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Willmore suffered sunstroke. When he returned to Long Beach years later he learned the city he had founded had prospered in a new land boom. But he was penniless and became an inmate of the county poor farm. He died in 1901 and was buried in the municipal cemetery. Across the street from the cemetery, still pumping, are the oil wells which brougth fortune to others on fabulous Signal Hill. In 1916-17, Union Oil Co. drilled the first Signal Hill well (Bixby No. 1) to 3,449 feet at Wardlow Road and Long Beach Boulevard but abandoned it. In 1921, Shell Oil decided to gamble. It spent $60,000 to lease 240 acres on the southeast fl ank of the hill and spudded in Alamitos No. 1 on March 23. Many were skeptical. But D.H. Thornburg, a Shell geologist who remembered seeing many sea shells and tilted seabeds on the hill when he played there as a boy, had a hunch that the fi ve large homes and the cucumber and blackberry truck farms might be on the crest of an oilbearing geologic anticline. On May 2, a coring sample from a depth of 2,765 feet revealed oil sand. Shell promptly appropriated $50,000 to lease more acreage. On May 23, in another test, 70 feet of oil stood in the hole. On June 23, after exactly three months of drilling, the old cable tools were piercing rock at 3,1 14 feet when the wildcat blew in before dawn. A crown of 500 swelled to 15,000 after sunrise, all astonished by the gusher. When officially placed "on stream" after being brought under control]une 25th, it flowed at 590 barrels a day but production later bulged to 1,200. "My mother got oil all over her brand new hat," recalls Llewellyn Bixby III, president a of the Alamitos Land Co. , on whose property Alamitos No.1 was drilled . Speculators and promoters engaged in a frenzied competition for signatures of Signal Hill land owners on mineral leases. Andrew Pala valued his pink mansion near the crest of the hill at $15,000. By midnight on the day of the strike he was turning down $150,000 for it. Other bidders, instead of offering the usual one-eighth royalty in a wildcat area or one-sixth Over the years, Signal Hill had sporadic oil well fires. - Ernest Marquez Collection. in a proved field, were waving legal documents providing 20,25 and 33 percent. Pala's next-door neighbor, Louis C. Denni, superintenent of the Bixby Land Co_ since 1884, drove four blocks from his home to the discovery well. "My dad and I got there in a Model T Ford, " said Joseph Denni. "Oil was shooting up over the top of the derrick and we were afraid it would ignite from fires in the boilers. It was dangerous." The elder Denni held out until January before leasing his property to the United Oil Company for a 50 percent royalty, believed to be the highest in history at that time, United turned over the lease to Richfield, which tore down Denni 's mansion in a panic in order to begin drilling_ Denni's nearby carriage house was moved across the street and survived for some years as the nucleus of the Hill Top Cafe. Promoters' free busses brought prospective investors from Pershing Square in Los Angeles to free lunches in circus tents at Signal Hill, where glib stories were told of fortunes to be made in oil. Many bought perhaps one 500,000th of a onesixth royalty interest in an oil well still to be drilled . Some profited. Trading extended to cover mineral rights in one-foot-square parcels of land_ In one area nicknamed the Encyclopedia Tract, easterners had gotten actual deeds to lots not much larger than postage stamps. This was in connection with a "Land in California" gimmick to sell sets of encyclopedias. Some of the fly-by-night promoters during the hectic 1920's, trapped in shady dealings, wound Page Five By the 1930's, the City of Signal Hill had developed into a metropolitan city planted among oil derricks. By this time many of the derricks had been removed as may be seen on the hill in the background. - Ernest Marquez Collection. up in San Quentin. The most colorful of the promoters was C.C. Julian, a onetime pipeline laborer who became a genius in arousing confidence of Middle Western farmers who, after World War I, flocked to Southern California with their savings. Estimates of the losses of small investors to this dapper promoter during his meteoric career range from $100 million and upward. Julian moved to Oklahoma after his Southern California bubble burst, jumped a $25,000 bond in a $3.5 million federal mail fraud case, fleo to Shanghai and committed suicide there in 1934. Long Beach sought to annex the two-squaremile Signal Hill area soon after the discovery of oil. Enormous tax revenues from the petroleum deposits were looming. But Signal Hill residents shrewdly rejected the bigger city's advances and they incorporated as a city in 1924. They elected the first woman mayor in California, Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson. She and a later mayor, Mrs. Nellie Cambellack, tried to clean up gambling joints that were preying on well-paid oil workers. Page Six