Click to enlarge.
Los Angeles Herald | July 22, 1900.
Strong Flow of Gas Encountered
Down about 300 feet in our well in Placerita canon, only a few feet from the famous White Oil Well, with the dip of the rock in our favor. It is by the unanimous opinion of experts the
Richest Oil Proposition in California
A limited number of shares will be sold at a special price.
Par Value of Shares: $1.00
New Century Oil Co.
108-109-110 Stimson Block
Office Hours — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Webmaster's note: The Stimson Block was at the northeast corner of Spring and Third Streets in Los Angeles and sported the city's first six-story building.
All news stories and ads courtesy of Stan Walker.
Click to enlarge.
The New Century Oil Company.
Los Angeles Herald | December 2, 1900.
Without any question the spot which has gained the widest notoriety through the oil development in California is Placerita canyon in the Newhall field, in the northern part of Los Angeles county, for here it is the famous "white oil" is found — oil, as clear as water — refined oil — distilled in the bowels of the earth, prepared for use ages ago, and lying in reservoirs waiting for man to go down after it.
Ten years ago no one thought of finding oil in Placerita canyon. Gold hunters had an idea that the yellow metal might be found in the district and some prospecting was done. Two men, acting in partnership, were in 1890 "speiring around" looking for gold. They drilled into the earth and were annoyed and well-nigh disgusted on account of striking, instead of a vein of gold, a vein of oil, which much resembled kerosene. This determined the men to prospect for oil and the result was that Freeman and Nelson drilled a test well which has been producing small quantities of this white oil ever since.
After it had been demonstrated that this white oil was a reality and that there were indications that a large body of it was deposited under the surface here, much of the land was secured and a regular business begin, of drilling for the valuable product. Nothing of importance was developed, however, until August 26 last. It happened that over a year ago a trio of men consisting of H.O. Haines, C.W. Smith and F.C. Melton, who had faith that a large body of this oil could be found by persistent effort, succeeded in getting control of forty acres of land in Placerita canyon. The failure of former prospectors to strike the real vein did not deter these gentlemen in their purpose, and accordingly the New Century Oil company was organized, and the work of developing the property commenced.
This company discovered, the same as scores of others have done, that drilling for oil in California is not the easiest thing in the world, and progress was slot. Messrs. Haines, Smith and Melton, however, who were the active managers of the company, refused to be disheartened, and insisted that success would crown their efforts.
Whether their judgment was good may be determined from this fact: That today they are looked upon had have proved their right to the title, as the type of oil country men, without whom there would be no oil country.
On Saturday, August 26, the drill struck the sand. It also struck not only the owners, but the entire community with amazement. The strike far exceeded the expectations of the most sanguine, and there was an oil region story that attracted attention all over the state and has not yet ceased to be of interest. The drill had no sooner entered the sand than which a roar a volume of pure oil as clear as crystal poured forth from the casing, fifteen feet into the air. The tankage provisions were entirely inadequate, and soon every receptacle about the property was filled with oil and a little river of it was running down the canyon. And still it flowed, the oil going to waste in a manner which might make the owners weep were it not for the fact that there was evidently plenty more where that came from.
Tankage was soon secured, however, and arrangements were made for getting it to market. For over three months the spouting continued. The initial output was estimated at over 200 barrels a day, and today the daily production is not less than forty barrels.
The well proved a fortune for the owners. The oil was found to be as nearly refined gasoline as it could be, and found a ready market at $4.50 a barrel. The company's stock, which a few days before was a drug on the market, went to par in a day, and there was very little to be had at that price.
A sample of the oil was recently sent to the well-known analytical chemists, J.M. Curtis & Son of San Francisco, who sent the following analysis:
Petroleum ether — 3.66 per cent
Gasoline — 14.83 per cent
Naphtha — 30.33 per cent
Benzine — 17.67 per cent
Light kerosene — 23.33 per cent
Heavy kerosene — 10.00 per cent
Lubricating oil — None
Residuum — .18 per cent
Total — 100.00
Specific gravity at 60 degrees Fah., .79918.
Equivalent to 45.14 degrees Baume.
This is a remarkable showing and demonstrates this oil to have a high market value.
A letter accompanies the statement from the chemists, which reads as follows:
Gentlemen: For refining purposes the oil would be divided into three groups:
First, petroleum, ether and gasoline. Second, naphtha and benzene. Third, the light and heavy kerosene. We have no personal knowledge of the commercial value of such oils when refined, but we are informed by a friend who is in the business that the market today for the first group is 14.5 cents per gallon; second group 14 cents; third group 12 cents.
J.M. Curtis & Son.
After the strike the company lost no time in acquiring more land and beginning to work on another well. Two large iron storage tanks have been built at Newhall station on the Southern Pacific railroad and the surplus product is now begin stored therein. A pipe line from the property to the railroad, is a matter under advisement at the present time.
