Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Four

Casmalia field California, Associated Oil camp. Santa Maria Historical Society

…and he went off to work. He would be there for forty years. Seventy eight different homes, wife and four children, “Farmer” to Superintendent, a life well lived.

A lot to learn in a short time. Bruce and Marion hauled themselves out of bed dressed, ate and stepped out into the night and waited to catch the solid tire Mack truck that made the rounds at the handoff of each tour. Jumping up on the bed amongst the clutter of hand tools, heavy open end wrenches, the occasional box of Dupont high velocity dynamite, buckets of grease and hanks of heavy manila cable they made themselves as comfortable as they could. As the flatbed struggled up the hills, dropping off the midnight tour men and picking up the day crew the Flying A logo was still stenciled on the side of the open cab, smudged, muddy and with a few dents but still advertising which company you belonged to.

Bruce hopped down from the moving truck, it stopped for no one, always somewhere to go. He climbed the short ladder to the drilling platform and reported to the Tool Pusher, the boss on the rig. In a world of mostly young men from all over the country nicknames and esoteric words to describe the days work were common and almost the first order of business. Bruce may have known a little that he learned from his brother Marion but deciphering this new language was going to take some work. There were, not just the Tool pusher but a tool dresser as well. Called a “Toolie,” his job was to do all the work that kept the drill bits in shape. There is the pipe slinger or derrickman who works up on the “Monkey Board” at the top of the derrick where he stacks pipe as it comes out of the hole or back in as the case may be. These guys are collectively known as Roughnecks. The Roustabout is the tool pushers helper and is expected to feed the boiler, tend the cable as it winds its way down the hole and do any job the “Stud Duck” tells him too. The Worm or Farmer is the low man on the totem pole. He is at the beck and call of all crew members, its the way he is going to eventually learn each of the jobs on the rig if he lasts.

The Farmer, because he doesn’t know “S….t from Shinola” as the old saying goes also fills the role as butt of all jokes. Sent for left-handed wrenches, sky hooks, the key for the vapor lock or the ever handy cable stretcher. Bruce heard them all. Luckily he had a good sense of humor and understood it was all part o the initiation into this new world.

He began his career in what are called “Cable Tool rigs.” The simplest of drilling types, their origins are lost to history. There are records of the Babylonians using simple cable tools to drill for water in Asia Minor 4,000 years ago. Its likely the simple machine pre-dated that by millenia. Simply put, a chisel like bit is raised and lowered from an arm or platform and by repetition pounds its way into the earth creating a well. By 1919 when Bruce went to work in Casmalia the technology had reached its zenith and though the heavy duty rotary rig had been successfully introduced to California fields by Texas wildcatters in 1908, the older technology was much more economical in shallow wells and was still in common use.

Although rotary drilling techniques had been patented as early as 1833, most of these early attempts at rotary drilling consisted of little more than a mule, attached to a drilling device, walking in a circle. It was the success of the efforts of Anthony Lucas and Patillo Higgins in drilling their 1901 Spindletop well in Texas that catapulted rotary drilling to the forefront of drilling. The ability of the rotary rig to drill very deep outstripped the cable tool drilling method when wells began to be drilled over a thousand feet. The rotary drill was also much more effective in types of geologic formations composed of very hard rock.

in December 1908, Howard Hughes Sr patented a roller cutter bit that dramatically improved the rotary drilling process. This allowed wildcatters to go very deep searching for the big payoff. Today the world’s deepest oil well, known as Z-44 Chayvo, goes over 40,000 ft into the ground. It is equal to 32 Empire States buildings stacked end to end.

Bruce would learn how to operate both in his career but in Casmalia the wells weren’t deep. At 1,500 feet or less they were fairly easy to drill through the Diatomaceous sandstone formations below the Casmalia hills and the area surrounding Solomon pass. The low cost Cable Tool drill rigs were suited for this type of formation and in the beginning, the 80 plus rigs on the ground used this technology. There is still one cable tool pump jack operating in the hills, the Careaga 3. Named for the family who owned the land on which it was drilled, it was the first producing well in the field and today, 121 years later it still trickles about 5 barrels a day.

Bruce Cameron Hall, left, Casmalia. 1920. Shannon Family photo.

