“Tribute to the Roughnecks” by Cindy Jackson stands atop Signal Hill. Long Beach is in the distance.

Signal Hill circa 1930 – at the corner of 1st Street and Belmont Street. Photo courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

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.

The Alamitos No. 1 well erupts “black gold” on June 23, announcing discovery of California’s prolific Long Beach oilfield.

The natural gas pressure is so great 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 Alamitos No. 1 reveals still produces 1.5 million barrels of oil a 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, a growing residential area prior to the 1921 discovery of the Long Beach oilfield, would have so many derricks people would call it Porcupine Hill. “Today you can see wonderful commemorative art displays of this era throughout the lush parks and walkways of Signal Hill,” notes a local newspaper.

“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,” the magazine adds. “New companies are coming in overnight. Every available piece of acreage on and about Signal Hill is being signed up.”

Derricks were so close to one cemetery that graves “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots,” notes one historian. By 1923, production would reach 259,000 barrels per day from nearly 300 wells. Above, a detail from a panorama from the Library of Congress collection.

Signal Hill’s Discovery Well Park includes the Alamitos Number 1 well and memorial at the corner of Temple Ave. and East Hill St. A bronze statue – “Tribute to the Roughnecks” – is nearby on Skyline Drive.

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, writes Dave Summers in his article, “The Oil Beneath California.”

Shell Geologists Gamble

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,” explains the Long Beach Beachcomber newspaper.

A 1954 photograph of the Alamitos No. 1 well — and the monument dedicated on May 3, 1952, “as a tribute to the petroleum pioneers for their success here…”

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.

At a depth of 3,114 feet, their wildcat well found oil – and revealed the oilfield.

Today, Signal Hill’s Discovery Well Park includes a community center to educate the public. Historic photos and descriptions can be found at six viewpoints along the Panorama Promenade.

There are producing 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.

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 the historic oil hill.

Decades before Signal Hill, another giant southern California oilfield had been discovered in 1892. A struggling prospector drilled into tar seeps he found near present-day Dodger Stadium. Read Discovering the Los Angeles Oilfield.”

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