Meanwhile, major oil companies and many independent operators were expanding the field. In 1922, A.T. ]ergins and Charles M. Cotton formed the Jergins Trust, later incorporated as the1ergins Oil Co. By 1944 they had paid the city of Long Beach $9,706,848 in royalties on a Water Department lease north of the cemetery. They sold out in 1950 in a $30 million transaction. Samuel Mosher, a lemon grower who lived miles away, originally knew nothing about petroleum production techniques. Months later, after Alamitos No.1 blew in, he drove to Signal Hill, noticed many wells were wasting the natural gas which flew up the pipe with the crude oil. Mosher acquired an absorption plant to handle such gas and to extract the highly volatile natural gasoline it contains. This led naturally to drilling. Incorporating as Signal Oil & Gas Co., he drilled not only in Signal Hill, but at Huntington Beach, then in Mexico, Venezuela and finally in Kuwait he had fabulous strikes. Over the years, Signal Hill has had sporadic oil well fires and some tragic refinery blasts, such as the one which killed nine Richfield employee
June 2,1933, and another in which two Hancock Oil workers died May 22, 1958. For safety, steel instead of wood is now used in the derricks and most of these high rigs have been replaced by squatty pumpers as production ebbs. Below ground level, Signal Hill remains a cobweb of steel pipes. Some of the wells were drilled "every w hich way" in the early hysteria to strike profitable pools. Since 1956, Long Beach Model T Club's scores of members show off their restored Ford Tin Lizzies in their annual Signal Hill Climb. This is a one-tenth mile race up the steep grade at Obispo Avenue and Hill Street about a half mile east of the discovery well. Alamitos No.1, now known legally as Bartol Signal Hill Petroleum, Inc., East Unit No. 149, has produced 750,000 barrels of crude oil since that exciting day in 1921. It was shut down in late 1987 for " repa irs and maintenance" but could easily produce 35 barrels daily if crude oil prices rose s ufficiently to cover costs of pumping. Alamitos No. l's life, and that of 300 sister wells still producing atop Signal Hill, depends upon an international ca rtel , the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And OPEC ministers, beset by internal squabbling, dealt harrowing blows to prices and production quotas in Decem ber 1987. Whil e oil companies continue waterflood ing the fie ld for more complete recovery of remaining Corral Chips oil, realty developers file multimillion-dollar suits to permit construction of hundreds of condominiums and luxury homes on the crown of the hill and the slopes below. The high-rise structures have sweeping, unrivaled vistas. But building standards, zoning and density restrictions hamper the developers. They want all unsightly tanks and derricks removed. The hill's city officials and oil men long ago began an annual La Fiesta de Oro Negro to commemorate the oil discovery. The all-day fiesta s have involved Mexican dancers, a pit barbecue, plenty of enchiladas, tamales and tacos, sq uare dancing and even old -time fiddl ers' contests. Petroleum pioneers and city officials have erected two large monuments hailing Alamitos No.1 for development of one of the most productive oil fields in the world and for helping establish California as a major oil producing state.
SUMMER 1988 LOS ANGELES CORRAL NUMBER 172
Signal Hill's Black Gold by Ray Zeman Before dawn onJune 23,1921, a wild gusher of crude oil blew out at Hill Street and Temple Avenue on a Long Beach hill named for its early role in history - signaling. Skyrocketi ng over a wooden derrick's 114-foot crown block, this geyser started a second run of fortune hunters to California. But this time the setting was Signal Hill instead of the American River and the Mother Lode. The new prize was not just gold. It was black gold, priced at $1.50 a barrel but destined to soar much higher in the boom of the Automobile Age. In 1921 this wildcat discovery well, Alamitos No.1, tapped an obscure mound atop more than a billion barrels of oil, the richest oil field per acre in history. Within two years, 272 wells were spurting 68 million barrels annually from Signal Hill. In the first 50 years, more than 2,400 Signal Hill wells produced 859 million barrels of oil and more than 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The original eruption from Alamitos No. 1 raged out of control until 4:00 A.M. June 25, when Shell Oil crewmen diverted the flow into storage tanks, with 500 spectators cheering the results. Alamitos No.1 was heralding a new history for Signal Hill and the city of Long Beach which surrounded it. It spawned a thousand stories - of millions won by a few, of family savings lost by many, of a great harbor and of thousands of new homes below the hill that marked the end to the romantic days of the ranchos. Today, instead of a forest of oil derricks, Signal Hill has only a fraction of them still pumping lustily away amid a nondescript collection of abandoned wells