Drilling for Black Gold: La Brea Oil Field, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s post highlights one of the better-known of our region’s oil fields, the La Brea field.  After all, it’s in the very name:  brea means tar in Spanish and the reference is to the famed La Brea Tar Pits, which are located north of Wilshire Boulevard and east of Fairfax Avenue.

The “pitch springs” were mentioned by Padre Juan Crespí, a member of the 1769-1770 Portolá Expedition, the first land-based trek by Europeans through California, and became of use to the settlers of the Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles from its founding in 1781.

The Rancho La Brea, comprising about 4,400 acres of land, was granted in 1828 to Antonio José Rocha, with the express condition that brea from the pits could be used by residents of Los Angeles.  Out east, not far from the Homestead, was the Rancho Cañon de la Brea, in Brea Canyon, which had less-known seepages of tar that could be used by locals.

Interestingly, it was assumed that the fossilized remains of animals found in the pits were more modern creatures.  Not until 1875 was it noted in a published paper that these fossils were of pre-historic origins.  In the first years of the 20th centuries, geologists made a detailed study that brought greater attention to the phenomenon of the Ice Age-era mammoths, saber-toothed cats and other animals.

Photo Oil Wells Likely West Los Angeles 2005.370.1.1
This 1920s snapshot from the Homestead’s collection shows La Cienega Boulevard from about 3rd Street looking north toward a rare sight, an oil well right in the middle of the street.

Rocha constructed a simple adobe on the ranch and also maintained a house in Los Angeles.  The latter was sold to Jonathan Temple, half-brother of F.P.F. Temple, who married Antonia Margarita Workman of the Homestead.  In 1854, the city and county of Los Angeles acquired the Rocha Adobe to serve as the courthouse and public offices and, in the courtyard behind the house, a two-story jail was built.  The adobe continued with that use for about seven years until Temple’s Market House was turned into the city hall, county offices and courthouse.  The jail remained at the adobe site until the 1880s.

From about 1860, the Hancock brothers, John and Henry, began acquiring pieces of the ranch.  Henry Hancock was far better known, being an attorney and surveyor of land grants for the expensive and time-consuming confirmation process initiated by Congress in 1851.  He commercially developed the tar pits with the material used for paving, roofing and other uses.  Some of it was apparently sent up to San Francisco.  Hancock and his wife Ida Haraszthy, daughter of one of the founders of the wine industry in Sonoma, had two children.

After Henry died in 1883 leaving substantial debts, his widow managed the ranch, and signed the first contracts for oil exploration within a few years, though nothing came of the first attempts.  She subdivided the Ida Hancock Tract and then had her son, Allan, when he became of age manage the estate.

Dinosaur Bones La Brea Tar Pits 2006.283.1.1
Another 1920s image shows a large variety of Ice Age-era fossils unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits, with oil wells in the distance.

In 1900, the first big oil prospecting took place when the Salt Lake Oil Company (the field was known as Salt Lake) signed a lease and drilled over 250 wells.  Allan worked with the firm and then formed his own company, La Brea Oil.  Soon, he and his mother were very wealthy, a far cry from where they were when Henry died.

Ida also allowed those geologists to make the major investigations in the early 1900s that confirmed the Ice Age-origins of the creatures found in the tar pits.  She built a palatial home at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue and married well-known Los Angeles judge Erskine Ross.  In 1913, she died at age 70, largely forgotten, but a very interesting blog post by Hadley Meares can be found here.

Allan, meanwhile, donated the tar pits to Los Angeles County right after his mother’s death and, eventually, the George C. Page Museum (click here for more) was built on the site.  Allan also continued with his oil and real estate interests, investing in farm land near Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County, where Allan Hancock College is today.

As for the Rocha Adobe, it was on a 250-acre portion of the La Brea ranch purchased by Arthur F. Gilmore in 1880 for use as a dairy.  Gilmore and his family expanded and extensively remodeled the Rocha Adobe in subsequent decades.  When the oil boom came, Gilmore quickly took advantage, forming his own oil company.  The firm passed to his son, Earl, and it grew as the use of automobiles and the development of Los Angeles did.

La Brea Oil Field Condenser 2004.207.1.1
Philip Brigandi, known as the “stereo wizard” for his stereoscopic photographs for such publishers as Keystone View Company, took this 1920s shot of an experimental condenser at the La Brea Oil Field.  Check out the sharp white shoes on the gent at the left!

Earl Gilmore was quite a promoter, using unusual marketing ploys to promote the company.  He also established Farmers Market (click here for some history), which the firm still owns and operates, a minor league baseball park, an early race track, the Pan Pacific Auditorium and more.  The family continued to live in the Rocha Adobe for many decades and, in the mid-1970s, it was remodeled to serve as company offices, which is still the case today.

The trio of photos accompanying this post include a 1920s view that shows an unusual feature, an oil well placed right in the middle of La Cienega Boulevard between 3rd Street and Beverly Boulevard; a shot from about the same period showing some of the ancient fossils in the La Brea Tar Pit with oil wells in the background; and a stereographic photograph, also from the 20s, by Philip Brigandi, a prolific producer known as the “stereo wizard” who did much work for the well-known Keystone View Company.

The three images are part of the Homestead’s collection of oil-related photographs, maps, newsletters and magazines, and other material that will continue to be featured in the “Drilling for Black Gold” series.

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