The photo above was taken by an itinerant photographer who traveled around the state taking pictures of people at work. He would set up his tripod and box camera, pose the men and click the shutter. Taking the mens names and addresses he would mail the finished prints to them. He likely charged each person in the photo about .50 cents for a copy. At $2,25 for this photo he could make a pretty decent living in a field where there were upward of 80 wells like Casmalia. It is a minor miracles that the phot has survived over a hundrd years particulary because Bruce and Eileen packed up and moved so often in their lives.

My grandfather is just 24 here with a pregnant wife and two children under four. He has a serious look as well he might. His clothes are filthy with grease oil and dirt as are all the men. You can see the little round tab dangling from his shirt pocket that indicates there is a bag of Bull Durham tobacco in it. He was a life long heavy smoker but in 1919 most cigarettes were still hand rolled and as my father told me wouldn’t stay lit very long unless you worked at it. He said most men used plug tobacco, cutting a generous slice from your RedMan with a clasp knife and chewing that instead. Grandpa was 5’9″ so the young man next to him is a big-un. Half a head taller he must be 6’4′ or more, tall for the time. He looks young but notice that his watch fob hanging just below his belt line is in the shape of a rotary bit which means he likely has been around the rig for a while. Oil companies handed out trinkets like that only to the experienced and likely permanent employees.

Bruce is the only one with a belt. Belt loops were a relatively new invention then and were slowly replacing braces which the big guy wears. Everybody else sports boiler suits to protect their clothes. You could wear them until they simply wore out instead of having your wife do your laundry. Perhaps they are unmarried as most oil field hands were then. Still are for that matter. Unmarried, they would have gone into Orcutt or Santa Maria and had their clothes laundered. The laundries wouldn’t do oil soaked clothes, which had to be soaked in kerosene before scrubbing on a washboard. Not a very pleasant job for the wife.

Grandpa wears engineers boots with his cuffs rolled. Loose cuffs or shirttails hanging can be caught in machinery with disastrous results. It shows that he was a careful man, after all he survived around this kind of machinery for 40 years. He would learn and do every single job in the oil patch at one time or another and never shirked a job no matter how difficult, from the lowest to the highest.

Posed for the camera, the men in it give us all kinds of information if you look closely. First of all its obviously not a cable tool drilling rig but rotary. In the background, behind the man with no hat is the worm gear that is part of the drilling table, the device that spins the bit as it grinds downward. My grandfather is standing with one foot on a sheave block used to multiply the power of the one cylinder steam engine used to operate the rig. On the floor to the right is the big shackle which attaches to the top of the drill string. This is used to steady the pipe as it spins into the hole and to lift the pipe sections when it’s necessary to haul it out. photo page 120.

Rotary crew, Coalinga 1912. Long Beach Public Libraary

The drill floor is cluttered with pipe, buckets of grease, manila rope, pieces of wood from the derrick and engine house; just general clutter but and indication of just how dangerous these places were to work.

The old time rigs were powered with steam boilers, which if not properly cared for could and did explode often scalding or killing the boiler tender who was likely just a roustabout and not a skilled fireman. Rotary tables were chain driven with no guards to protect the man who fell into or on them. Fittings falling from the monkey boards killed men in the days before hard hats. Smoking around live wells in the presence of gas caused explosions and fires. Before the advent of wire cable, manila rope was used for lifting cable and though it was hawser laid and strong it could and did snap under strain. In a filthy dirty environment it was next to impossible to keep it clean and the dirt and rock particles that became embedded in its coils frayed and broke strands until it was dangerous to use. The companies pinched pennies and crews, being mostly young and fearless often used equipment long past the time when it should have been retired.

In 1921, on a rig in Huntington Beach, Jameson Oil Company’s No. 2 had a cable under severe strain snap, whipping like a scythe across the drill floor killing the Toolie and sent the driller to the hospital with leg injuries which ultimately cost the man to lose one. Another roughneck was so un-nerved he was sent to the hospital in Santa Ana. He never returned to work.

On a cold, foggy winters night on Signal Hill where the Anticline Syndicate company was drilling a well the entire drilling crew, going off shift went into the changing room near the end of the tour to change. One of the men struck a match to light the open gas burner in order to dry the dirty suits hanging on the clothes line. The explosion of the trapped gas in the shack seriously injured the entire night crew before they could escape the flames.

