Shirley Contreras: Black gold gave new life to Santa Maria Valley | Local News
The first oil well in the United States was introduced in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. Within four years, the hills of California had been overrun by prospectors in search of black gold. Although they seemed to know where to look, they didn’t seem to have a clue of how to get the nigra out of the ground.
Native Americans had used oil and tar for centuries before the first settlers discovered the central coast, using it to make medicine as well as to repair utensils and trade with other tribes for skins and spikes. arrows.
The chaplains who founded the California missions learned about the oil fields from the Indians but they did not do much with them other than the little that was distilled in Santa Barbara and San Buenaventura to burn for light at one time. where there was a shortage of whale oil.
The petroleum was more frequently used after the granting of Mexican land grants and the establishment of ranchos outside mission lands. The oil was then used to lubricate the wheels of wooden oxcarts.
While large asphalt beds were located in places such as the Pismo and Santa Manuela ranchos in San Luis Obispo County, lighter oil was leaking from crevices in Santa Barbara County, especially near one location. south of Santa Barbara which has become Summerland. It was here that a major oil field was developed both on and off the coast as early as 1889.
Speculators found beds of asphalt near Pismo Beach in 1883 and learned that they contained a vein about three to five feet thick, located just a few inches below the surface. When they discovered that 25 tons were refined there and that there was less than 100 pounds of waste left, it seemed possible to ship the product to San Francisco for street paving. Soon 100 tons of asphalt per month were moving up north by steamboat.
When oil seeped out of the ground and formed puddles on the Tar Springs ranch near Arroyo Grande, it seemed a likely place to drill for oil. Exploration began and continued periodically at Tar Springs. Although it is obvious that the oil is there, it is heavy crude.
Worrying about an energy crisis at the turn of the century brought about 30 different businesses to the Central Coast and drew attention to Price Canyon and the Arroyo Grande area, where leases were as high as $ 50 per acre.
Most of the Price Canyon area was leased by Edward L. Doheny, who allegedly discovered oil in Los Angeles with a pickax and shovel. However, as the wells were expensive and difficult to obtain, a few wild operators turned to Santa Maria and quickly hit dry land, triggering a boom that changed the future of the region.
Union Oil Co. sent its newly hired geologist, William W. Orcutt and Frank Hill to the area to drill. Hill quickly brought a good supply of oil to the Purisima Hills and opened up this field.
Union Oil crews made one of the luckiest mistakes in history in 1904 while drilling on the wrong site, and on December 2 struck a geyser that marked oil history.
According to the story, the drilling boss told his crew where he wanted the engine room and where to erect the derrick. However, it was a hot day, and when the boiler accidentally fell off the wagon at a location marked for the derrick, it was left there, and the derrick was set up where the engine room should have been.
The end result was that Hartnell No. 1, affectionately known as “Old Maud,” entered with a growl and roar that sent a column of oil 150 feet high into the air. It got out of hand, filling creek beds and ravines in an uncontrolled flow that would have reached 20,000 barrels per day. As the flow continued for three months, earthen dams were constructed and basins of crude oil were collected from miles below the well. It was said to sank for two years, producing 3 million barrels before finally being pumped.
Farmers who once scrambled just to pay their taxes were now wealthy and with the discovery of a productive oil field on their land, they were said to light their $ 1 cigars with $ 20 bills.
Old Maud sank for 14 years before production fell to 250 barrels per day.
A new town, Orcutt, was born and rivaled Santa Maria for the business of oil workers as the region wallowed in oil and new discoveries extended to Cat Canyon for even more wealth.
Oil remained an integral part of the economy of Santa Barbara County and the Santa Maria region in the years that followed.
In the following years, new interest was sparked there by a proposal to open an oil sands mine in Price Canyon by a Chino plastics company. The proposal to extract the asphalt from the bituminous sandstone at a 929-acre site estimated the sand to extend 800 feet deep and could be caused to yield in 12 to 20 years.
Do you think it is possible that these tar ponds so favored by the Indians could still bring wealth to a new generation?
Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 623-8193 or [email protected] Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she has written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.