and deteriorated tanks. As land is cleared of equipment, the hill may still fulfill the dreams of developers who, before the oil bonanza, envisioned it as a site for beautiful homes with spectacular panoramic vIews. Signal Hill's lore became part of American history in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed near the beach two miles below and named the present San Pedro Bay "Bahia de los Fumos" (Bay of Smokes). Pubug-na Indians, living in stick-and-mud huts near the hill, had set fires to drive rabbits into small areas for easy capture. Legend also says these Indians, long before, had lighted similar fires on Signal Hill to contact tribes on Santa Catalina Island. And white men later reputedly used the 365-foot elevation above sea level to signal smugglers and buccaneers. The first recorded owner of Signal Hill was Don Manuel Nieto, a fai thful soldier, who received a 300,000-acre grant in 1784 when Governor Pedro Fages began to distribute land in the name of the King of Spain. The Nieto grant covered everything from the foothills to the ocean between the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, overlapping holdings of the San Gabriel Mission . When Nieto died in 1804 his six ranchos and enormous herds of cattle and horses had made him the wealthiest man in California. A son, Don Juan Jose Nieto, succeeded to Rancho Los Alamitos (the Little Cottonwoods) and a daughter, Dona Manuela Nieto, inherited Rancho Los Cerritos (The Little Hills). In 1834 Don Jose Nieto sold Rancho Los Alamitos - comprising 28,000 acres of his father's vast holdings - to Governor Jose Figueroa for $500. Figueroa died a year later and Abel Stearns, a Massachusetts Yankee who had acquired Mexican citizenship, bought the rancho in 1842 for $5,500 in hides and tallow. Stearns later bought other lands and eventually held more than 20,000 acres, ranging from Los Angeles to San Bernardino. However, the great drought of 1862-64 wiped out most of his herds and he lost Rancho Los Alamitos in the foreclosure of a $20,000 mortgage. Meanwhile, another Massachusetts Yankee, John Temple, who also had acquired Mexican citizenship, married the daughter of Dona Manuela Nieto and bought the interests of the neighboring 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos for $3,025 in 1843, from his wife's brothers and sisters. A line drawn on what would now be Alamitos Avenue divided Rancho Los Cerritos on the west from Rancho Los Alamitos on the east. Every year the fastest horses bearing the colors of these ranchos would vie in a race from Signal Hill to the ocean. They would round a pole in the area of the later Pacific Coast Club and Villa Riviera and return. EI Becerro, a magnificent bay owned by Temple, once won the most famous of these races when the stake was 1,000 head of cattle. Another story handed down through the years by Preston Hotchkis, president of the Bixby Ranch Company, and his wife, Mrs. Katharine Bixby Hotchkis, is of a senorita whose hand was sought by two vaqueros. Undecided as to which one to wed, she asked them to race on horseback between Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Los Alamitos. "The girl married the winner," Hotchkis said. During the 1862-64 drought, 50,000 cattle died on Rancho Los Alamitos. Temple was mortgaging his holdings and by 1878 all of what is now Signal Hill and Long Beach had passed into the hands of the Bixby family and a banking associate, r.w. Hellman. At one time they also owned half of what is now the huge Irvine Ranch in Orange County and the greater part of Rancho Los Palos Verdes. The movement of the Bixby clan from Maine to California had begun in 1851, when Lewellyn Bixby and his brother Amasa boarded a side· wheeler in New York, crossed the Isthmus of Page Three By the time Signal Hill was incorporated as a city in 1924, the hill had become a forest of giant wooden oil derricks and metal storage tanks. - Ernest Marquez Collection. Panama and visited cousins who were seeking gold at the Volcano diggings nea r Sacramento. In 1852 Lewellyn Bixby went home with the cousins, Benjamin Flint and Dr. Thomas Flint, but a few months later the trio drove 2,000 head of sheep from Illinois to Los Angeles County and then on to San Jose. They came south in 1866, purchasing Rancho Los Cerritos from Temple for $20,000, or about 74 cents an acre. Other Bixbys and Hellman bought Rancho Los Alamitos a dozen years later for $125,000. The Bixbys were interested primarily in sheep raising but in 1880 they gave an option on 4,000 acres to William E. Willmore, a former English school teacher. Willmore, admiring the majestic view from the hill to the sea, began advertising throughout the nation what he called Willmore City. He offered small plots at $12.50 to $20 an acre. Despite his zeal, by 1884 there were only 12 houses in the area below the hill and when Willmore left for Arizona the community was renamed Long Beach. Page Four The only known likeness of William Erwin Willmore, father of "Willmore City" in this sketch by Alfred S. Harkness.