Thus it will be seen that to the New Century Oil company is due the credit for opening up the real possibilities of the Placerita canyon district, and the two names are inseparably linked with the famous product — white oil.
Since the strike scores of other companies have secured land and commenced operations, but as yet the New Century Oil company has an immense lead and is the "king bee" in the Nehwall field. The company's second well is now nearing completion, and reports of another big strike are looked for daily. The headquarters of this company are in room 108, Stimson block, this city.
The New Century Oil company is now looked upon as one of the real important companies in the business for while it has but one producing well at present, its prospects are such as to rank it will the leaders in the industry.
Click to enlarge.
White Oil Wells.
Los Angeles Herald | December 2, 1900.
It is in Placerita canyon that the remarkable white oil has been found. The discoverers of the oil were George W. Freeman and Frank Nelson, prospectors for gold who undertook to sink a shaft in search of hidden treasure, and found it in liquid rather than in solid form. They were drive from their shaft several times by gas, and thereupon decided to drill for oil. Setting up a spring pole they worked for some months with a small drill before striking the wonderful oil. It is of about 50 gravity, and while the first well did not yield a vast amount of oil, its great value gave the finders a good income, enabling them to sink other wells with more modern machinery.
The most wonderful of the wells thus far put down in the white oil section, however, is that of the New Century Oil company. This is one of the companies organized during the last year, and it began drilling several months since. Its fir st well proved to be of the same high grade of white oil, which spouted at the rate of 100 barrels a day at first, finally settling down to twenty barrels a day, which it is now turning out steadily. When it is remembered that this oil is worth about $4 a barrel at the well it is seen that the New Century has about as good a thin as most men are looking for.
Palomas is another district in the Newhall field, and several new companies are pinning their faith to that section, with good promise of suitable reward.
Taking the Newhall field in its entirety, it looks as though there was yet much in store for operators there. While it is one of the older fields, it is far from being exploited thoroughly.
It's said that it burns brighter and longer than kerosene. It's so clear, you can read a newspaper through it. You can even put it directly into your car's gas tank — if your car is a Ford Model "T" or Model "A" with its original engine, anyway. Nothing quite like it is known to exist anywhere else in the world.
It's Placerita white oil, a unique geologic oddity of nearly water-white, light-gravity oil obtained from wells drilled into metamorphic rocks in Placerita Canyon since 1899 and which continues to bubble up from the casing of an old well below the Canyon Trail inside Placerita Canyon State and County Park.
Placerita white oil was an instant phenomenon. Imagine the startled expressions on people's faces when the oil that shot out of that first casing gushed white instead of black!
Typical California crude oil, like the type across the valley in Pico Canyon, had to be refined to produce usable fuels. It sold for about $1 per barrel at the dawn of the 20th Century. This stuff in Placerita Canyon didn't need such expensive treatment. Folks figured it could sell for $4 to $5 or more.
The oil had been piquing geologists' interest for years by the time property owner Frank Walker sent a sample in 1932 for chemical analysis. Walker had been using his own, home-made "oil-gas-water separator" to siphon the white oil into a drum for direct use. The "gas" that he separated was natural gas, which he piped into his house.
The first known test in 1900 showed a calculated gravity of 45.14. Walker's 1932 sample tested out at 37.7. A sample tested in 1967 showed an API gravity of 44.7, and it contained just 0.004 percent sulfur.
The higher the API gravity and the lower the sulfur content, the better. West Texas Intermediate crude oil — the U.S. benchmark for oil pricing — is considered "light, sweet" crude because it has a high API gravity of ~39.6 (making it "light") and it's 0.24 percent sulfur (making it "sweet"). That's considerably more sulfur than at Placerita, but it's low compared to other major crude oils.
Walker's crude oil tipped the scales in its richness of light-weight fuels. The 1967 analysis showed it to be 83.3 percent gasoline — with a calculated 73 octane rating — and 15 percent gas oil when refined at 400 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The figures coincide with the 1900 and 1932 analyses, which showed a total of 99.82 and 98 percent usable product, respectively (even though Walker's 1932 sample had been sitting around and some of the lightest fuels had already evaporated before the sample was tested).
And thus, Walker's oil had an incomprehesibly low residuum of just 0.18 to 0.2 percent.
Residuum (residual fuel oil) is the heavier oil that's left over after the lighter products (liquid petroleum gases, naphtha, "straight run" gasoline) and medium distillates (jet fuel, kerosene) are boiled off. The higher the temperatures needed, the more costly the refining process; residuum must sometimes be heated to temperatures above 1000 Fahrenheit to be useful.
To put it into perspective, Arabian Light crude from Saudi Arabia is about 50 percent residuum. Even West Texas Intermediate, considered the gold standard, is about 33 percent residuum.