In January of 1922, the crew on the afternoon tour at Union Oil’s Alexander No. 1 in Santa Fe Springs was down to 2,000 feet when mud started to boil out of the casing pipe. The driller screamed at the men to run. The derrick man was up on the monkey board and started to clamber down the ladder but when he had gone part way down and was still forty feet from the ground a powerful column of mud, sand and rock began shooting out of the hole, reaching higher than the crown block at the top of the rig. The derrick man had no choice but to jump for his life. It was his luck that he landed in the sump where the drilling mud pooled. Though shaken, he had the good sense to crawl out, slathered in heavy liquid mud and bolt from the rig. 2.000 feet of drill pipe flew into the air, crashing down all around the rig crushing the two cars the men had driven to work. The wooden derrick collapsed and the drill hole cratered swallowing the entire rig. Within hours all that was left was a vast pool of swirling mud and debris.

A collapsed well, Kern County Westside, 1903, Kern County Oil Museum

The standing casing on the left is all thats left. The coils of cable are from the Bull Wheel which has been incinerated. The standing man adds scale. This was not an uncommon occurrence in Californias early days.

All these accident were part of the sad picture. The casualty rates in California’s oil fields were very high. In the twenties when Bruce and Marion were on the job Californias oil companies produced 100 million barrels of oil, the highest it has ever been, the accident rate rose. Between January 1921 and 1922, 4,109 accidents were reported from just ten of the companies engaged in drilling operations. The majority of companies tried not to report. In this one year 98 men were killed and more than 400 were permanently disabled. 1922 saw thirty four boiler explosions. Almost all took at least one life.

The rotary rigs had no clutch on their chain drives and the chains clattered constantly, sagging and tightening as loads were added or reduced. Falling into the exposed chain could kill. A chain that broke sent pieces flying around the drilling floor like shrapnel from a bomb. They could and did kill.

When the driller was running pipe back into a hole he could brake the pipe string too rapidly and the heat build up in the brake flange rims caused them to fracture losing the pipe string down the hole and sending pieces of cast iron flying. The use of steel didn’t come into use until the mid to late 1920’s.

None of the traveling blocks had guards. When the derrick man needed to turn the blocks, he did it by hand. A moments inattention could throw the hand between the cable and the spinning blocks taking off fingers and whole hands.

Rotary rig, chain drive, 1920. Huntington Library

On top of this the rush to drill brought “Suitcase” men from all over the country. Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming boys took the train, drove a car or just used Shanks mare, hoping to cash in on the California boom. The overabundance of labor caused the oil companies to begin using independent contractors to do the drilling rather than carrying a payroll. The companies provided all material but the contractors did the actual drilling. In the beginning the companies paid by the amount of hole the contractor made. It was essentially piece work. A certain amount paid out at 1,000 feet, another at 2,000. Pressure to keep the money rolling in was intense. It’s no wonder the drilling foreman was known as the “Pusher.” The contractors quickly realized that safety cost and speed paid. All across California, Signal Hill, La Brea, Huntington, Kern’s westside in McKittrick, Reward and Fellows, up in Summerland and Ventura, over in Oildale and Kernville tales quickly spread about crews who could push drilling speeds to the limit. A crew in the Dominguez Hills field set a world record. That crew claimed to have made 3,250 feet in just fifteen days. They averaged 239 feet a day and in one single tour made 280 feet.

At speeds like that, almost no thought was given to safety. Some contractors were man killers. They pushed so hard that hoist drums blew up, drilling lines broke, chains broke or men fell into them. Derrick men who worked with no safety belts fell. The pushers pushed as hard as they could, nearly killing men to make hole as fast as they could. Hiring men was no problem at all, hundreds of “Boomers” were sleeping in cars, rag tents or anywhere they could lie, waiting for a job. The superintendents carried a checkbooks in their pockets.

Old Checkbook Myers, he got the name because he’d fire men off the job, he always carried that checkbook with him, and he’d pay them off on the spot if he didn’t like the way they worked. He’d just expect them to work the way he’d do. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, why he’d pull out the book and fire them right there. Get somebody else. Those guy’s would be waiting around. No problem.

When Bruce went out on the rigs he learned one thing right away. “It don’t cost no more to pay a man off today as it does on Friday.” He never forgot it.

