Oil runs deep in L.A. history
As those doomed fiberglass mammoths in the bubbling ooze at La Brea Tar Pits attest, oil in Los Angeles is an old story. But how much of that story do you know?
FOR THE RECORD
Oil in Los Angeles: An earlier version of this article described an Echo Park oil well dug by Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield in 1892 as the first in Southern California. It was the first oil well in Los Angeles, but not the first in Southern California.--
Have you seen the Echo Park parking lot where two desperate prospectors dug Los Angeles’ first oil well? The tiki-tinged oil well islands of Long Beach? The derrick in disguise at Beverly Hills High School?
When you’re awash in dire news about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s easy to forget that Los Angeles is a major petroleum producer. That may be because much of the machinery is disguised by stagecraft, or because Southern California’s last high-volume spill was a side effect of an even larger crisis: In the 1994 Northridge earthquake, an Arco pipeline broke and sent 190,000 gallons of oil into the Santa Clara River in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
No sightseeing excursion in Los Angeles is far from an oil well or pipeline. As of January, state officials counted 3,071 active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles County, 842 of them offshore. Together, they produce more than 66,000 barrels a day. (In mid-June, government scientists said the BP disaster could be spilling up to 60,000 barrels a day.)
This L.A. petro-tour shines a light on just a few of this area’s derricks and pumpjacks (a.k.a. nodding donkeys), and it draws heavily from “Urban Crude,” an exhibition and daylong tour assembled last year by the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City.
“Most people are vaguely aware of the oil infrastructure around Los Angeles,” said Matthew Coolidge, director of the center. “But to actually get the big picture — a sense of the scale of it — is something most people haven’t done.”
1. We begin at the parking lot of the Echo Park swimming pool (a.k.a. Echo Deep Pool, 1419 Colton St., Los Angeles;  481-2640). There’s no plaque and no other hint I could find of this place’s historic significance. But this parking lot covers the spot where Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, a 460-foot hole that yielded oil in 1892. The results not only enriched the drillers but also changed Southern California’s landscape forever.
2. For the next chapter in the Doheny story, head 3.8 miles southwest to Mount St. Mary’s College, Doheny campus (10 Chester Place, Los Angeles;  477-2500, https://www.msmc.la.edu). Before Mount St. Mary’s took over, this was the Doheny estate, and the family’s three-story 1899 mansion remains. You can park outside the small campus and walk in. Photography is forbidden without advance permission, and the mansion interior is usually closed, but there are occasional Saturday tours that include the first floor (usually 2 1/2 hours, $25 a person). The next tour dates: Sept. 18 and Dec. 18. Also, gatherings of 10 or more adults can arrange their own group tours. (More info:  477-2962, https://www.dohenymansion.org.) Whether or not you get inside the mansion, be sure to head to the top level of the campus’ Ken Skinner Parking Pavilion. From there, you can look down and see that oil extraction continues. Behind discreet fencing, the 23rd Street oil site on campus has eight wells that together yield about 16,000 barrels a year.
3. La Brea Tar Pits (5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles;  934-7243, https://www.tarpits.org), neighbored by grassy fields and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been attracting visitors for more than a century. Popularity jumped after a particularly bracing Sunset magazine headline in October 1908 (“Death Trap of the Ages”), and the Hancock family donated the land to the county in 1924. Visitation increased in the 1960s, when the county’s Natural History Museum opened a formal viewing platform at Pit 91 and the fiberglass beasts assumed their positions. In 1977, the Natural History Museum opened its satellite Page Museum at the site.
4. You don’t need to set foot on the campus of Beverly Hills High School (241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills;  229-3685, https://www.bhhs.bhusd.org) to see its oil derrick. In fact, you shouldn’t. Instead, park nearby or just drive past to check out the derrick, which is clad in flowery slipcovers that serve as soundproofing. For decades, on-campus operations have included more than a dozen wells. For the year ending June 30, interim Assistant Supt. Mary Anne McCabe said, the wells yielded $550,000 for the district. Lawsuits blaming the wells for illnesses among students have been dismissed.
For two more variations on oil extraction in disguise, head east a few blocks to Pico Boulevard and Cardiff Avenue (we’re in the city of Los Angeles now), where machinery is sheathed by a mysterious beige tower that reaches 10 stories above neighboring storefronts and offices. Or head to nearby Pico and South Genessee Avenue, where another drilling operation is hidden inside an ersatz office building. (Peek into the locked building’s atrium and you realize there’s no roof.) Then head south on the 405 Freeway. In Carson, about 25 miles from Beverly Hills, you’ll see an enormous American flag at an industrial site to the south. That’s the BP Carson refinery (1801 E. Sepulveda Blvd., Carson).
5. The next stop, about 30 miles southeast of Beverly Hills, is Signal Hill. This tiny city was carved from Long Beach in 1924, largely because of the discovery of oil. Start with a burger and beer at Curley’s Café (1999 E. Willow Ave., Signal Hill;  424-0018; open for lunch and dinner), a longtime bar and grill that shares its parking lot with a pair of pumpjacks. Inside Curley’s, don’t miss the old oil-field photos and decorative cans of petroleum products.
6. Still in Signal Hill, drive up Skyline Drive to 3.2-acre Hilltop Park (2351 Dawson Ave.). The park is about 365 feet above sea level, in a neighborhood where upscale ranch homes and working pumpjacks dwell cheek by jowl. The scent of petroleum is often in the breeze, the juxtaposition is striking, and the wraparound views are spectacular, especially west to the ocean and north to the Santa Monica Mountains. There’s an interesting mist-producing sculpture up top too. More than 260 wells operate in Signal Hill, which was nicknamed Porcupine Hill in the 1920s because it was dotted with so many derricks. Besides the pumpjacks operating next to private houses, others these days do their work next to Starbucks, McDonalds and recently built upscale houses.
7. Last stop: Long Beach Shoreline Marina. From the end of the jetty, you can see the closest of the four man-made oil well islands known as THUMS. (The name dates to the islands’ creation in the 1960s, when Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell oil companies made a joint drilling deal with the city and named the project by combining the first letters of their names. Occidental Petroleum operates them now.) The wells — about 1,100 of them on the four 10-acre islands — sit in 20 to 45 feet of water, reaching down about 5,000 feet. Some people never give them a second look because they’re concealed by 700 palm trees and curvy abstract sculptures and waterfalls. These are Midcentury Modern oil wells, with a touch of tiki thrown in. (By Occidental’s reckoning, it cost $8 million in 1965 to building those oil islands, $4 million to landscape them and $10 million to camouflage them. Total revenue so far: $13 billion.) Arrive at sunset and you may catch the islands’ colored lights glowing under a pink sky.