Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Before Quigley, there was Mentry
• From century to century, a sparsely populated canyon in the Santa Clarita Valley comes full circle in matters of growth.

By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Saturday, April 19, 2003

[READ PART 1][READ PART 2][YOUNG FAMILY HOMESTEAD PHOTO]

Y
ou'd have to be hiding under a rock in Iraq not to know that the plight of a solitary oak tree in Pico Canyon was a major news item in this territory in the days and months before the Bush administration decided Saddam Hussein had been given enough time to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.
    All but forgotten now, it was more than just "news of the weird." Environmentalists rallied the troops, and opinions coalesced as John Quigley's davidian standoff in the boughs of "Old Glory" resonated with populations from coast to coast that have simultaneously benefited from and struggled with urbanization — a phenomenon that traces its roots to the Industrial Revolution and moves to the middle of the public-policy radar whenever there's a healthy economy to fuel it.
    But then came the conflagration that some Middle Eastern news agencies dubiously dubbed the "War for Oil," and Quigley and Old Glory were swept off of the front page and expelled from network television altogether.
    Pico Canyon had made far-reaching headlines more than a century earlier, but nobody was protesting growth at the time. Quite the opposite.
    Pico was the staging ground for a revolutionary industry whose leaders were embroiled in their own war for oil — a war that pitted man's ingenuity against the elements in a battle to exploit the natural resources that were needed to fuel the growth of cities.
    And it was a French immigrant — or more properly the son of expatriates — whose expertise and tenacity overcame obstacles that had defeated men of lesser ability, and whose success not only put the Santa Clarita Valley on the map but more importantly paved the way to economic prosperity for California.
    It was a different time. Growth was essential to securing America's manifest destiny. The Gold Rush was fresh in the minds of Easterners and Midwesterners who flocked to the Barbary Coast by steamer and wagon train. Among them, in 1873, was Alex Mentry.
    Born Charles Alexander Mentrier, his father, a blacksmith, anglicized the name two decades earlier when he brought the family to Pennsylvania, where young Alex developed a singular knack for drilling oil wells.
    In San Francisco Mentry no doubt heard the stories that were circulating about untapped oil reserves in northern Los Angeles County, where "rivers of oil" were said to await a skilled hand. By 1875 he had purchased a claim in Pico Canyon and was plying his trade there.
    Within months those "rivers of oil" were flowing. Pico No. 4, as the well was known, was California's first commercially successful oil well. Dozens more would be punched into the hillsides, and more than 100 professional oilmen would arrive in the canyon to operate them.
    The state's first profitable oil field necessitated the construction of what would become the state's first productive oil refinery in Newhall to convert the raw petroleum into a salable product. Kerosene was the breadwinner, arriving in San Francisco just as the prices of eastern shipments were spiking. Secondary products greased the skids of industry, running the gamut from benzene to a fire-test safety illuminant for ships, railroads, factories and mines, and lubricants for machinery, saw mills and railroad journal boxes.
    Along the way Mentry constructed the state's first oil pipeline out of Pico Canyon and oversaw the loading of the first steel-tank oil cargo ship on California's coastline. By the time Mentry died from complications resulting from an insect bite in 1900, John D. Rockefeller had gobbled up his oil field operations and in 1906 they were consolidated into the Standard Oil Co. of California.
    That company's first president, Demetrius G. Scofield, remembered Mentry as a principled man who "believed in the dignity of labor and exemplified that belief in his works."
    "While wells had been drilled for oil in California as early as 1865, no satisfactory results had been obtained, and it was not until (Mentry) had completed the first producing well in Pico Cañon ... that the petroleum oil business could be said to have attained its start in this state," Scofield eulogized 103 years ago.
    "This well was drilled under great difficulties. ... The railroad had not then been completed; there was no road into the cañon; water was almost unattainable; and there were no adequate tools or machinery to be had. In fact, almost everything that was used at this early stage of development was the creation of Mentry's hands and genius. ... His success led to the investment of capital, the purchase of large tracts of land, the exploitation and development of the oil measures, the construction of pipe lines and refineries, and, pointing out the way for others to follow, his efforts have enabled California to take front rank with the other great oil producing states."
