A 1876 Pico Canyon oil well brought pipelines, refineries, and helped make Chevron an industry giant.

Following an 1859 oil discovery in Pennsylvania, young U.S. oil exploration companies began reaching the West Coast, attracted by California’s natural oil seeps. Some made small but historic discoveries of “black gold” soon after the Civil War. The state’s first gusher arrived in 1876 – and launched an industry.

Pico Canyon produced limited amounts of crude oil as early as 1855, but there was no market for the oil, which was found near oil seeps about 35 miles north of Los Angeles. In northern California, an 1865 well near oil seeps in Humboldt County also could be considered the first California oil well. Drilled by Old Union Matolle Company after the Civil War, the well produced oil near Petrolia and attracted early oil companies to the oilfield. A state historical marker (no. 543) dedicated on November 10, 1955 declared:

California’s First Drilled Oil Wells – California’s first drilled oil wells producing crude to berefined and sold commercially were located on the north fork of the River approximately three miles east of here. The Old Union Mattole Oil Company made its first shipment of oil from here in June 1865 to a San Francisco refinery. Many old well heads remain today.

Although the “Old Union well” initially yielded about 30 barrels of high quality oil, “production soon slowed to one barrel per day and the prospect was abandoned,” explained K.R. Aalto, a geologist at Humboldt State University. The Humboldt County well in what became the oilfield, “attracted interest and investment among oilmen because of the abundance of oil and gas seeps throughout that region,” Aalto noted in his 2013 Oil-Industry History article.

Pico Well No. 4 in 1877, and early California oil well.

The steam boiler and cable-tools, including the “walking beam,” of Pico Well No. 4 in 1877. Photo by Carleton Watkins courtesy Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Meanwhile in Pico Canyon, Charles Mentry of the California Star Oil Works Company drilled three wells in 1875 and 1876 that showed promise. The first West Coast oil gusher arrived with his fourth well and helped established a major oil company.

Drilling with a steam-powered cable-tool rig in an area known for its many oil seeps, Mentry discovered the Pico Canyon oilfield north of Los Angeles. California’s first truly commercial oil well, the Pico Well No. 4 gusher of September 26, 1876, launched other industries, including constructing a pipeline and an oil refinery for producing kerosene.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the well initially produced 25 barrels a day from 370 feet. Mentry improvised many of his cable tools, including making a drill-stem out of old railroad-car axles he welded together.

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“The railroad had not then been completed, there was no road into the canyon, water was almost unattainable, and there were no adequate tools or machinery to be had,” noted the Times article. California Star Oil Works deepened the well to 560 feet, increasing daily production by 125 barrels, and constructed its pipeline from Pico Canyon to the newly built refinery in Newhall, just south of Santa Clarita.

California commercial oil refinery, circa 1880s.

By 1880, California’s first commercial refinery processed oil from its first commercial oil well to make kerosene and other products. Photo courtesy the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

Newhall’s Pioneer Refinery on Pine Street would become the first successful commercial refinery in the West, producing kerosene and lubricants. Giant stills set on brick foundations included two capable of producing 150 barrels a day each. The city of Santa Clarita received California’s first successful refinery as a gift from Chevron in 1997. Many believe the refinery, today  preserved as a tourist attraction, is the oldest in the world. The major oil company can trace its beginnings to the 1876 Pico Canyon oil well, which has been designated a historic site by the California Office of Historic Preservation.

Chevron, once the Standard Oil Company of California, in 1900 acquired Pacific Coast Oil Company. Pacific Coast had become majority owner of California Star Oil Works in 1879.

California’s first refinery facility, donated to Santa Clara by Chevron in 1997.

Santa Clarita acquired California’s first refinery as a gift from Chevron in 1997. Many believe it to be the oldest existing oil refinery site in the world. Photo by Konrad Summers.

Charles Mentry is remembered by a small town a short distance from the 1876 Pico Canyon discovery well, Mentryville. Visit the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society website to learn more history about Pico Canyon oil production. About 35 miles south of Pico Canyon, a gold prospector discovered the massive Los Angeles field in 1892. See Discovering Los Angeles Oilfields.

Earliest Oil Refineries bring Kerosene to Light

There were 141 operable refineries in the United States in 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. Among the latest to start was a refinery that began operating in 2008 in Douglas, Wyoming, with an initial capacity of 3,000 barrels per day. The modern refining industry began with small refineries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, producing kerosene for lamps. The oil came from the historic 1859 oil well in Titusville, and the world’s oldest operating refinery today can be found in Bradford, a few hours east of that historic well.

The Bradford field, discovered in November 1871 became known as America’s “first billion dollar oil field.” The field’s first well produced just 10 barrels a day from 1,110 feet. By 1875 leases reached as high as $1,000 per acre. A decade later a sudden decline in the oil field’s production led to a technological breakthrough when geologists suggested that water pressure on oil sand may be used to increase oil production.

Oldest operating U.S. oil refinery in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

The oldest operating U.S. oil refinery began in 1881 in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

Founded in 1881 in McKean County on 131 acres, the American Refining Group, Inc. joined a second Bradford oil boom when oil was discovered east of town. The refinery’s original crude oil capacity was 10 barrels per day; it required five employees to operate. A company historian noted American Refining was the first to introduce the quart can nationally for motor oils in 1933. The company Forest Oil was founded in Bradford in 1916; Zippo Manufacturing Company was founded there in 1932.

In Neodesha, Kansas, the Norman No. 1 well of 1892 well revealed a petroleum-rich geologic region that would extend across Oklahoma, Texas and Lousiana. Standard Oil built a refinery in Neodesha in 1897 that refined 500 barrels of oil a day – the first to process oil from the giant Mid-Continent field. See Kansas Well reveals Mid-Continent.

An 1897 Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha, Kansa.

Built in 1897, a Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha, Kansas, refined 500 barrels of oil per day – the first to process oil from the Mid-Continent field. From “Kansas Memory” collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Learn more California petroleum history in California Oil Seeps and the Signal Hill Oil Boom. For a study examining which California oil well was first, see the January 2, 2011, SearchReSearch blog of Dan Russell, who works for Google.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become a supporting member today. Help us maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First California Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-california-oil-well. Last Updated: September 7, 2020. Original Published Date: September 9, 2015.

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