Signal Hill brings California Oil Boom
In the summer of 1921, one of the world’s most famous wells strikes oil on the southeast side of Signal Hill, 20 miles south of Los Angeles. On June 23, Alamitos No. 1 well erupts “black gold,” announcing the discovery of California’s prolific Long Beach oilfield.
The natural gas pressure is so great that the gusher rises 114 feet. The well produces almost 600 barrels a day when it is completed on June 25. It will eventually produce 700,000 barrels. The oilfield it reveals still produces 1.5 million barrels of oil every year.
Signal Hill, incorporated three years after the Alamitos discovery well, remains the only city in America completely surrounded by another city – Long Beach. More than one billion barrels of oil have been pumped from the Long Beach oilfield since the original strike.
“Signal Hill is the scene of feverish activity, of an endless caravan of automobiles coming and going, of hustle and bustle, of a glow of optimism,” reported California Oil World. “Derricks are being erected as fast as timber reaches the ground. New companies are coming in overnight. Every available piece of acreage on and about Signal Hill is being signed up.”
Within a year, Signal Hill – before and after a residential area – will have 108 wells, producing 14,000 barrels of oil a day. There are so many derricks, people are calling it Porcupine Hill.
“Derricks are so close that on Willow Street, Sunnyside Cemetery graves generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots,” notes one historian. By the fall of 1923, production reaches 259,000 barrels per day from nearly 300 wells, says Dave Summers in “The Oil Beneath California.”
Decades before the Signal Hill, a struggling California prospector, Edward L. Doheny, had drilled between tar seeps near present-day Dodger Stadium. Doheny launched the state’s first petroleum boom on April 20, 1893, by discovering the Los Angeles City oilfield. Just four years later, California oilmen were building piers to drill into the Pacific Ocean – the beginnings of the U.S. offshore petroleum industry. See “Offshore Petroleum History.”
The Signal Hill area had drawn wildcatters since 1917, but with no success. Two Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company geologists and a driller persevered. “This was a great exploit and economic risk for the time. Shell Oil Company had just lost $3 million at a failed drilling site in Ventura, five years before,” notes the Long Beach Beachcomber newspaper.
Although another “dry hole” would be expensive, Shell geologists Frank Hayes and Alvin Theodore Schwennesen spudded their well in March 1921. Driller Frank Hays believed oil lay deeper than earlier “dusters” had attempted to reach. On June 23, at a depth of 3,114 feet, their wildcat well revealed the massive Long Beach oilfield.
Signal Hill’s Discovery Well Park now hosts a community center. Historic photos and descriptions can be found at six viewpoints along the Panorama Promenade.
There are the remaining oil wells throughout the hill – with the historic “Discovery Well, Alamitos Number 1″ at the corner of Temple Avenue and East Hill Street. A monument dedicated on May 3, 1952 serves “as a tribute to the petroleum pioneers for their success here, a success which has, by aiding in the growth and expansion of the petroleum industry, contributed so much to the welfare of mankind.”
“You can see wonderful commemorative art displays of this era throughout the lush parks and walkways of Signal Hill,” explains the Long Beach Beachcomber. A statue dedicated on September 30, 2006, “Tribute to the Roughnecks,” can be found on Skyline Drive. Signal Hill Petroleum Chairman Jerry Barto and Shell Oil employee Bruce Kerr are depicted in bronze.
Editor’s Note — Between 1913 and 1923 Hollywood used the iconic derricks on Signal Hill for making movies starring Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. In 1957, what many consider the world’s first “all jazz” radio station, KNOB (now KLAX), first transmitted from a small studio on top of hill.
When in Orange County, contact the Brea Museum and Heritage Center, which tells the story of Olinda Oil Well No. 1 of 1898 – another important Caifornia petroleum discovery. Also visit the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail at 4025 Santa Fe Road in Brea.
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