From Rotten Eggs to Black Gold: The Oil Boom Arrives
A shrewd sheepherder named Marius Meyer suspected as early as 1907 that the land his sheep grazed on was hiding something valuable. The warm water percolating to the surface at the health resort always smelled like rotten eggs. Farmers drilling for water would hit gas instead. Although illiterate, the old Basque herder had grown wealthy inter-breeding sheep that produced desirable, high-quality wool. Meyer invited Union Oil to poke around on his land.
During the next decade, the oil company drilled two unsuccessful wells on Meyer’s property. In 1917, about a year after Meyer’s death, the pessimistic Union Oil crew drilled what they thought would be another dry hole. Instead, Meyer No. 3. blew out its liquid treasure, crude oil flowing at the fantastic rate of 3,000 barrels a day. Totally unprepared, the crew lost countless barrels on the ground before teams of mules could be found to help the crews dig a reservoir to hold the oil. By the time that was accomplished, the flow had fizzled to 150 barrels a day.
Meanwhile, just down the road, wealthy Chauncey and Marie Clarke were building their dream house, a $100,000 mansion that would prove to be placed much too close to the future oil fields for a quiet country life. And yet, another well-off neighbor of Meyer’s, Alphonzo Bell, invited Standard Oil over to do some drilling on his land. Things were about to change in Santa Fe Springs.
Alphonzo Bell’s estate included 200 acres of prime agricultural land producing alfalfa, hay, oats and citrus. His large home had an unusual feature for that time, a tennis court; a testimony to his championship skill at the game. Bell drove an expensive Hudson and employed two servants and 25 ranch hands. By 1910, he, like Meyer, was certain that there was oil on his land. However, Standard Oil declined his invitation, citing the problems that Union Oil was having on the Meyer property. This would be a costly mistake for Standard Oil because more than two thirds of the Bell property was atop one of the world’s richest pools of oil. By the time of the Meyer’s strike in 1919, the well-to-do Alphonzo Bell had fallen on rough times. His house was over-mortgaged, he was paying workers in land, not wages, and he owed the Koontz General Store for groceries. Fortunately, Union Oil changed their minds about drilling on his land.
On the morning of October 30, 1921, when Union Oil workers had drilled to a depth of 3,768 feet, mud and water came roaring out, followed by a rich stream of oil. Bell No. 1, as it became known, turned out to be the richest well ever discovered in the west. As dramatic as this gusher was, it was a real tame gusher compared to what was to come.
The Well that Ate Two Cars and Changed History
On Jan 4, 1922, a few hundred yards from this well, workers resumed drilling on an abandoned well called Bell No. 1. According to an eyewitness, mud “boiled’ from the hole and the driller screamed for his men to run. Nine hundred feet of drill pipe blew into the sky and landed 200 feet away. Mud and rocks covered the area and windows rattled as far away as Whittier. A crater 30 feet wide and 100 feet long opened up where the workers had been drilling minutes before. As the spewing crater grew, it swallowed the drilling derrick, a water tank and two automobiles that remain buried there today.
The explosion was accompanied by a deafening noise that would terrify the residents of a town that had been described as “quiet and serene.” Now there was a devastating hole in the ground that continuously spewed a hellish fountain of mud and rock. During the month it took to stop the flow, the residents of the little resort town of Santa Fe Springs began to leave for safer places; a wise decision, because it was about to get worse!
On February 11, a drill bit hit a gas pocket on the nearby Bell No. 2. Once more, pipe flew skyward, but now with such force it embedded itself in the ground. Again, the hellish rock and mud fountain shot up a furious 300 feet high. Only this time something went wrong. After flowing 30 hours, a spark ignited, creating a secondary explosion that destroyed everything within a hundred yard radius. “When the paint in our kitchen began to blister,” recalled Alphonzo Bell Jr., “I knew we better get out.” They escaped with a few belongings in a shiny new Packard they had just purchased.
A Fire to Remember
This fire would be the first of many oil fire spectacles in Santa Fe Springs. Flames burning from a fast flowing supply of fuel could be seen for weeks in central Orange County. The Los Angeles Times published stories and photos that spawned the organization of bus tours to Santa Fe Springs to view the infernos. The fires were caused by the appalling lack of safety measures. For example, workers lit their drilling platforms with gas light lamps called “yellow dogs.” Another astounding fire at the northeast intersection of Norwalk Boulevard and Telegraph Road would be the Mohawk fire in 1924. One resident reported that you could read a book from the light of the blaze from a mile away.
The oil boom had begun. Wells came in on properties owned by early residents named Foix, Alexander, Slusher, Clarke, Journigan, Koontz and Nordstrom. A wooden derrick could be built in three days. Forty were hastily built within eleven months of the Bell blow out, and were soon bringing in 60,000 barrels of high quality oil a day. This was only the beginning.