Picturing California petroleum history in a family album.


Although it’s just an old photograph from a southern California port, an image from Los Angeles Harbor tells a tale about U.S. maritime and petroleum histories, including the story of Puente Oil Company.

Seeking to preserve her father’s years as an employee of the Los Angeles Harbor authority, Valerie Raynor contacted the American Oil & Gas Historical Society (museum donating suggestions are in Oil Families). It did not take her long to find a permanent home for her collection of his photographs at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

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A lot can be learned from this one photograph of an oil company’s facility at San Pedro Harbor of Los Angeles.

Raynor, who lives in the Los Angeles area, decided to donate her original family pictures after talking with the museum director. “Mary Frances seemed very knowledgeable and helpful, so I felt this would be a good place to start with all the pictures.” In exchange for her donation of the photographs, which the museum will share with the the San Pedro Bay Historical Museumthe Raynor family will receive high-resolution digital copies.    

puente oil

Steel 55-gallon drums (patented in 1905) gradually replaced traditional 42-gallon “bilged” wooden oil barrels.

“It’s a great way to have them preserved for future generations,” Raynor said. “The pictures will be kept in honor of my father, Paul J. Thome, who worked for the City of Los Angeles at the San Pedro Harbor in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Raynor admits she needed a quick lesson on how to scan. “I decided I should not use the excuse of ‘I can’t do this,’ when we tell our kids that that is not a good enough excuse! So, I called a friend who walked me through how to scan and send a pic.” Her family – and historians – have benefited, thanks to preservation of her father’s career.

Although an 1865 discovery near oil seeps in Humboldt County might be considered the first California oil well, the state’s petroleum exploration industry took off following an 1876 gusher that revealed the Pico Canyon oilfield. In 1892, about 35 miles south of Pico Canyon, a former gold prospector then discovered the massive Los Angels field.

Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield discovered oil in the hills northwest of downtown Los Angeles in 1892. Their well, drilled near present-day Dodger Stadium, revealed the Los Angeles City oilfield. As would be found at many of California’s oilfields, the area had natural oil seeps, most notably at the La Brea “tar pits.”

Doheny also opened up Orange County’s first oilfield with a successful well at Olinda in present-day Brea in 1897, explains Paul R. Spitzzeri in “Drilling for Black Gold in the Los Angeles Oil Field, 1890s.” The Puente Oil Company was a part of this southern California petroleum industry, which began in the mountains near Santa Clarita as early as 1865, Spitzzeri says. But oil production and efforts to make Los Angeles refineries profitable had limited success over the next two decades.

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A log driver or “river rat” can be seen at work (center). Hill in background is Dead Man’s Island.

By 1886, William Rowland, son of the owner of Rancho La Puente, John Rowland, and his partner William Lacy had successfully drilled several oil wells on the ranch. The wells helped launch the Puente Oil Company in Los Angeles, one of many ventures that hoped to find oil in southern California at the turn of the century. One small enterprise with a similar name, the Puente Crude Oil Company, did not fare as well.

In the harbor photograph’s background, horse-drawn tank wagons, rail tracks, boats, river pigs, laborers, ladies and gentlemen all share a changing workplace.

Old and new technologies share the harbor site as well – Nellie Bly’s 55-gallon steel drums and old 42-gallon wooden barrels; the sails and train rails with log drivers (catty men, river rats, river pigs, etc.) corralling floating pilings; and on South Seaside Avenue, the Puente Oil Company – the first to exploit southern California’s Puente Hills’ oil.

Another detail from the harbor photo shows rail road tracks and horse-drawn oil tanks.

Because of its high-gravity, Puente Oil sold for up to $1.75 a barrel, while lesser grades sold at 75 cents to $1 per barrel. The company soon built a pipeline from its drilling sites to the Puente railroad depot. From Puente, tank cars (marked “P. O. Co.”) carried the oil to Los Angeles harbor. The company prospered.

In 1895, a six-year contract to supply substantial quantities of crude oil to the Chino Beet Sugar refinery prompted Puente Oil to build its own pipeline to the user, 16 miles away. Just the first year’s requirement was for 80,000 barrels. Puente Oil then built its own 800 barrel a day crude oil refinery nearby in Chino. This was prior to the Supreme Court’s 1911 ruling breaking up the Standard Oil monopoly, so Standard bought all of the Puente Oil refinery’s output.

puente oil

Dead Man’s Island and Rattlesnake Island (both now part of the largely artificial Terminal Island) were first linked in 1893. Modern dredging has changed much of the harbor’s landscape.

By 1900, Puente Oil had grown to “a total of 4,700 acres of the best light oil-producing lands in California” with 85 wells pumping a total of 20,000 barrels of oil a month. Puente Oil in 1903 merged with the Columbia Oil Producing Company (a 1898 venture of W.L. Hardison, co-founder of Union Oil Company). “The consolidation of the Puente and Columbia companies is with one exception the largest oil deal ever consummated in Southern California, and carries as great an oil value as any deal of record,” noted the Pacific Coast Reporter. Shell Union Oil Company acquired both Columbia Oil Producing and Puente Oil in 1922.

Today, much of the Puente Oil’s former oil producing land is managed by the Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority. The Port of Los Angeles handles almost 200 million tons of freight every year.

The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.


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