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. – The San Francisco Call, July 21, 1901
Emma Summers’ business acumen put her in control of the Los Angeles City oilfield’s production – and earned her oil queen title.
She would become a lady to be reckoned with in the rough and tumble world of the Los Angeles oil patch.
Emma A. (McCutchen) Summers, a refined southern lady who graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to teach piano.
Summers was soon caught up in the excitement of California’s new petroleum exploration industry.
With her home not far from where Edward Doheny had discovered the Los Angeles City field just a year before, Summers invested $700 for half interest in a well just a few blocks from Doheny’s producer.
Her well was between Court and Temple Streets, about a mile west of today’s Dodger Stadium. It didn’t go well.
The casing collapsed and tools were lost, but she persevered. She borrowed another $1,800 to continue drilling the well and “Night after night, by the light of a flaring torch, she hovered over it, as if it were a sick babe’s cradle.”
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.
But she didn’t quit. 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.
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.
The Los Angeles City oilfield at the turn of the century. Photograph courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento.
“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.
Summers sold her oil to downtown hotels, factories, Pacific Light & Power Company and railroads.
“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.
As the Los Angeles 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.”
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.
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