Who was Darius Towsley?
By Leon Worden October 15, 1997
October 15, 1997
I should use this column every so often to answer some of the questions that come my way via cyberspace. I get tons of e-mail through the various Web sites at www.scvleon.com (Old Town Newhall, Mentryville, SCV Republicans, etc.) and I'm afraid I'm not always as prompt as I would like to be in replying. Making it column fodder will force me to deal with it, and besides, you just might find it interesting.
Take last month, for example, when two sets of relatives (not mine) on opposite sides of the continent were reunited after 40 years because they both came across a story I had posted on the Internet about one of their mutual ancestors — a 19th-century Newhall pioneer. Cool, huh? "What did we do before the Internet?" one of them writes.
Here's a sampling of the mail at email@example.com this week.
Walt R. writes: Enjoyed your Mentryville site. I am curious about the Darius Towsley mentioned there, as I have been tracing a Darius Towsley from Vermont, a family relative. Where can I find out more about the Darius Towsley of Towsley Canyon?
Dear Walt: Our Darius Towsley was an oil man in the mid-1860s. He wildcatted in the southwestern canyons of the Santa Clarita Valley, particularly in the canyon west of Interstate 5 that bears his name.
Around 1864, Towsley started tapping the seepages that emanated from the area's abundant, oil-bearing sandstone. Like his contemporaries, Henry C. Wiley, Sanford Lyon and Christopher Leaming, Towsley dug wells by spring-pole, where a beveled steel pipe was suspended from a rope and manually inched into the earth. Towsley probably also drilled tunnels in his search for oil, since there were five tunnels in the adjoining canyons of Wiley and Towsley in 1866. The tunnel-drilling method of oil exploration was adapted from gold and silver mining techniques. By the 1870s, well-drilling had prevailed — a method adapted from salt mining.
Darius Towsley struck a modest amount of heavy oil, some of which may have been shipped to the mercantile hub of San Francisco. Oil was used chiefly as an illuminant in those days.
Towsley seems to have left the picture by the close of the 1860s, when an alliance headed by Gen. Edward F. Beale (of Beale's Cut fame) and Col. Robert S. Baker purchased all the local claims. (Various troubles beset Beale and Baker, thwarting their hopes for an oil fortune.)
An interesting footnote comes out of Towsley Canyon in 1874. Although local lore attributes the use of the first steam-powered oil drilling rig in California to Alex Mentry of nearby Pico Canyon in 1876, that is by no means a certainty. Here's what Gerald T. White says in his Formative Years in the Far West (Standard Oil Co. of California, 1962):
"Deep within Towsley Canyon on the Temple claim, the first drilling with steam power ... began in July, 1874. With a 50-foot derrick and a portable steam rig, the well was put down 470 feet by early 1875, producing a little oil but plagued by caving. It was the most ambitious effort the district had yet seen."
Formerly owned by Chevron USA, today much of Towsley Canyon is a state park managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Tom J. writes: I am looking for information about the addresses and dates of the coffee fund-raisers. Thanks for your help.
Dear Tom: I assume you are referring to fund-raisers for Val Thomas, Barbara Dore and Tom Campbell, the Newhall County Water Board candidates who have been endorsed by the Santa Clarita Valley Congress of Republicans.
I don't know when they're scheduled, but I'm sure you can find out by asking one of the candidates directly. Call Val Thomas at (805) 291-5162 if you'd like to help.
Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.
©1997 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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