    Incidentally, Scofield unwittingly settled an argument over nomenclature that would arise in later years. Residents of Mentry's oil town in the early and mid-20th Century called the area "Pico" and assumed — wrongly, it turns out — that the name "Mentryville," when it began to be used in the 1970s, was a nostalgic fabrication.
    "At Mentryville," quoth Scofield's flowery 1900 prose, "the little settlement of employees named in his honor, there has grown up an ideal community of modest homes. Under (Mentry's) wise and kindly rule, content has reigned; no strikes have taken place; families have been reared and friendships formed; school houses built, and a social hall; and sons, to manhood's growth attained, are working by their fathers' sides."
    Well, one school house was built, and the social hall is gone, as are most of the homes. Mentry's 13-room Victorian mansion remains, and after his death it was home to his successor, Walton Young.
    Young arrived in Pico in 1889 and went to work as a blacksmith's helper in the machine shop. He married in 1891 and became foreman in charge of the boiler work. In 1900 he took the helm as Standard Oil's local superintendent, overseeing production and transportation in Pico and Elsmere canyons. It may not have been evident yet, but by the time he moved into the "Big House," as it was known, Mentryville had seen its heyday as California's pioneering oil town.
    But just when did he move his family into the mansion? It was always presumed the move coincided with Mentry's death. After all, it was a company house, and its rightful occupant was the superintendent.
    But a newly discovered photograph, published here for the first time, shows the Walton Young homestead in Pico Canyon in 1905 — and it isn't the Big House. Rather, it's a deceptively bucolic scene depicting a man on horseback in front of a common redwood house and a pair of outbuildings (plus an outhouse) that are tucked into a nook against a canyon wall, while another man, woman and some children pose for the camera in their Sunday finest. (Kids, dogs and horses are always blurry because it was exceedingly difficult to get them to hold still for the long exposure that was necessary at the time.) The hand-written caption on the back of the photograph says "Mr. Carl Tyler took this" in June 1905.
    The devil's always in the details when you're trying to set the historical record straight, and Duane Harte of the Friends of Mentryville organization is to thank for pointing out this particular discrepancy.
    Perhaps Young had filed a homestead patent and kept it as a weekender while he lived in the Big House, or vice versa, or maybe Mentry's widow and their four children were allowed to stay in the mansion until they could resettle.
    In any event Young retired in 1927 to Santa Monica where he and his wife, Harriet, had already established a home. They maintained local friendships and returned to Newhall in the 1930s for "old timer" reunions. Young was followed in Pico by Charles Sitzman — eventually. Upon Young's retirement The Newhall Signal reported that his successor was to be J.W. "Joe" Barrett, a name the annals seem to have overlooked.
    As for the Walton Young homestead, its exact location in the canyon is a mystery — but the answer is out there. Mentryville, now a state park operated by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, is open to the public during daylight hours, and if you manage to match the photograph in this newspaper to the proper hillside configuration, you'll get an honorable mention next week.
    To get there take McBean Parkway, which becomes Stevenson Ranch Parkway on the west side of Interstate 5. Follow it all the way to the end and turn right onto Pico Canyon Road.
    Take the detour around the barricades that were erected to frustrate a modern-day protest against growth and eventually you'll come to the park signs, beyond which lie the relics of a bygone enterprise that helped shape the growth of a state.

    For more information and photographs of Mentryville visit mentryville.org and scvhistory.com on the Internet. The Friends of Mentryville give guided tours from noon to 4 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of the month (not this Easter Sunday, but the park will be open). Also, watch SCVTV Channel 20 on cable on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., when former Mentryville resident Patricia Westcott Kelly shows and talks about life in the oil town in the 1930s and Œ40s on "Legacy: Santa Clarita's Living History."


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