Volume 1

How We Lost Our Lake and Found Our Town

Recipe for Making an Oil Boom Town

The development of modern Santa Fe Springs has been far from conventional. The families that put down roots here in the late 1800’s were surprised as they entered the 1900’s and discovered oil. At the time of the first blow-out in 1919, the technology for extracting oil was in its infancy. The extraction of oil in Santa Fe Springs was so volatile and dangerous that it became necessary for locals to leave town in a hurry. Not many towns have millions of barrels of oil close to the surface. How did this happen here?

Nature’s way of making oil and gas are complex. Unlike coal, which forms mostly from plants growing in wetlands, oil and natural gas form from the remains of marine plants and animals. Some of these plants and animals are depicted on the Fossil Fountain in the Heritage Springs Sculpture Garden by artist Michael Davis. Twenty five million years ago, Santa Fe Springs was under ocean water. Oil began forming in the period known as the Miocene Era. At first, marine life remains became mixed with sand and sediments on the sea floor. As ocean waters advanced and retreated across Southern California, layer after layer of sediment collected on top of the oil-forming materials. The weight of the layers caused pressure that forced the drops of oil through porous rock until further movement was prevented by solid rock called caprocks. Gas, which is lighter, formed over the reservoir of oil. During the Miocene Era, oil was being formed in the future City of Los Angeles in an area we now know as the La Brea Tar Pits. Oil that formed there had seeped to the surface of the earth more than 40,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Era. Because we were in the grip of an Ice Age, Southern California had a different climate then. While there were no glaciers in Southern California, the temperature was 10 degrees colder and the weather was much wetter. The plants and animals were also different. The prehistoric animals that got stuck in the tar pits in La Brea were also part of the Santa Fe Springs landscape. They would have been attracted to the same thing that would later attract the Tongva people, the Spanish and the American settlers. That thing was water. Water percolated to the surface by oil pools beneath, accumulated in the form of lakes, hot springs, streams and rivers.

Saber tooth tigers in Santa Fe Springs? Absolutely! Any animal found in the tar pits would have had family members in the surrounding regions. The first creatures of our City (40,000 years ago) would have also included the long-gone giant sloth, camels, wooly mammoths, mastodons, bisons, early equines and plenty of meat-eating birds. But what about those dinosaurs on Danby Avenue and the pterodactyls on Telegraph Road? Sorry, Santa Fe Springs was under water during the Jurassic Era, millions of years before the formation of the tar pits. 

The bones retrieved from the La Brea Tar Pits give us tremendous insight to our own history, even the arrival of the first humans. Besides the presence of Ice Age animal bones, there was one human skeleton found in pit No. 10. The skeleton, from more modern times, was that of a young Chumash woman who lived and died here 9,000 years ago. The La Brea Woman, as she is known, is the oldest skeletal remains ever found in Southern California. It is not known how she came to be in the pit, but her mano (a grinding tool) was found near her. The Chumash customarily buried a woman with her mano. Her relatives were the early ancestors of the Tongva People who made their home in Santa Fe Springs for more than 3,000 years.