Picturing California petroleum history in a family album.
Although it’s just an old photograph from a southern California port, an image from Los Angeles Harbor tells a tale about U.S. maritime and petroleum histories, including the story of Puente Oil Company.
Seeking to preserve her father’s years as an employee of the Los Angeles Harbor authority, Valerie Raynor contacted the American Oil & Gas Historical Society (museum donating suggestions are in Oil Families). It did not take her long to find a permanent home for her collection of his photographs at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.
A lot can be learned from this one photograph of an oil company’s facility at San Pedro Harbor of Los Angeles.
Raynor, who lives in the Los Angeles area, decided to donate her original family pictures after talking with the museum director. “Mary Frances seemed very knowledgeable and helpful, so I felt this would be a good place to start with all the pictures.” In exchange for her donation of the photographs, which the museum will share with the the San Pedro Bay Historical Museum, the Raynor family will receive high-resolution digital copies.
Steel 55-gallon drums (patented in 1905) gradually replaced traditional 42-gallon “bilged” wooden oil barrels.
“It’s a great way to have them preserved for future generations,” Raynor said. “The pictures will be kept in honor of my father, Paul J. Thome, who worked for the City of Los Angeles at the San Pedro Harbor in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Raynor admits she needed a quick lesson on how to scan. “I decided I should not use the excuse of ‘I can’t do this,’ when we tell our kids that that is not a good enough excuse! So, I called a friend who walked me through how to scan and send a pic.” Her family – and historians – have benefited, thanks to preservation of her father’s career.
Although an 1865 discovery near oil seeps in Humboldt County might be considered the first California oil well, the state’s petroleum exploration industry took off following an 1876 gusher that revealed the Pico Canyon oilfield. In 1892, about 35 miles south of Pico Canyon, a former gold prospector then discovered the massive Los Angels field.
Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield discovered oil in the hills northwest of downtown Los Angeles in 1892. Their well, drilled near present-day Dodger Stadium, revealed the Los Angeles City oilfield. As would be found at many of California’s oilfields, the area had natural oil seeps, most notably at the La Brea “tar pits.”
Doheny also opened up Orange County’s first oilfield with a successful well at Olinda in present-day Brea in 1897, explains Paul R. Spitzzeri in “Drilling for Black Gold in the Los Angeles Oil Field, 1890s.” The Puente Oil Company was a part of this southern California petroleum industry, which began in the mountains near Santa Clarita as early as 1865, Spitzzeri says. But oil production and efforts to make Los Angeles refineries profitable had limited success over the next two decades.
A log driver or “river rat” can be seen at work (center). Hill in background is Dead Man’s Island.
By 1886, William Rowland, son of the owner of Rancho La Puente, John Rowland, and his partner William Lacy had successfully drilled several oil wells on the ranch. The wells helped launch the Puente Oil Company in Los Angeles, one of many ventures that hoped to find oil in southern California at the turn of the century. One small enterprise with a similar name, the Puente Crude Oil Company, did not fare as well.
In the harbor photograph’s background, horse-drawn tank wagons, rail tracks, boats, river pigs, laborers, ladies and gentlemen all share a changing workplace.
Old and new technologies share the harbor site as well – Nellie Bly’s 55-gallon steel drums and old 42-gallon wooden barrels; the sails and train rails with log drivers (catty men, river rats, river pigs, etc.) corralling floating pilings; and on South Seaside Avenue, the Puente Oil Company – the first to exploit southern California’s Puente Hills’ oil.
Another detail from the harbor photo shows rail road tracks and horse-drawn oil tanks.
Because of its high-gravity, Puente Oil sold for up to $1.75 a barrel, while lesser grades sold at 75 cents to $1 per barrel. The company soon built a pipeline from its drilling sites to the Puente railroad depot. From Puente, tank cars (marked “P. O. Co.”) carried the oil to Los Angeles harbor. The company prospered.
In 1895, a six-year contract to supply substantial quantities of crude oil to the Chino Beet Sugar refinery prompted Puente Oil to build its own pipeline to the user, 16 miles away. Just the first year’s requirement was for 80,000 barrels. Puente Oil then built its own 800 barrel a day crude oil refinery nearby in Chino. This was prior to the Supreme Court’s 1911 ruling breaking up the Standard Oil monopoly, so Standard bought all of the Puente Oil refinery’s output.
