A LOOK BACK:Huntington Beach’s oil well mishaps of the 1940s


Most people have no idea that Huntington Beach was at one time the third-largest oil field in California, with a forest of wooden and steel oil derricks as far as the eye could see.

With so many wells, it was not uncommon for a mishap to occur.

Being a worker in our oil fields in those early days was an occupation not for the weak of heart. Many men have underestimated the destructive power that is unleashed when a drill strikes gas and oil in the bowels of the Earth.

This week, we will go back to a time in Huntington Beach’s oil history when accidents were a frequent danger to both the men who worked in our oil fields and to the residents living near those oil fields.


In a past column, we saw how a peaceful morning in 1949 turned into a nightmarish three days of horror, as an out-of-control oil well caught fire and melted steel derricks nearby as the flames from the devil’s torch reached skyward.

With World War II coming to a close in 1944, our residents were far but more worried about a well mishap than of having our oil fields attacked by an enemy.

Wildcat operators who didn’t care about oil well safety drilled many of those old oil wells, and, as a result, accidents were common.

Our first oil well mishap of 1944 occurred while students at Huntington High were fantasizing about how they were going to spend their summer vacations and preparing for graduation.

In early June, the Oil Tool Corp.’s High School No. 1 oil well, located just northeast of the school, blew its top as workers were removing some drilling equipment from the well shaft.

Suddenly, from deep below the 3,750-foot well came gas and mud to the surface and high up into the air.

For the next 16 hours, mud spewed forth over our landscape before workers were able to stop the flow of mud and gas.

With the well under control, the big cleaning effort of the oil-soaked mud began.

It certainly gave the students something to remember as they started their vacation.

Our next mishap occurred on Sept. 19, 1944, as thousands of motorists were driving along Pacific Coast Highway on a Tuesday afternoon.

The J-26 well belonging to the Southwest Exploration Co. — located on Coast Highway just west of 23rd Street (Goldenwest Street) — went out of control and spewed a veritable geyser of rotary mud and water more than 120 feet into the air. It must have been a sight for those driving along that day to see firsthand the power of nature unleashed.

For about an hour, tons of mud and water sprayed over our land before it was brought under control. This well had just been drilled about 10 days before it blew its top.

You can never be sure where you find oil and gas deposits. A check of the oil logs of that area showed that there shouldn’t be any gas pockets or oil sand in the 2,200-foot depth when this mishap occurred.

The only damage to the well was a broken catwalk.

A city fire truck was called in to begin the job of washing away the tons of mud off the nearby derricks and surrounding area.

The next mishap occurred on a peaceful Sunday morning, as people were sitting at the breakfast table or getting ready for church.

At about 8 a.m. Nov. 25, 1944, workers at the Standard Oil Well, Huntington No. A-72 on Garfield Street, heard a deep rumbling underground, and within seconds, a deluge of mud, rocks and gas shot up through the derrick hundreds of feet into the morning sky.

Buildings for miles around were shaken by the blowout.

One worker working high up on the derrick quickly climbed down the ladder to escape and just as he reached safety, rocks shot skyward and one of these struck a piece of metal and caused a spark that ignited the spewing gas.

A column of fire lit up the well and sky as members of our fire department were called to the scene.

But with such a blazing fire, state guardsmen and soldiers stationed at the Bolsa Chica Gun Club were also called in.

Just less than 100 feet from this blazing inferno lay a 40,000-gallon butane gas plant owned by the Imperial Gas Co..

Water was quickly brought into action and sprayed all over the plant’s buildings and tanks to prevent it catching fire and exploding. All throughout Sunday, the men worked to extinguish nature’s blazing inferno.

It would be another day before they were able to gain control of the fire.

After the fire was put out, gas continued to spew forth, and in a few hours had reignited. Finally, after several more hours, the firefighters were able to cap the well and bring an end to this nightmare.

A few weeks earlier, another nearby well blew its top and spewed forth mud and rocks high into the air for several hours in a spectacular geyser sight. It was lucky that this well didn’t catch fire, but the well would continue to give off rumbling noises to let people know that Mother Nature is still the boss.

  • JERRY PERSON is a local historian and longtime Huntington Beach resident. If you have ideas for future columns, write him at P.O. Box 7182, Huntington Beach, CA 92615.
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