Burning waste oil from the sumps, “Old Maude,” Orcutt, California.c. 1904. Robt. B. Moran

Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Three

Old Maude was cantankerous as mules can be and on this morning in 1904 she wasn’t feeling like doing any work. The teamsters hauling the heavy wagons up hill in the Solomon hills to the new well site muttered under their breath at the old mule. She stood there refusing to move. If the leader won’t move neither will the other five mules in the team. One of the men strode up to the old girl, turned his head and shot a stream of tobacco juice into the mud and proceeded to lambast the mule with a vocabulary of profanity that belongs in the archives of the Smithsonian for its sheer inventiveness. Maude could have cared less. He laid his whip across her rump with a will but she stood her ground. Finally he walked to her head, grabbed her ear and twisted it like a dishrag being wrung out. This final indignity made her do what mules do, change her mind. Without any word from the teamsters she lunged forward in her harness puling the other mules with her, starting the team with a yank. The two wagons heavily loaded with baulks of timber for the new derrick and the boiler for the steam engine promptly dropped their loads in the middle of the road. Maude threw back her head, showed her teeth and brayed to beat the band for this what Old Maude lived for.

The teamsters and the rig building crew stood around the wrecked wagons scratching their heads and shifting their chaw from one cheek to another trying to figure out what to do with the mess. Finally after a bit the foreman said “To hell with it, its easier to build the rig right here than to get that damn boiler back on the broken wagon.” So they did. Named that well “Old Maude” too.

The Union Oil company named it Hartnell #1. When Old Maude came in on December 2nd, she came with a hiss of gas followed by a solid stream of crude blasting skyward, throwing the pipe string hundreds of feet in the air, tearing the derrick to pieces with a roar that could be heard in the boomtown of Orcutt just down the hill. People stood in the streets of Santa Maria and Guadalupe to listen. She became the largest producing well in history at the time

. She spewed 20,000 barrels a day, flooding the Graciosa canyon with oil as hand crews struggled to contain tens of thousands of barrels of the black goo running downhill. Earthen dams were hurriedly constructed by shovel teams working day and night. The company had to roust extra help from the saloons and farm fields. The lakes ran for more than a mile before she was finally capped and put on the pump three months later in March 1905. Old Maud was the largest oil producer on the continent at the time, producing more crude than the more famous Spindletop gusher in Texas. She produced over 3 million barrels of oil until she was finally capped and abandoned on 1988.

Old Maude herself? Nobody knows where she ended up but like mules of her ilk, she didn’t care what you think. Union Oil should have put her likeness on their signs because she made them.

Snortin’ and a blowin’ Old Maude 1904

Both Bruce and Eileen were born in the same year, 1895. They were to live through some of the most innovative and fantastic periods ever recorded. Californias first economically productive oil well was just one of the new inventions and industries that would transform the state.

The Wright brother flew the first powered aircraft in 1903 and by 1919 planes were being used to scout new oil fields. Railroads were beginning to convert from coal to oil powered locomotives. The Navy was also rapidly replacing its power plants to the cleaner burning, more efficient oil. Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T in 1908 and by the time Bruce first stepped foot on a drilling floor you could buy one for under $300 dollars.

The boys were home from the war too. They had seen Gay Paree and thumbed their nose at the Kaiser. They also knew the truth of it and thought that their fathers life wasn’t for them. “Live it up while you can,” they said. Francis Scott Fitzgerald was the poet laureate of the “Jazz Age,” a term he popularized to convey the post-World War I era’s newfound prosperity, consumerism, and shifting sexual mores. Hemingway, Picasso, Coco Chanel, Cole Porter and Louis Armstrongs “Hot Five” were tearing up the old rules and tossing them the air. Radios, phonographs, and Saturday night at the flickers. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the first real movie stars. “Wings” won the very first Oscar in 1927. Clara Bow, the “It” Girl was its star.

Clara Bow the “IT” Girl

Grandma Hall did not approve of any new-fangled ideas and as long as Eileen lived in the house with her she would wear her skirts down to her shoe tops and her collar up under her chin. In 1919 while she was visiting her mother in Anaheim, Mai took a pair of shears and lopped a foot off the hem of that dress. It was the end of corsets and the beginning of the shimmy, rolled silk stockings, public smoking for women and the vote which came their first year in Casmalia.

Senator Warren G Harding, a boozing ,cigar smoking womanizer of no particular intellect was the chosen candidate for president.The big oil men, Edward Doheny, One of the richest men in the world, Harry Sinclair of Sinclair Oil, and the chairmen of Standard Oil Indiana Robert W Stewart were all happy to pony up millions of dollars to get him elected. He was handsome and outgoing, a “Manly-Man” and his backers figured this would play well with the new women voters. It apparently did. He won by a huge margin, the greatest to that time. The country would be very sorry. So would my grandparents.

