Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Happy Birthday to CSO Well No. 4

By Duane Harte
Guest Commentary

Monday, September 26, 2005

W
hat started out with a retired Mexican general, Andrés Pico, exploring his newly acquired rancho in the mid-1850s turned out to be the first big oil strike in California.
    Who knew that the asphaltum carried by horseback in leather bags down to the presidio of Los Angeles for use in waterproofing and roofing would turn in to more than 300 barrels of oil per day flowing through a pipeline to the refinery in Newhall?
    Many oil rigs dotted the canyons and ridgelines of Pico Canyon in the 1880s, but it was the sudden gusher from CSO's No. 4 well that started it all.
    During the afternoon of Sept. 26, 1876, a previously minor producing oil well in Pico Canyon burst forth with a thunderous stream of oil, catapulting what would become Standard Oil and later Chevron Oil.
    Today is the 129th anniversary of the start of CSO No. 4's one hundred fourteen-year run. It was the longest producing oil well in the world until its retirement in 1990.
    Many famous names in Santa Clarita today had a part in the history of Pico Canyon dating back to the inception of California Star Oil Co. in the 1870s. Beale, Wiley, Lyon and Pico are names that most of us will recognize while driving around Santa Clarita. These men all had a stake in the California oil industry. The little schoolhouse in Mentryville, Felton School, derived its name from one of the early stakeholders of CSO who later became a U.S. senator from California.
    Although Pico Canyon was arguably the first major oil-producing area on the West Coast, it had a relatively short life span. Major drilling efforts all but ceased by the early 1900s, and a skeleton crew was all that was needed to keep the pumps going and the property protected. The only major living quarters remaining is the superintendent's mansion, known as the Big House. All of the homes from the early days are long gone — either leaving with their owners, sold off to Newhall residents in the 1890s and 1900s, or just bulldozed. The Felton School and an old red barn still remain, along with a tin garage and a chicken coup.
    During the fires of 2004, all of the existing structures were saved from destruction by wonderful firefighters from many different areas and camp crews that came in like a swarm of locusts to clean up the area and rid the nearby hillsides and creek bed of dried brush.
    Then came the floods of 2005 to again try and demolish all that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Friends of Mentryville have fought long and hard to protect and restore. Once again the structures were spared, but this time the cleanup is going to take much longer.
    Two major culverts at Mentryville have been washed out, leaving no access to the parking lot. I guess I should say "the parking lot area that still remains." Much of the old parking area has been washed into Pico Creek.
    The park is still available for hiking and biking, but tours have been canceled for the time being, since the only parking is outside the gate on Pico Canyon Road and visitors must walk in.
    This is tragic for our valley's third graders, who are taught local history — many of whom come to Mentryville with their class. Hopefully the Conservancy will be able to repair what needs to be fixed so that our children will once again be able to share in an important part of Santa Clarita's history.
    There isn't much left of CSO No. 4 these days. Only the historical markers placed near the old well remain. The equipment was removed long ago for safety's sake. Anything wooden was lost in the fires.
    The one thing that does remain in the canyon are the memories it bears. Many of those memories are left on paper. Many are left to be found. But to someone who loves the history of the Santa Clarita Valley, it's a treasure that needs to be protected at all cost.

    Duane Harte is a board member and past president of the Friends of Mentryville.


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