Leon Worden

City should accept ownership of Pioneer Oil Refinery

By Leon Worden

July 9, 1997

hat if somebody offered to give you, free and clear, the relics of the first successful oil refinery in California and the oldest existing refinery in the world? You'd take them, right? That's the offer on the table tomorrow night, when our parks commission decides whether to accept the Pioneer Oil Refinery in downtown Newhall.
    Chevron has wanted to unload the historic refinery for several years, and now the oil giant is offering to GIVE the 4½-acre refinery site to the city.
    In a June 12 letter, Chevron says that unless the city accepts the donation, the company will immediately pursue one of four options: Donate the site to another governmental agency, which may or may not preserve it; sell it as-is to a commercial-industrial developer; remove the historic artifacts and then sell it to a developer; or fence it in and throw away the key, allowing it to disintegrate.
    Chevron is also offering the city a sweet deal on an adjoining 9.2-acre parcel, which could be used for anything from downtown parking to a transit hub. Or better yet, given its proximity to both the refinery and William S. Hart Park, it would be the perfect spot for an oil museum. All the city has to do is say, "Yes, we want it."
    The refinery dates to mid-1876, when oil driller Alex Mentry was breaking new ground in Pico Canyon and Chinese track layers were hammering rails through Henry Newhall's recently-purchased rancho. The little 15-barrel still that had been erected in 1874 at Lyon's Station (now Eternal Valley Cemetery) just wasn't working out. It couldn't produce a smoke-free kerosene — oil's major use in those days — and in 1875 it was shut. Besides, it was almost a mile away from the coming railroad.
    Andrew Kazinski's brand-new stagecoach stop at the mouth of Railroad Canyon made the ideal location for a new refinery. Not only did it have a bountiful supply of water for refining operations, but it sat right next to the train tracks.
    John A. Scott, an experienced refiner from Pennsylvania, supervised construction. Scott moved the little 15-barrel still and another 20-barrel still from Lyon's to Andrew's and added a large, 120-barrel cheesebox still. Completed in August, 1876, the refinery was an instant success.
    Meanwhile, up at Pico, Alex Mentry had resumed his well-deepening campaign, which had stalled out after a water shortage. Mentry laid a pipe from a water source in a neighboring canyon for his steam drilling machinery. Within two months he was producing more oil than the Pioneer refinery could handle, so a fourth and even larger 150-barrel cheesebox still was added.
    Oil itself was used in the distillation process. Heavy residual oil from earlier refining runs fueled the brick ovens beneath the stills. Tall brick chimneys vented what must have been massive amounts of smoke. Petroleum gasses passed into a condenser consisting of a wooden box with 1,400 feet of layered iron pipe submerged in water. The condensed oils flowed into a lead-lined agitator, where they were treated with chemicals and mixed with air to improve their burning quality.
    The Pioneer Oil Refinery at Andrew's Station added benzene and illuminating oil for ships, railroads, factories and mines to California Star Oil's list of products. The breadwinner, though, was clean-burning kerosene in two grades.
    Within a few years, oil was flowing all along the California coast. A huge refinery was set up at Alameda, directly across the bay from San Francisco — a much more practical location than the little burgh of Newhall. In 1888, the refining operation at Andrew's Station ceased for all time.
    For twelve years, the Pioneer Oil Refinery off of Pine Street served to light up the western frontier. Today its idle smokestacks and empty stills cast long shadows on the dawning of California's oil industry — an industry whose roots are intertwined with those of the Santa Clarita Valley.
    "Yes, we want it."

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

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