The Associated Oil Company was based in San Francisco and considered one of the best companies on the west coast, Associated took care of its workers, building decent housing, providing libraries, electricity and phone service. They usually built a community center. All of this was in order to keep their men on the job. There was a fast-growing market on the Pacific for petroleum distillates as well as crude oil and since the high gravity crude oil from the Casmalia/Orcutt, Santa Maria and San Joaquin Valley fields required some sort of refining to make fuel usable for locomotives and ships burners,

they built their first refinery near Martinez on the upper San Francisco bay. Oil was piped to the coast at Avila beach’s Port Hartford then shipped by tankers to Martinez. Associated had until 1913 produced and marketed fuel oils only and but with the completion of the refinery were launched into the manufacture of gasoline and kerosene.

SS Lyman Stewart loading, Port San Luis, 1919.

As Bruce quickly found when he walked onto the drilling floor, the work was unlike any farm work he had ever done. That of course, he saw as a good thing for many reasons. Farm and ranch work is endlessly repetitive, the same jobs every day, six and seven days a week. You work on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Milk cows are basically all the same, four teats, a fly wisk for a tail which can be used effectively if she is irritated with the milker. A good smack on the side of the head with the tail and a frisson of manure left on your cheek only has so much romance in it. Ranch hands like my grandfather really had nothing to look forward to in the way of advancement. My father was a dairyman’s son and never got paid by his own parents though he worked for them 20 years. The prospect of employment at high wages and what was a challenging job with, he thought, was room for advancement made Bruce eager to get started.

Being the new guy he likely started on the midnight tour. Midnight to the following noon, half a days work. Waking after eleven pm, getting dressed while Eileen made up his lunch bucket and prepared breakfast, he must have been excited by the prospect of something entirely new. He would be right about that.

Crowd watching a gusher.

….To be continued.




Bruce began a routine that would vary little over the ensuring years. First he would have to learn an entirely new business. Farm boys were used to hard work and they learned to suffer early. In the oil patch hard work would be the familiar and so would the suffering. Bruce and Eileen held on with both hands and would ride it out together until the end.

In those days country people were used to a rugged life. They lived an outdoor life, most of it done with muscle power. Little if any book learning was required. Both my grandparents could read and write because that was the primary focus of little rural school whose teachers understood that most of their pupils would need to work as soon as they were old enough. Bruce and Eileen found both, a rugged life where nearly everything was done by hand. They were well suited for life on the lease. Bruce was eager in fact. Hardened farm boys provided the vast majority of oil field labor. The jobs were rough and tumble with hard men. So were the living conditions. By geological chance most wells had been discovered in remote mountains, deserts and swamps These remote, thinly populated areas had little in the way of amenities already accepted as necessities in cities. Indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating were unknown in places where the term “Godforsaken” was a common word. Jobs in the fields involved very hard work and long hours. A tour (Pronounced “Tower.”) on the drilling floor was twelve hours, seven days a week in 1919. Once a well was “Spudded in” drilling didn’t cease until oil or gas was struck or it was abandoned as a “Dry hole. No one ever has a chance to really know their grandparents when they were youngsters. You need to look to your own life at 23. Bruce and Eileen must have been optimistic, excited to begin what they had to see as an adventure, on their own for the first time in their young lives.

When they settled into their lease tent in Casmalia, the California oil business was nearly fifty years old. The Union Mattole company drilled the first commercial producing oil up in the Mattole Valley near Petrolia. The year was 1865 right at the end of the Civil War. The Mattole Valley seems an unlikely place to begin the states oil industry, Petrolia is in Humboldt county just 10 miles southeast of Cape Mendecino. The problem for Union Mattole was that they were unable to supply enough crude to supply demand. California’s population had grown nearly four hundred percent since the gold rush of 1849. By 1870 the population of the state passed half a million, a far cry from the count before the rush when it stood in the tens of thousands.

The year after the Petrolia discovery, 1866, Thomas Bard and Josiah Stanford (Leland Stanford’s brother) produced oil from Sulphur Mountain in the Ojai Basin. This well still seeps a little oil today though it no longer produces.