If somebody could exploit this Placerita product, he'd make a fortune.
The argonauts who inadvertently discovered it tried to do just that, as did a few others.
A book published in 1900 tells of its discovery: "About six years ago George W. Freeman and Frank Nelson, two prospectors who were sinking for gold in Placerita canyon, were everywhere met by quantities of natural gas, the flow being frequently so strong as to drive them out of their shafts. Finally they decided to cease sinking for gold and drill for oil.
"With a spring pole and a small drill they sunk the first well and were rewarded after many hardships and months of patient toil with a fine flow of oil, different from anything ever found in the state, if not in the entire world. The oil discovered was nearly 50 degrees gravity and about the color of ordinary kerosene. It is a marvel to all beholders, as it can be used either for engine distillate or for illuminant without refining.
"Other wells drilled with more effective machinery to a greater depth have only verified the wonders of the first strike," claims the author, Lionel V. Redpath. "For several months the output of the wells has continued undiminished."
A report on well activity in Placerita Canyon suggests that as of 1900, the only other well that would have "verified the wonders of that first strike" was the first well sunk by the New Century Oil Co. — the source of the oil "seep" along the present-day Canyon Trail at Placerita Canyon State and County Park.
The New Century Well No. 1 — and the Canyon Trail — sit about 100 feet downhill from Freeman & Nelson's 1899 discovery well "on adjacent property," according to Redpath. He notes that the Pioneer White Oil Co. had just sunk a well to a depth of 500 feet, with "every indication of success." It showed "great quantities of natural gas," Redpath writes; "a heavy flow of white oil is looked for any day."
Redpath appears to have known his remarks were prospective, acknowledging that "at the present time ... there is but one really extensive procuder of oil [in the Newhall area], the Pacific Coast Oil Company" in Pico Canyon. Had Redpath waited a few years, he'd have had a different view of Placerita's potential.
But he wasn't alone in his enthusiasm. When the New Century No. 1 well gushed white on Aug. 25, 1900, a magazine published by the prominent Los Angeles writer Charles F. Lummis proclaimed that this "liquid wealth ... gushed above the derricks at the rate of two hundred barrels a day" (Redpath said 100) "and under the pumps is now steadily producing forty barrels a day. The second well of the company is within a short distance of oil sand and the strike is awaited with great interest by stock buyers and scientists alike."
If they waited, they grew old doing it. A total of 11 wells were drilled in Placerita from 1899 to 1912 at depths of 457 to 2,100 feet, followed by seven more from 1912 to 1957 with a maximum depth of 2,325 feet. Most came up dry or showed scant traces. Only the two wells already mentioned — the 1899 Freeman & Nelson well (as the Freeman & Nelson White Oil Co. of Fillmore, Calif.) and the New Century Well No. 1 — appear to have produced any measurable quantity. And if they "steadily produc[ed] forty barrels a day," they didn't do it for very long. Most years, they produced just 2.5 barrels per day at best.
How did this white oil form? In 1932 there were two theories.
Frank Walker's sample showed 52.5 percent aromatics by weight, meaning it had a lot of benzene hydrocarbons. That led researchers in 1932 to consider that perhaps there was some sort of natural distillation going on, the theory being that heat generated by organic material in sediments undergoing lithification (the process of turning sand into rock) could essentially be refining the oil deep underground.
That theory was discarded in favor of the idea that the oil was being naturally filtered through the fine sand and clay beds of the Pleistocene-era Saugus formation (Ice Age, 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago) that overlies the so-called basement complex, or Placerita Schist, formed during the Eocene era (56 to 34 million years ago).
That's the source of the oil, and that's peculiar. Petroleum hydrocarbons in the other oil fields of the Santa Clarita Valley are younger, originating in sedimentary sandstones and shales from the Miocene (23 million to 5 million years ago) or Pliocene (5 million to 2.5 million years ago).
Placerita Creek is bounded by the San Gabriel Fault to the north and the Placerita Fault to the south. The Placerita Fault separates the sandy Saugus formation from the crystalline bedrock.
Per the 1932 report: "Oil originating in the Eocene may have migrated along the San Gabriel fault into the Saugus beds ... and thence ... to the Placerita fault. It is possible that such migration occurred before the movement on the Placerita fault was complete, and took place chiefly near the contact of the Saugus and the underlying crystalline rocks."
Such filtration "is competent to produce this type of oil," according to the 1932 report. "It is even conceivable that heat generated by movement along the Placerita fault may have resulted in increased pressures and thus have produced somewhat the effect of filtering under pressure."
The 1932 report said the "outstanding characteristics of the oil" were its high benzene and low sulfur content, as well as the absence of "heavy ends" (residuum). Those characteristics led the firm that analyzed the 1967 sample to theorize that Placerita white oil might have "a paraffin base as opposed to an asphalt base."
