The LA You May Not Know: Oil in Los Angeles

It's ironic that Jed Clampett and the rest of the Beverly Hillbillies discovered oil back east and then moved to Southern California. because there's plenty of oil here right under our feet -- even in Beverly Hills. 

In fact, the Los Angeles area sits on the largest urban oil field in the country. Oil prospectors from Pennsylvania arrived in the late 19th century and started drilling, but the Chumash Indian tribe found uses for the thick oil seepage long before then. They would coat their canoes with the natural sticky asphalt they found oozing out of the ground. When Spanish explorers sailed up the west coast, they saw the Chumash doing this and named the area Carpenteria (the carpentry shop). Seeing how well it worked, it wasn't long before the Spaniards adopted the practice.

The early days of oil drilling in Southern California had its share of colorful characters. Ed Doheny and his business partner Charles Canfield were gold prospectors but not finding much success in the Los Angeles area. The story goes that Doheny spotted a wagon wheel stained black from rolling through an oil drenched area. Doheny realized the black muck might have value. He had the driver show him the spot and decided that would be a good place to drill LA's first oil well (not far from Dodger Stadium).

And then there was Emma Summers. Nicknamed the "Oil Queen of California," Emma was a piano teacher with a keen eye for a good business opportunity. She risked her life savings to become part owner of a well and when it didn't pay off, she doubled down, borrowing money to reinvest. Her faith was rewarded when her well hit pay dirt. Summers learned every aspect of the oil business, was know to treat employees and customers respectfully and was a major player in the oil industry of Los Angeles for decades.

Our oil industry has also created man made drilling islands off the coast of Long Beach. Built in 1965 and originally called the THUMS Islands, an anogram for:

  • Texaco
  • Humble (now Exxon Mobile)
  • Union oil
  • Mobil
  • Shell

In 1967 the islands were renamed "The Astronaut Islands", with each one given the name of a NASA Astronaut who died serving in the space program. Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom all died in a 1967 capsule fire while conducting an Apollo 1 pre-launch test exercise. The 4th island is named after Ted Freeman, who perished in a T-38 jet plane crash in 1964.

Click on the video above and join our host, Jaysha Patel with more about Oil in LA.

Our thanks to The California Oil Museum. The California Oil Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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