In 1875, in the Pico canyon just seven miles from Newhall, Charles Alexander Mentry after drilling three dry holes, brought in Well No. 4, located about seven miles west of Newhall, California, in the Santa Susana Mountains. It was the first commercially successful oil well in the Western United States and is considered the birthplace of California’s oil industry. It turned nearby Newhall into a boomtown. Well No. 4 continued in operation for 114 years until it was capped in 1990.

Well No 4, Pico Field, Newhall, CA, Ca Historical Society photo

Number 4 began a long run for the state of California as one of the largest oil producers in the United States. In 1900, the state produced 4 million barrels. In 1903, California became the leading oil-producing state in the US, and traded the number one position back-and forth with Oklahoma through the year 1930.

Production at the various oil fields in the state increased to about 34 million barrels by 1904. By 1910 production has reached 78 million barrels. That was only the beginning.

Oil or asphalt has been used for centuries. Streets were paved with it, kerosene was distilled from it. Paraffin oil, the highly reduced form of kerosene was burned in lamps, people used it as a as hair tonic because it kept unruly hair in place and made it shine nicely, though it did have the slight drawback of making your hair fall out. But hey, anything for beauty, right? After all Queen Elizabeth 1st used lead to whiten her skin and she lived to a ripe old age. Paraffin could be used as a laxative, cure diaper rash, or you can wax apples with it all the better to catch the housewives eye in the vegetable aisle. Petroleum was also reduced for lubricating oils and greases. It would be hard to imagine the noise on the streets of San Francisco if wheels and axles weren’t greased.

Oil drilling technology in the last quarter of the 19th century was minimal and could only be effective in a limited number of instances. In the fall of1892, Edward Doheny, an unsuccessful prospector and miner who had operated in New Mexico and later in southern California around the San Diego area where he struck out again. In 1892 he was living in Los Angeles. One calamity after another befell the Dohenys. They had no money to pay the boarding house they lived in, their daughter Eileen was a frail child and died at age seven on December 14, 1892. Her death was caused by heart disease stemming from rheumatic fever, as well as a lung infection. Edward and Carrie’s marriage was fragile, owing mostly to the harsh reality of mining life and their many financial problems. Eileen’s death strained the marriage nearly to the breaking point.

While walking around the western part of Los Angeles, Doheny had noted some asphalt seeps in the area of the old Mexican Land grant, El Rancho La Brea. The Hancock family owned a 4,400 acre section of the rancho and was engaged in mining the seeps for asphalt. Doheny, ever the prospector looking for the next strike thought he saw an opportunity. With borrowed money from his friend Charley Canfield, another prospector and future oilman who was most famous for developing Beverly Hills and Del Mar in San Diego, Doheny obtained a lease and began a well. They didn’t drill it, though all the basic technology was already in use, they dug it by hand with pick and shovel to a bucket lifted on a windless frame. A nearby Eucalyptus tree was felled for the frame. Surely it was the most shirttail operation ever tried in the oil business but at 275 feet down they hit a pool that produced 40 barrels of oil a day.

Doheny’s well, 1895. LA Historical Society photo

1893 was the year in which two streams of American invention came together with a bang. Charles and Frank Duryea had designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893, and Edward Doheny brought in the first real commercial oil well. The two fledgling industries were off to the races, literally. The Duryea’s.had designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893, then won the first American car race in 1895. They went on to make the first sale of an American-made gasoline car the next year.

The first gasoline-powered vehicle built west of the Mississippi River appeared on the streets of Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 30, 1897. It was the first time a “motor carriage” appeared anywhere in Southern California. It was built in a machine shop on West Fifth Street, a street known as “The Nickel.” Shop owner S.D. Sturgis built it for engineer J. Philip Erie. Erie had conceived the idea of the vehicle some two years prior and now, $30,000 later, $1,032,532.14 in today dollars, a very expensive car rolled out of the shop. Erie and Sturgis decided to make the initial drive in early morning hours because there was some concern that their contraption would frighten horses. No horses cared, to their eternal regret for it spelt their demise.

J. Phillip Erie at the tiller. Collection of USC Library.

By 1904, just seven years later 1,600 motor vehicles cruised the streets of Los Angeles. The maximum speed limit was 8 mph in residential areas and 6 mph in business districts. By 1915, Los Angeles County counted 55,217 motor vehicles. The county led the world in per capita ownership of automobiles and still does so today. There is no record of the fate of this first motor vehicle to drive the streets of the city of angels, Los Angeles.

