Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Oil extraction is still big business in the Southland, but today locating signs of the industry can require a careful eye. Wells hide in plain sight as office buildings or masquerade offshore as tropical islands. In the back of the Beverly Center shopping mall, one quietly sips from the earth behind a nondescript wall.

But the wells were not always so clandestine.

Through much of the 20th century, oil derricks towered over homes, schools, golf courses, and even orange groves across the Los Angeles Basin, once among the nation's top-oil producing regions. Beginning in 1892, when Edward L. Doheny and his associates opened the region's first free-flowing well, each new strike would quickly attract a cluster of the wooden structures, which supported the drills that bored deep into the Southland's sedimentary strata.

One such thicket rose atop previously barren Signal Hill in 1921. Workers at a Shell Oil drilling site had hit a gusher that sprayed dark, crude oil more than 100 feet into the air. Because the surrounding land had recently been subdivided for a residential development, would-be homeowners elected to build oil wells on their tiny parcels instead of houses, creating an dense forest of wooden derricks.

Landscapes across the Los Angeles Basin witnessed similar overnight transformations as oil companies jockeyed to drain the region's rich petroleum fields, deposited tens of millions of years ago on what was once a sea floor and then buried under thousands of feet of accumulated sediments.

But perhaps nowhere was the change as striking as at the region's beaches, where the industrial landscape of oil extraction encroached on the Southland's carefully crafted image of perpetual summer. In Orange County's Huntington Beach, political concerns kept the wells on the land, where they formed a sort of palisade along the shore. And just east of Santa Barbara at the evocatively named Summerland beach, piers stacked with oil derricks stretched into the Pacific, standing firm against the crashing surf.

Top image: driving through a forest of derricks in Signal Hill. Circa 1937 photo by Herman Schultheis. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Oil wells on the beach in Summerland, just east of Santa Barbara, circa 1901-03. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Huntington Beach in the 1930s or '40s. [Orange County Archives]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: A cluster of oil wells near the site of Edward L. Doheny's oil strike, which set off the region's oil boom. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Aerial view of Signal Hill and its artificial forest. [Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Circa 1926 postcard of Signal Hill. [Loyola Marymount University Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: 1926 postcard of the Signal Hill oil field. [Loyola Marymount University Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Tombstones and oil derricks at Long Beach's Sunnyside Cemetery, photographed circa 1940 by Ansel Adams for Fortune magazine. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Two big Southland industries — citriculture and oil extraction — meet in Montebello, 1926. [Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Beachgoers frolic beneath the gaze of oil derricks in Venice. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Oil derricks made for unusual hazards at Orange County's Alta Vista Golf Course, seen here in 1961. [Orange County Archives]

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil DerricksS

Above: Island White, an artificial island in Long Beach Harbor, hides an oil well. 1986 photo used under a Creative Commons license. [UCLA Library - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive]


Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. This post previously appeared in a different version on KCET.