1876 Pico Canyon oil discovery brought pipelines, refineries, and Chevron.

 

Following the 1859 first commercial U.S. oil discovery in Pennsylvania, America’s earliest petroleum 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 oil gusher arrived in 1876 — and launched the California petroleum industry.

The 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. But in northern California, an 1865 well near oil seeps in Humboldt County also could be considered the first California oil well.

Humboldt County Oil

Drilled by the Old Union Matolle Company soon after the end of the Civil War, the Humboldt County well produced oil near aptly named Petrolia and attracted early exploration companies to the oilfield.

A California 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 be refined 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 declined to one barrel of oil day and the prospect was abandoned, according to 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 2011 article in Oil-Industry History. But the California petroleum industry truly began to the south, at Pico Canyon Oilfield, a few miles west of Newhall.

Pico Canyon Well No. 4

In Pico Canyon of the Santa Susana Mountains, 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.

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.

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.

Newhall Refinery

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.

The Santa Clarita refinery, today preserved as a tourist attraction, is among 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.

Birth of Chevron

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. It is one of the oldest existing oil refinery sites 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. 

Learn more in Discovering Los Angeles Oilfields.

Refining Kerosene for Lamps

 California’s commercial refineries were among the first in America, where the industry began with small refineries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, producing kerosene for lamps. The oil came from Titusville area oilfields — and a giant 1871 field discovered at Bradford, about 70 miles to the northeast. 

The Bradford oilfield, which became known as America’s “first billion dollar oil field,” remains home to the American Refining Group. The historic field’s first well produced just 10 barrels a day from 1,110 feet.

By 1875. Bradford leases reached as high as $1,000 per acre. A decade later, a sudden decline in the oilfield’s production led to a technological breakthrough. Pioneers of the new science of petroleum geology suggested that water pressure on oil sands could be used to increase oil production — “waterflooding” the geologic formation.

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

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

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

As of January 1, 2022, there were 130 operable petroleum refineries in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), down from 141 refineries in 2017.

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.

For an investigation into which California oil well was the first, see this 2011 SearchReSearch blog of Dan Russell. 

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Learn more California petroleum history in California Oil Seeps and the Signal Hill Oil Boom.

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Recommended Reading: California State University, Dominguez Hills (2010); Pico Canyon Chronicles: The Story of California’s Pioneer Oil Field (1985). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please become an annual AOGHS supporting member today. Help us maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title: “First California Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-california-oil-well. Last Updated: September 4, 2022. Original Published Date: September 9, 2015.

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