The remarkable woman who took control of the Los Angeles oil market.

 

“A woman with a genius for affairs – it may sound paradoxical, but the fact exists. If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets.” – July 21, 1901, San Francisco Call newspaper.

Emma A. McCutchen Summers would become a woman to be reckoned with in the rough and tumble world of the early Los Angeles petroleum industry. A refined southern lady who graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, she moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to teach piano.

Newspaper features Emma Summers, California Oil Queen.

Emma Summers’ business acumen would help put her in control of the Los Angeles City oilfield’s production – -and earn her oil queen title.

Like many others, Summers got caught up in the excitement of California’s growing oil industry. Her home was not far from where Edward Doheny had discovered the Los Angeles City field in 1892.

Once a struggling prospector, Doheny made his oilfield discovery near tar seeps. He reportedly had noticed black stains on wagon wheels passing by (learn more in Discovering the Los Angeles Oilfield). Summers invested $700 for half interest in a well just a few blocks from Doheny’s headline-making producer.

Her first Los Angeles well was drilled between Court and Temple Streets, about a mile west of today’s Dodger Stadium. It did not go well. The casing collapsed and tools were lost, but she persevered. Summers borrowed another $1,800 to continue drilling the well. “Night after night, by the light of a flaring torch, she hovered over it, as if it were a sick babe’s cradle,” reported one witness.

Weeks dragged on as the money dwindled, but the well finally came in. Encouraged, Summers drilled another well, and another, and another. “When I found myself $10,000 in debt, I thought if I ever got that paid and as much more in the bank, I would be glad to quit,” she later recalled. She didn’t quit. 

Los Angeles City oilfield at the turn of the century.

The Los Angeles City oilfield at the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento.

Summers became a constant presence in the forest of oil rigs that had turned the heart of Los Angeles into a “vibrant, oil-soaked little canyon.” The population doubled between 1890 and 1900 and her oil business prospered.

California Oil Queen

By 1901, Summers was operating fourteen paying wells of her own and leasing others to meet the market demand. “It has been like this with me always,” she recalled.

“I saw a chance in the oil business and sunk a well, and that carried me on and on until I couldn’t stop,” she added. Her wells produced 50,000 barrels each month. At first she sold her oil through local brokers, but eventually took on that challenge in addition to managing her supplies, 40 horses, 10 wagons and a blacksmith shop.

A modern camouflaged oil derrick in Los Angeles.

A derrick tower that moves on tracks can service 19 horizontal wells drilled under an adjacent neighborhood is featured on the website of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

As the exploration and production boom brought prosperity to Southern California, Summers marketed her oil to downtown hotels, factories, railroad, and he Pacific Light & Power Company.

“There are men in Los Angeles who do not like Emma A. Summers,” proclaimed the July 1911 issue of Sunset magazine. The former piano teacher had made enemies along the way to becoming known as the “Oil Queen” of California.

Summers expanded her holdings into real estate as World War I demand for petroleum increased her profits. She bought some of the first motion picture theaters in Los Angeles as well as apartment houses, several San Fernando Valley ranches, and a Wilshire Boulevard mansion.

Emma Summers portrait and Los Angeles home.

Emma Summers and her mansion on Wilshire Boulevard. From Sunset Magazine, July 1911, courtesy GeoExPro.

As the Los Angeles City field oil boom waned, Summers moved into her elegant hotel appropriately named the Queen. Years later she recalled, “Oh, how scared I was sometimes! I would start in on a big deal and then get scared and wonder where I’d land. But I usually came out all right.”

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Summers lived out her last years at the Biltmore and Alexandria hotels. She died in a Glendale nursing home in 1941 at age 83. Her “genius for affairs” put Emma Summers in control of the Los Angeles City field’s production – and earned a piano teacher the title of California’s oil queen.

Today, sometimes overlooked by passersby, some parts of downtown continue to produce oil. One well reportedly still pumps from the original 1892 Los Angeles City field. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research organization based in Culver City, has visited many historica petroleum sites. The Westside is among those featured in an online photo essay Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Queen of California.” Authors: aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/emma-summers-oil-queen/. Last Updated: November 21, 2020. Original Published Date: December 1, 2008.

 

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