Dead Man’s Island and Rattlesnake Island (both now part of the largely artificial Terminal Island) were first linked in 1893. Modern dredging has changed much of the harbor’s landscape.
By 1900, Puente Oil had grown to “a total of 4,700 acres of the best light oil-producing lands in California” with 85 wells pumping a total of 20,000 barrels of oil a month. Puente Oil in 1903 merged with the Columbia Oil Producing Company (a 1898 venture of W.L. Hardison, co-founder of Union Oil Company). “The consolidation of the Puente and Columbia companies is with one exception the largest oil deal ever consummated in Southern California, and carries as great an oil value as any deal of record,” noted the Pacific Coast Reporter. Shell Union Oil Company acquired both Columbia Oil Producing and Puente Oil in 1922.
Today, much of the Puente Oil’s former oil producing land is managed by the Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority. The Port of Los Angeles handles almost 200 million tons of freight every year.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact email@example.com. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.
Historic Tanker Memorabilia
My father spent his working life with Lone Star Gas, he is gone many years now I am getting on. Going through a few of his things. A little book made up that he received when he & my mother attended the commissioning of the Natalie O. Warren Propane Tanker. I am wondering if it is of any value to anyone. Or any museum. – Bill
(Editor’s Note: The Natalie O. Warren became the first seafaring propane tanker in 1947; it could transport 1.4 million gallons of propane in each voyage.)
Live elephant advertising, Skelly Oil
My grandfather owned a Skelly service station in Sidney, Iowa in the 1930s and 1940s. I have a photo of him with an elephant in front of the station. I recall reading somewhere that Skelly had this elephant touring from station to station as an advertising stunt. Does anyone have any more history on the live elephant tour for Skelly Oil? I’d love to find out more. — Thanks, Jeff
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“Hi, next year we are planning a road trip in the United States that starts in Dallas, Texas, heading to Amarillo and then on to New Mexico and beyond. We will be following the U.S. 287 most of the way to Amarillo and would like to know of any oil fields we could visit or simply photograph on the way. From Amarillo we plan to take the U.S. 87. We realise this is quite a trivial request but you help would be much appreciated.” — Kristin (August 7, 2019).
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A resource for sharing information about all things petroleum.
Welcome to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s Q&A page for those seeking information about everything from oilfield equipment to service station collectibles.
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Exceptionally well written, exceptionally candid, impressively informative, and a simply riveting read from cover to cover, Tornados, Rattlesnakes & Oil: A Wildcatter’s Memories of Hunting for Black Gold is unreservedly recommended for community, college, and university library Contemporary American Biography collections. – October 2018 issue of Small Press Bookwatch
“Most books about the oil patch usually fall into one of two categories,” noted Robert Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, in a comment on the back cover of the 234-page Tornados, Rattlesnakes & Oil, published in August 2018. “The first are tributes to the ‘greatest gamblers.’ The others are tomes about the earth sciences. Rarely do we get a full-bodied peek into real life in the oil patch.”
Blackburn added that the book’s author, Thomas E. Cochrane, produced “a fast-paced and lyrical stroll through several decades of searching for oil and gas, punctuated with stories about the greatest gamblers, and insights into petroleum geology.” Another reviewer, Will Schweller, past president of the Northern California Geological Society, said this about Cochrane:
“His descriptions of his co-workers and how they put together deals is something that very few people in the modern oil and gas companies have much or any experience with. He gives apparently frank accounts of how many projects didn’t work out as well as a few that did, so I give him lots of credit for not exaggerating his successes and being honest about how hard it was to make a living doing what he did. I enjoyed reading the author’s experiences in the Oklahoma oil patch. ”
Cochrane, a longtime member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and former editor of “The Shale Shaker,” the journal of the Oklahoma City Geological Society, continues to work as a consulting geologist in his coastal region of Northern California. Cochrane is in his 80s. The former teacher also is author of Shaping the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast – Exploring the Coastal Geology of Northern California, a regional bestseller.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.
Refurbished in 1979 and declared an Oklahoma state monument.
Seventy-six feet tall and weighing about 22 tons, the “Golden Driller” – and oilfield roughneck – is the most photographed landmark in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Designated an Oklahoma state monument in 1979, the Golden Driller was permanently installed for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa.
Since the giant oilman’s first appearance at the 1953 International Petroleum Exposition, he has become a symbol a city once known as the “Oil Capital of the World.”