Not to be confused with the British usage of the word "paraffin" (kerosene in the U.S.), paraffin hydrocarbons range from light-weight methane (CH4) to heavier octane (C8H18) and mineral oil. Indeed, some modern observers have characterized it as "baby oil" oozing up from the ground.
One other historic fact in connection to Placerita white oil should be mentioned. According to local lore, samples of it were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. There is no shred of evidence to support this claim, while much exists to refute it.
— Leon Worden, 2012
1. "Placerita white oil: A crude wonder," The Signal, 2-20-2000.
2. "unique geologic oddity" — Seward, Allan E. "Geologic Report: Oil Possibilities in the Vicinity of Placerita Canyon County Park, Los Angeles County," Los Angeles County Department of Engineer, 10-3-1974.
3. "nearly water-white, light-gravity oil obtained from wells drilled into metamorphic rocks" — Brown, Arthur B., and Kew, W.S.W. "Occurrence of Oil in Metamorphic Rocks of San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles County, California," Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Vol. 16 No. 8, pp. 777-785, August 1932.
4. "since 1899" — Seward, op.cit.
5. "continues to bubble up from the casing of an old well" — George Starbuck IV, electronic communication, July 12, 2012: "In reality, it isn't truly a seep but the oil is coming up from the casing of the Centennial well [New Century No. 1]. To the best of my recollection, the top of the casing is only a few feet under the trail pad."
6. "below the Canyon Trail" — The present writer's observations; and Erikson, Melissa and Fleischmann, Isby. "Trail Assessment Report (Draft): Canyon Trail, Placerita Canyon Natural Area," Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, 6-26-2012. [.pdf download]
7. Charles F. Lummis, Ed. "Petroleum Versus Petroleum" in "The Land of Sunshine," Vol. 13, No. 6, December 1900.
8. ibid.; and Redpath, Lionel V. Petroleum in California. Self-published 1900, Los Angeles, pg. 48 ff.
9. Brown and Kew, op.cit.
10. Oil-Gas-Water Separator, courtesy of George Starbuck IV on SCVHistory.com (n.d.). Per Starbuck (electronic communication July 12, 2012), a brush fire that denuded the foliage in Placerita Canyon in the early 1960s — probably 1961 — was followed by a winter rain that caused a landslide. The mud "wiped out the road leading up to the well. At that time, the water-oil-separator was still in place, so it's probably under a ton of soil."
11. Lummis, op.cit. Chemical analysis performed by J.M. Curtis & Son of San Francisco.
12. Report of Determinations (Letter) from Smith-Emery Company, 8-16-67, included in Seward, op.cit.
14. Brown and Kew, op.cit. Walker's sample yeilded 98 percent usable product when heated to a maximum of 594 degrees.
15. 0.18 percent residuum for the 1900 sample (Lummis, op.cit.); 0.2 percent residuum for the 1932 sample (Brown and Kew, op.cit.).
16. Redpath, op.cit.
17. Included in Seward, op.cit.
18. Starbuck, op.cit. at 5.
19. ibid. Per Starbuck, the 1899 Freeman & Nelson discovery well was located about 100 feet uphill from New Century No. 1. It was accessed by a narrow-gauge funicular railway.
20. Lummis, op.cit.
21. Seward, op.cit.
22. ibid., referring to the 1899 Freeman & Nelson discovery well. According to a record included in Seward, New Century No. 1 produced 43-gravity crude, but the quantities are not stated.
23. Brown and Kew, op.cit., referencing general research (not specific to Placerita) by Brooks, Benjamin T., "Chemical Considerations Regarding the Origin of Petroleum," Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Vol. 15 No. 6, pp. 661-627, June 1931.
24. ibid. It should be noted that Seward (op.cit.) states that Brown and Kew (1932) determined Placerita white oil was formed through natural distillation. That is incorrect. Brown and Kew concluded that of the two theories, "the theory of filtration offers the more plausible explanation."
25. Brown and Kew, op.cit.; and Seward, op.cit.
26. Seward, op.cit.
27. Smith-Emery Company, op.cit.
28. Starbuck, a younger Walker relative, said he "knew about the paraffin base because after filling the (car's gas) tank, I'd wet down a rag and polish the paint. Talk about dangerous!" (Electronic communication, July 12, 2012).
29. Reynolds, et al.
30. As noted, the oil was discovered sometime after 1894 and it didn't start pumping until 1899. Reviewing the assertion from the other direction, two books published in 1876 may be considered primary sources for information on the exhibits displayed at Philadelphia. One is The Great Centennial Exhibition, P.W. Ziegler & Co., Philadelphia and Chicago; the other is The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, The National Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. At more than 544 and 918 pages, respectively, they purport to include "the great buildings and all of the objects of interest exhibited in them" (emphasis added). No mention is made of Placerita Canyon or any other white oil.