Signal Hill Oil Boom

Derricks close to one cemetery, “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots.”


In the summer of 1921, the Signal Hill oil discovery would help make California the source of one-quarter of the world’s entire oil output. Soon known as “Porcupine Hill,” the town’s Long Beach oilfield would produce about 260,000 barrels of oil every day by 1923.

The Alamitos No. 1 well, drilled on the remote hilltop south of Los Angeles, erupted a 114-foot column of “black gold” on June 23, 1921. Natural gas pressure was so great, the geyser of oil climbed 114 feet into the air.

The oilfield discovery well, which produced almost 600 barrels a day, would eventually produce 700,000 barrels of oil. Signal Hill incorporated three years after its Alamitos discovery well made headlines.

Air view postcard of Signal Hill, which had so many derricks people called it Porcupine Hill.

Following the June 1921 oil discovery, Signal Hill had so many derricks people called it Porcupine Hill.


George Bissell’s Oil Seeps

Search for new lamp fuel brings first U.S. oil exploration company — and start of petroleum industry.


The stage was set in 1854 for the start of America’s petroleum industry when a lumber company sold 105 acres along a creek with oil seeps.

Oil seeps oil map of Vanago County, Pennsylvania, circa 1880.

Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercial U.S. oil  well along Oil Creek at Titusville, Pennsylvania. Arrow added to circa 1865 map. 

On November 10, 1854, the lumber firm Brewer, Watson & Company sold a parcel of land at the junction of the east and west branches of Oil Creek southeast of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The buyers were George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth. Earlier, Joel Angier (a future mayor of Titusville) had collected and sold medicinal “Seneca Oil” from an oil seep on acreage near the company’s sawmill.

Kerosene Lamp Fuel

Bissell and his business partners believed crude oil produced from wells could be refined into a lamp fuel competitor for whale oil, inexpensive but volatile camphene, and “coal oil,” invented in 1853 by Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner, who named it kerosene.

By 1860, dozens of U.S. refineries were producing kerosene using Gesner’s process for distilling cannel coal, a soft coal also called candle coal (and later, oil shale).

To find out whether Pennsylvania’s Seneca  Oil could be inexpensively refined into a quality kerosene for lamps, Bissell hired a scientist friend, Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., to conduct lab experiments. (more…)

Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill

Exploring the 1969 offshore disaster and ancient natural petroleum seeps.


A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the American petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ancient natural California seeps continue to leak thousands of tons of petroleum every day.

On January 28, 1969,  after drilling 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout. Between 80,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including Summerland — where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with drilling on oil well piers.

Problems at the Union Oil platform began when roughnecks began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit and pressure became dangerously low,  according to a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). (more…)

This Week in Petroleum History, January 17 to January 23

January 17, 1911 – North Texas Oil Discovery brings Boom –

Producers Oil Company revealed the Electra oilfield in North Texas when the Waggoner No. 5 well began producing 50 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 1,825 feet. A rush of exploration companies would result in more discoveries on cattleman William T. Waggoner’s ranch, sending Electra’s fortunes skyward (see Pump Jack Capital of Texas). “Oil wealth would build infrastructure, schools, churches, and civic pride in Electra for generations,” noted Mayor Curtis Warner in 2013. Electra’s Chamber of Commerce adopted the motto, “Cattle, Crude, and Combines.”

January 18, 1919 – Congregation rejects drilling in Cemetery 

World War I had ended two months earlier as oil production continued to soar in North Texas. Reporting on “Roaring Ranger” oilfields, the New York Times noted that speculators had offered $1 million for rights to drill in the Merriman Baptist Church cemetery, but the congregation could not be persuaded to disturb the interred. Posted on a barbed-wire fence surrounding the graves not far from producing oil wells, a sign proclaimed, “Respect the Dead.” Today, the cemetery — and a new church — can be found three miles south of Ranger.

Learn more in Oil Riches of Merriman Baptist Church. (more…)

Conejo Hills Oil Company

Twelve miles inland of the Pacific Ocean in the Conejo Valley, Thousand Oaks, California, has more than 125,000 residents, "nestled neatly within a picturesque plateau, rimmed by scenic hills, mountains and trees," notes a local realtor.

Twelve miles inland of the Pacific Ocean in the Conejo Valley, Thousand Oaks, California, has more than 125,000 residents “nestled neatly within a picturesque plateau, rimmed by scenic hills, mountains and trees,” notes a local realtor.

Conejo Hills Oil Company’s history is the story of a single California well, spudded by one company and drilled for years by many others in what today is a residential neighborhood of Thousand Oaks, one the wealthiest cities in America.

This lush valley region – about 35 miles from Los Angeles on the stagecoach route to Santa Barbara – was part of the Karn Pederson Ranch near Rancho El Conejo. (more…)

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