Some communities hate their oil refineries. Residents of Santa Clarita are delighted with theirs, even though it hasn’t operated in more than 100 years.
“Pioneer Oil Refinery is one of our treasures,” said Sandra Forbes of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “It is really a historic treasure.”
The unusual object of the society’s affections is the brick-and-metal shell of the first successful oil refinery in California. Erected in 1876 in what is now the Newhall section of Santa Clarita, the refinery formed the foundation for the oil industry on the West Coast.
With considerable pride, local preservationists often note that it is the oldest existing refinery in the world. Although parts of the refinery were carted off to a museum, much of the site remains as it was when horse-driven carts hauled barrels of oil to the refinery.
It was built by one of the corporate ancestors of Chevron USA, which is considering refurbishment plans.
When vandals covered the refinery with graffiti a few years ago, the Santa Clarita Valley Pride Committee and other indignant civic groups removed the offending symbols in a one-day frenzy of sandblasting and painting.
“This was really a violation,” Forbes said. “We were offended. This was like someone breaking into your home and robbing it.”
Why such interest in an oil refinery?
Even Jerry Reynolds, a local historian who wrote a book about the oil industry in the area, is hard-pressed to explain it. “I don’t really know what the attraction is,” he said. But once people see the refinery--often on historical society tours--they seem to take a liking to it, he said.
City Councilwoman Jill Klajic, who organized the one-day cleanup, summed up the refinery’s appeal: “It’s old and it doesn’t work.”
Perhaps, suggested Forbes, people are attracted by the refinery’s primitive appearance, suggestive more of giant moonshine stills than high-tech industry.
W. J. Fassler, regional vice president for Chevron USA, agreed. People visit the site expecting a modern refinery’s maze of pipes and tanks, but find instead a collection of quaint-looking brick “tea kettles,” he said.
Located off Pine Street, the refinery lacks the romance of other Santa Clarita Valley historical “firsts.”
Gold was found in the valley in 1842, six years before the discovery at Sutter’s Mill. The first rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco was completed in 1876 at Lang, now part of Canyon Country. Pioneers living near Lang were the victims of some well-documented attacks by grizzly bears.
But the Pioneer Oil Refinery had a placid, efficient existence.
While researching “Pico Canyon Chronicles,” Reynolds looked for juicy anecdotes to liven up his tale of oil exploration. But there were no explosions at the refinery, no raids by bandits and certainly no grizzlies. “It seemed to work quite well,” Reynolds said, sounding almost disappointed.
The Pioneer Oil Refinery was built by the California Star Oil Works, which was absorbed by Standard Oil of California, a forerunner of Chevron. The refinery was conveniently located near railroad tracks and just a few miles from Pico Canyon, where the state’s first oil well was drilled in 1876, Reynolds said.
A group of oilmen attempted to operate a tiny refinery in 1874 in Newhall not far from where the Pioneer stands, but the project faltered. Some of the equipment was later used successfully at the Pioneer site. The oil was loaded in barrels at the drilling location, west of what is now the Golden State Freeway, and lugged east to the refinery, which produced kerosene and benzene.
The Pioneer plant initially processed 25 to 40 barrels of oil a day. Over the next three years, two more stills--one capable of processing 150 barrels a day, the other 120--were added.
The refinery had a short life, closing in 1884, Reynolds said. It fell into disrepair until 1930, when Charles Sitzman, a Standard Oil superintendent, led a restoration drive in honor of Demetrius G. Scofield, Standard Oil’s first president and the man who had spearheaded creation of the refinery in 1876. It has been designated a state historical landmark.
The refinery remained unharmed for decades, known only to locals, oil history buffs and couples who found the remote if somewhat industrial location a good spot for romantic liaisons. Vandalism prompted the energetic cleanup effort in September, 1989.
As for the future, Fassler said Chevron is studying proposals for the refinery and other historic drilling sites in the valley.
Moving the refinery to another location is an option, but a remote one, he said. It’s more likely that Chevron will relocate other historic equipment, such as an old wooden drill tower, to the refinery, he said.
The company is still studying its options; a final decision could be announced as soon as March. Chevron has had offers from firms to buy the site, but the company is not interested, Fassler said.
“I think its best future use will probably be with the historical society or city of Santa Clarita or some society which would be willing to maintain it and keep it open,” he said. “It’s part of the community.”