Santa Fe Springs Oil Fire, c. 1920s

Volume 11                                                                                

Methodists Leave Town; Santa Fe Springs Overrun by Sinners!

By 1921, Santa Fe Springs had been a Methodist town for forty years. Despite a strong presence in town, the church began to disintegrate after the spectacular oil strikes of that year. The Methodist leaders had to act swiftly to move the church to Whittier, a place where sin, vice and crime were not openly accepted. How did it get so bad that the congregation felt they had to leave Santa Fe Springs, taking the building with them?

No Place for Families 

Two years after the modest oil discoveries on Marius Meyer’s land, strikes took place on the Bell and Alexander properties that terrified the locals. These strikes took the form of explosions that produced columns of mud, rock and gas belching into the sky with tremendous force. Unstoppable flames often followed. Within hours of the Alexander blowout, half the population were in the process of loading their possessions into cars and wagons, convinced that Santa Fe Springs was no longer a safe place. It took 40 days to stop the shower of rock and debris on the town. And just as things were settling down, Bell #2 erupted. The rest of the town followed the exodus.

Within months, forty derricks were hastily erected and were bringing in 60,000 high quality barrels of oil a day. Santa Fe Springs was soon a forest of oil wells around the Telegraph Road and Norwalk Blvd. intersection. By 1924, 81 million barrels of oil had been pumped from the ground, and the gracious homes and health resort were a memory.  The dozen or more homes that surrounded the intersection that didn’t perish in fires, met a worse fate; they were sawed into sections and dragged off to house gambling halls, bars and field offices. Even the Heritage Park office (where this article has been written) shares this legacy.  Never part of the original Hawkins estate, it was a section of another home that was moved to the property to serve as a field office. The Bell house was moved to Los Nietos Road to serve as a saloon and the Baker Winery became a gambling paradise featuring dancers of questionable character.  At the Florence and Bloomfield intersection, a notorious house of ill repute called May’s Place did a thriving business until four in the morning.  Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in Santa Fe Springs.  When real buildings were unavailable, tents or temporary buildings were hastily assembled.  With the scarcity of structures, most of May’s competitors used tents. The tent cities called Gum Grove, Springs Slum and Kings Camp sprung up around the intersection. Without building regulations or restrictions, every potential historic building around the intersection was cut into sections for adaptive reuse. Only a few photographs of the quaint Victorian homes survived.

To make matters worse, industrial accidents were rampant! Oil workers were killed and maimed routinely. Boiler explosions occurred because the machines were crudely made without controls or safety devices. Thirty-four of these explosions took place in local fields in 1922, causing numerous fatalities.  Other workers could get crushed in giant rotary chains that operated around the clock without protective shields. Hard hats were not worn.  Compounding the problem was that inexperienced men rushed to the fields to get jobs. At first, training and even first aid kits were non-existent. Losing men was not a problem since the streets were full eager workers.  In 1924, oilfield fatalities in Santa Fe Springs caught the attention of public officials who swiftly passed legislation to install safety guards on moving rig equipment, shorten the work day to eight hours and prohibit the use of gaslight lamps called “yellow dogs.   

By the mid-1920s, Santa Fe Springs looked like a circus.  An abundance of tacky signs called out to the tourists to visit the “sucker tents” where promoters would use Hollywood starlets to lure prospects into risky oil share purchases. People were brought in by the busload from Los Angeles by promoters. The biggest promoter of them all was C. C. Julian. Julian’s flamboyant advertisements lured hundreds to their financial doom, because oil drilling, even in a rich field like Santa Fe Springs, was still risky business.  The town’s streets were jammed with trucks carrying lumber, buses and men looking for work. A traffic cop was recruited or the purpose of regulating traffic at the Norwalk and Telegraph intersection.

Just as the Tongva village of Chokiishngna disappeared without a trace when the Spanish arrived, the beautiful town of Santa Fe Springs, it people, its hot spring and architectural treasures vanished with the oil boom.