“I Will Never Forget the Fires"
The Oil Boom Winds Down
In 1928, just about the time the oil boom’s destructive powers started to wane in Santa Fe Springs, a second wave of oil discoveries were made. These new fields, not far from the original fields at Norwalk and Telegraph intersection became known as the Clarke-Hathaway zone, the Nordstrom-O’Connell zone, and the Getty zone.
From the beautiful Clarke Estate on Pioneer to the Getty wells at Bloomfield, the City was in the midst of another black gold crisis. Fires and explosions which had already driven out the residents earlier in the decade, were once again creating havoc. For example, J.P. Getty’s 17th well caught fire and set a record for burning 60 days. The inferno was finally stopped by tunneling underground to extinguish the flames.
Although there seemed to be an endless supply of petroleum, things started to ease up in the 1930s. By this time, Signal Hill oil production was surpassing the quantities being extracted from the ground here. The sucker tents and “girls” disappeared. Though there were few children living in Santa Fe Springs at the time, there was a family called Ogelsby living in the Matern mansion which no longer stands. Their daughter, Teta Ogelsby Smart, recalled how worried her mother was about the dangerous conditions existing around their home. Using the oilfields as her playground, Teta recalled falling into a sump hole – a hole created by drilling. She was rescued because her mother, seeing the garden gate open, alerted a nearby crew of roughnecks who stopped their jobs to find the little girl. She recalled that she and her brother grew up climbing derricks instead of trees, and riding inside the band wheels on wells. Teta loved the fields. “There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of those derricks silhouetted against a moonlit sky. And I will never forget the fires that, in spite of being destructive, were so exciting to watch, the way they burned from the bottom up, sparks flying, and then when the fire reaches the top, the way the whole crown drops through the well–like a gigantic fireworks display. The fields were so much a part of me. I still miss the smell of crude oil, the beat of the pumps in the background and even the dirt. It’s terrible to drive by and see it all gone now” (from a 1980 interview).
Another former resident, Ray Renteria, lived in an area known as Flood Ranch, a poor, working class neighborhood in the 1930s. His family, along with five other families lived and worked on the Houghton Ranch, which was located on land that is across the street from City Hall near Telegraph Road and Pioneer Blvd. As a child, Ray could hear the oil equipment pumping night and day. Kids living in Santa Fe Springs during this decade went to Little Lake School through eighth grade. Graduations and performances were held in the Little Lake School Auditorium, now the site of a senior housing community. Santa Fe Springs teenagers attending high school rode a bus to Whittier High School. The bus swung into Pico Rivera to pick up the teens in that town who also had no high school; about 20 kids in all.
Disasters of the Thirties
Even though in the midst of the Great Depression, local residents were employed in the citrus, railroad, and oil industries. The residents of Flood Ranch would experience two natural disasters that decade; the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 and the flood of 1938. Centered in Long Beach, the 1933 earthquake woke Santa Fe Springs with violent shaking at 5:55 a.m. on March 10. “It was the worse thing I ever felt. Little Lake School was damaged and we had our classes in tents for a long time,” said Renteria. The earthquake destroyed schools in Long Beach, Compton and Huntington Park; this led to the Field Act which established the Office of State Architect and gave it authority to determine design and engineering standards.
Four days of rain in 1938 caused the San Gabriel River to overflow and endanger Flood Ranch, located within walking distance of the river. Known as a fifty-year flood, the flood took the lives of 113 Southern Californians. Floods of the river had devastated the area before, and the public demanded that something be done. What took place was a project that river activists are trying to undo today – the San Gabriel River bed was covered with three million barrels of concrete.
Flood Ranch was the best known residential area of Santa Fe Springs in the 1930s. However, because the town was mostly unknown to the rest of Southern California, residents would say they lived in Los Nietos or Cantaranas. This latter term, which means “singing frogs,” evolved because of the abundance of frogs at the San Gabriel River. The river brought wildlife into the little community. According to former Flood Ranch resident Gus Velsaco, “After a rainstorm, it was not uncommon to find a snake in your front yard.” The area was rural. Cow meadows and orange groves bordered the community, and paved roads didn’t start arriving until the 1940s.
Jensen, Marilyn, The Giant That Was Santa Fe Springs, Pacific Oil World, 1980.
Ray Renteria, Interview October 5, 2002, Santa Fe Springs, CA
Gus Velasco, Interview October 11, 2002, Santa Fe Springs, CA