It looks like the carrot and onion crops are about ready to harvest. The barley has already been cut and taken to market. Far in the distance is what we call "Cobblestone Mountain." It is clear up by Gorman.
    I tell you that from this vantage, you can pick out individual house lights at night.
    At the top, near the upper fire tank, we stop and stake out the horses. I fill the trough so they can take a drink. It is hot and dusty, and a yellow haze is creeping in from the San Fernando Valley. Smog. Thank God we don't have it here yet.
    Seeing that the fire tank is full, we decide to cool off with a quick swim. Skinny-dipping in the warm water is refreshing.
    Now it's back out through the tank roof and down the ladder. We put the bridles back on the horses and check the cinches for the ride downhill.
    We don't talk much on the way back. I check some salt blocks and the fence line. You tell me you've figured out why they drilled for oil here.
    "It is just running down the creek!" you cry.
    Sure enough, there is a foot-or-so wide stream of oil in the creek.
    I tell you to follow as best you can.
    I'm up on the horse and at a dead run toward the house, rushing to place a phone to call the company.
    We have an oil spill.
    Standard Oil workers respond quickly. A pipe had ruptured someplace between the picnic grounds and the school house.
* * *
    You know, nobody ever talked about the environmental problems.
    I took our little garden tractor and made a dam across the creek, blocking most of the oil. Vacuum trucks arrived and sucked up the oil. The break in the line was found and patched. For the next few days, sand from the creek was used on the road as another resurfacing project.
    It didn't make the news. It didn't even make the paper. The Mighty Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise missed the story.
    As for our ride up the canyon, it was just one of many you took with me. But that "oil spill" day, you simply drove back to Newhall. You got almost two fill-ups, because gas prices had dropped to 15.9 cents per gallon. Tires were on sale, too: $15 each, with a 10,000 mile warranty.
    Now, almost 40 years later, The Signal has the scoop on the big oil spill in Pico Canyon. Today it would make national headlines "10,000 Gallons of Oil Spill; Nature Suffers."
    There was no governmental action. The state of California never knew about the spill. There was no report to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA didn't exist.
    But the spill was cleaned up. The creek flowed again with that thin, little stream of water that dried up in the late June heat. Rules and regulations really didn't exist.
    Despite the lack of such oversight, the right actions were taken.
    The same actions that would be taken today. Only then, we could do it on our own. We didn't need the government to tell us to clean up after ourselves.
    We just did it because it was the right thing to do.

    Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.

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