Orcutt and Solomon Hills, 1903, Santa Maria historical society.

In 1919 when Bruce and Eileen set up housekeeping in their rented shebang in the hills around Casmalia there was an amazing transformation going on in America. From the short ride taken in a home made automobile in 1897, the states increase in cars, by 1919 amounted to about 164 cars for every thousand people which was over half a million. Ownership was up in a state with a population of 3,426,821 souls. There were roughly enough cars for every man woman and child in greater Los Angeles. Though a new Ford Model T cost just under three hundred dollars, Bruce working six days a week, twelve hours a shift earned about forty six dollars a week. With Eileen and two little girls and with another baby in the oven, he was making just enough to get by. Though he was ankle deep in what made cars go every day, actually having one was to be no easy thing.

The nearby town of Orcutt where they went to shop was named for William Warren Orcutt. Orcutt was a petroleum geologist who is considered a pioneer in the development of oil production in California. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in geology and engineering in 1895, he was soon employed as a civil and hydraulic engineer and was soon employed by the Union Oil Company of California, UNOCAL as it’s known today. Though he had no hand in exploring for wells in Casmalia and the Santa Maria fields he was sent by the company to lay out a town to house the rapidly swelling population of workers and their families. The town was to be named Orcutt; orders of the company. Laid out in 1904 on land once owned by my other grandmothers family, the Greys. Great-grandfather Sam Grey, his wife’s uncle Patrick Moore and several other Santa Maria valley men owned oil leases on his former Graciosa ranch. The shares in the Pinal Oil company which was incorporated in 1901 and sold to Union Oil in 1917, kept my fathers family in the chips for generations.

Though both sets of my grandparents lived near each other when Bruce started his job with Associated Oil, their children, my parents would not meet each other for another 20 years. Serendipity coming though.

Oil towns were boomtowns in every sense of the word. They came with all the good and a great deal of the bad. Jobs paid well but most were located in pretty rough country in the early days. Casmalia and the nearby town of Orcutt were no exceptions. Bruce once said that the family lived in every hellhole in California and he wasn’t exaggerating. Nearby Santa Maria was a prosperous farm town but it’s “Whiskey Row” was thickly populated with rowdy oilmen day and night. They had to build a new jail. Nearby Orcutt was surrounded by steep coastal hills covered in sage and scrub oak. What services were offered in the small stores had to be hauled in from Guadalupe and Santa Maria and were priced accordingly. Good money for the work but, as always, merchants raised prices to match.

The little shebangs had no running water and no toilets. Clothes, food and personal belongings were kept in wooden boxes scavenged from wherever they could be found. With Marion and Grace on the other side of the hanging blanket there was little intimacy either. Apparently though, there was enough intimacy in January to produce my uncle Bob who was born in November 1919. All this was theirs for just five dollars a month.

Living in the Orcutt Hills, 1919. SMHS

Weather didn’t matter, you worked anyway. Blistering heat in the San Joaquin valley, fog on the coast, high winds which made the derricks sway like reeds, pitch black nights, pouring rain and freezing rain were all part of a days work. Like very young men who work the hand trades, welders, drillers, carpenters, truck drivers, they took a perverse pride in being able to hang on and do it. Strength and endurance was needed in abundance. Rigs were built by hand with hammers and saws, ditches were pick and shovel, pipe was muscled into place with rope, cut with tongs and flanges bolted with hand held wrenches.

There were few and sometimes no safety precautions on the rigs. Oil rigs were extremely dangerous places. Basic overalls, leather or rubber boots and a cap were the only protection most roughnecks had. Injury and death could come from many sources—scalding from faulty steam pumps and valves; getting caught in the rig’s cogs, wheels and pulleys; being struck by snapping belts, chains, ropes or planks and machinery shaken loose from high atop the derrick; falling from the derrick’s cathead or monkey board, just to name a few. There were no hard hats, no steel toed boots, respirators and the machinery was unguarded by any kind of device to protect the worker. The boilers that powered the rigs could and did explode, fires were frequent, rope and cable under strain broke whipping across the drill floor taking off feet and legs. Fingers and hand were routinely clipped off. Twelve hours is a long shift and fatigue and carelessness accounted for many a digit.

NOTE: The Pinal gusher pictured in the opening page was on my families property. The well came in in 1901. This was in Graciosa canyon near Orcutt, California.