Tulsa and its Golden Driller have witnessed many booms – and busts – of the U.S. petroleum industry over the years.
Originally sponsored in 1953 by the Mid-Continent Supply Company of Fort Worth, Texas, the giant proved very popular. So much so that a new version was temporarily erected again for the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition. The oilfield equipment expos will continue for decades at the Tulsa County Free Fair site, which began in 1903.
The original Golden Driller of 1953, left, proved so popular that a smaller, rig-climbing version (called The Roustabout) returned for the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition. Images courtesy Tulsa Historical Society.
Although again a temporary statue, the 1959 Golden Driller impressed visitors and exhibitors at the oil show.
“This time he was much more chiseled and detailed and was placed climbing a derrick and waving,” notes a Tulsa Historical Society volunteer. Known as “The Roustabout,” the 1959 rig-climbing version again attracted so much attention that Mid-Continent Supply refurbished it and donated it to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Trust Authority.
“Over the next seven years he had a makeover, actually he had to be completely re-made to withstand the elements,” explains Nancy “Tulsa Gal” of the Tulsa Historical Society.
Mid-Continent Supply Company constructed a permanent version in 1966 with steel rods to withstand up to 200 mph winds. Refurbished again in 1979, it was designated a Oklahoma state monument.
Today’s Golden Driller was originally created for Tulsa’s 1966 International Petroleum Exposition. Its designer was a Greek immigrant named George “Grecco” Hondronastas, an artist who had worked on the 1953 expo statue.
According to the 2014 article by Tony Beaulieu, Hondronastas was an eccentric and prolific artist who was proud of becoming a U.S. citizen through his military service in World War One.
Hondronastas, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later became a professor, came to Tulsa for the first time in 1953 “to help design and build an early version of the Golden Driller,” Beaulieu explains. “Hondronastas fell in love with the city of Tulsa and later moved his wife and son from Chicago to a duplex near Riverview Elementary School, just south of downtown.”
Beaulieu adds that “Hondronastas was always proud of designing the Golden Driller, and would tell anyone he met, according to his son, Stamatis Hondronastas.” Learn more in An Oil Town’s Golden Idol, originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.
The late Tulsa photographer Walter Brewer documented construction of the giant with images later donated to the Tulsa Historical Society. Designated a state monument and refurbished again in 1979 (the year Hondronastas died), the statue as it appears today was permanently installed at the 21st Street and Pittsburg Avenue. It contains a total of 2.5 miles of rods and mesh, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. “Made from plaster and concrete, it can withstand 200 mph winds, which is a good thing here in Oklahoma.”
The giant has sported t-shirts, belts, beads and ties.This shirt is from the 2014 Tulsa State Fair and KMOD radio. Images courtesy the Tulsa Historical Society.
The Golden Driller’s right hand rests on an old production derrick moved from oilfields near Seminole, Oklahoma – which has its own extensive petroleum heritage.
Fully refurbished in the late 1970s, the Golden Driller – by now a 43,500-pound tourist attraction – is the largest free-standing statue in the world, according to Tulsa city officials.
“Over time the Driller has seen the good and the bad,” Nancy explains.
“He has been vandalized, assaulted by shotgun blasts and severe weather. But he has also had more photo sessions with tourists than any other Tulsa landmark and can boast of many who love him all around the world,” she concludes.
The Golden Driller, a symbol of the International Petroleum Exposition. Dedicated to the men of the petroleum industry who by their vision and daring have created from God’s abundance a better life for mankind. – Inscription on the plaque at the statue’s base.
An unidentified model posed on one of the Golden Driller’s shoes, probably sometime during construction of the permanent version in time for the 1966 petroleum expo.
A 2007 American Oil & Gas Historical Society Energy Education Conference and Field Trip in Oklahoma City included visits to museums in Seminole, Drumright and Tulsa – with a stop at the Golden Driller.
Although the first International Petroleum Exposition and Congress had no giant roughneck statue in 1923, the expo helped make Tulsa famous around the world. In 1905 – two years before Oklahoma became a state – an oil discovery on the Glenn farm south of Tulsa brought the city’s first drilling boom. Learn more in Making Tulsa the Oil Capital.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact email@example.com. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information: Article Title: “Golden Driller of Tulsa.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/golden-driller-tulsa. Last Updated: October 7, 2019.