Pico Canyon Oilfield

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Well No. 4, Pico Canyon Oil Field
Well Number 4 in 1961, Pico Canyon Oil Field
Pico Canyon Oilfield is located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area
Pico Canyon Oilfield
Pico Canyon Oilfield is located in California
Pico Canyon Oilfield
Pico Canyon Oilfield is located in the US
Pico Canyon Oilfield
Nearest city Newhall, California
Coordinates 34°22′10″N 118°37′49″W / 34.36944°N 118.63028°W / 34.36944; -118.63028Coordinates: 34°22′10″N 118°37′49″W / 34.36944°N 118.63028°W / 34.36944; -118.63028
Area 850 acres (340 ha)
Built 1876
NRHP reference # 66000212[1]
CHISL # 516[2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP November 13, 1966[1]
Designated NHL November 13, 1966[3]

Well No. 4, Pico Canyon Oilfield, located about seven miles (11 km) west of Newhall, California, in the Santa Susana Mountains, was the first commercially successful oil well in the Western United States[4][5][6][7] and is considered the birthplace of California's oil industry.[8] Drilled in 1876, it turned nearby Newhall into a boomtown and also spawned a smaller boomtown called Mentryville adjacent to the drilling site. Well No. 4 continued in operation for 114 years until it was capped in 1990. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and the Mentryville ghost town is now open to the public as a historic park.

Early history of oil drilling in California[edit]

Following the oil strike at Drake Oil Well in Pennsylvania in 1859, there was a short-lived oil drilling boom in California, but this was wiped out in 1867 when eastern oil could be sold cheaper. At the end of the first boom, 75 companies had drilled 60 wells in California, spending $1 million to produce $60,000 worth of oil.[9]

Discoveries of oil in Pico Canyon[edit]

Oil seep locations, in present-day Pico Canyon area of the northern Santa Susana Mountains, were known and used for centuries by the local Tataviam and Tongva Native Americans for medicinal and healing purposes. Various accounts exist about the Spanish-Mexican era rediscovery by non-indigenous people of oil in Pico Canyon. Some accounts credit Andrés Pico with discovering oil there in the 1850s, but the Los Angeles Times reported in 1882 as follows:

The Pico Oil Spring was discovered in January, 1865, by Ramon Peria, a Mexican hunter. One day while hunting for deer he wounded a buck. He followed the trail and found it dead near the spring. The quality of the oil in the spring attracted his attention, being of a dark, green color and very thin, and so different from anything that he had ever seen, that he concluded it must be valuable. So he notified a friend of his, Jesus Hernandez, and they located the oil claim.[10]

According to a later account, Peria gathered some of the oil in his canteen and brought it to others who recognized its value.[11] Yet another account indicates that Perea brought a small amount of the curious substance to the Mission San Fernando, where a Dr. Gelsich recognized it as petroleum and at once formed a company to stake out claims.[12] Perea was granted an ownership interest in an oil company for making the discovery, but he reportedly traded his interest in the company for a barrel of spirits and a $20 gold piece.[11] After the discovery, claims were staked out, but it was not until almost five years later that the first well was struck and later still before the first commercial success.[11]

Well No. 4[edit]

Well #4 in 1877, photograph taken by Carleton Watkins. (source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
The remains of Well No. 4 and historical marker, in August 2008

In 1875, the Star Oil Works, later reorganized as the California Star Oil Works Company, hired Charles Alexander Mentry (1846-1900) to supervise its drilling operations in Pico Canyon.[9] Mentry was born in France, moved to Pennsylvania at age seven, worked in the Pennsylvania oil fields, and moved to California in 1873.[13]

Mentry drilled three wells in 1875 and 1876 that showed promise, but the "gusher" came with the fourth well. Mentry began drilling Well No. 4 in July 1876 and struck oil on September 26, 1876, at a depth of 370 feet (110 m); the well immediately began producing 25 barrels per day (4.0 m3/d).[9] Well No. 4 was drilled with great difficulty since "the railroad had not then been completed, there was no road into the canyon, water was almost unattainable, and there were no adequate tools or machinery to be had."[14] Mentry used his mechanical skills to create improvised tools, including a drill-stem he built out of old railroad car axles, which he purchased from the Southern Pacific and welded together.[13] When Mentry drilled the well to a depth of 560 feet (170 m) in 1877, the oil spurted to the top of the 65-foot (20 m) derrick,[9] increasing the production to 150 barrels per day (24 m3/d).[15] After Well No. 4 proved to be a success, Mentry constructed the first oil pipeline in California from Pico Canyon to the refinery in Newhall, later extending it 50 miles (80 km) to the ocean at Ventura, California.[14][16]

Well No. 4 continued producing oil for 114 years before it was finally capped in 1990. It was the longest continually operating oil well in the world.[17][18][19] When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times visited the site in 1962, the caretaker's son took the reporter to old Well No. 4, turned the valve and reported: "Still producing after all these years... only about a barrel a week, but look how rich the oil is."[8]

Historic designation[edit]

Well No. 4 was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.[3][9] Along with the Rómulo Pico Adobe in San Fernando, Well No. 4 has the distinction of being the first site in Los Angeles County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one of only two sites in the county to be so designated during the 1960s.

Oil boom in Pico Canyon[edit]

Pico Canyon Oil Fields

The success of Well No. 4 was by far the greatest of any well drilled in California and led to the state's second oil drilling boom. As a result, the state's oil production rose to 568,806 barrels (90,432.9 m3) in 1879, 1,763,215 barrels (280,328.8 m3) in 1880, and 4,194,102 barrels (666,808.9 m3) in 1881.[20]

In 1882, the editor of the fledgling Los Angeles Times traveled on horseback to see the celebrated Pico Canyon oil wells. As he approached the camp, he noted that his horse refused to drink from the canyon's rivulet, which he found was "about half crude oil and half water."[21] The editor described the booming oil region as follows:

There are eight wells now yielding oil, and three more in process of sinking, some in the canyon, some on the hillsides and some on the tops of the peaks, five hundred feet almost perpendicular from base to top... large boilers, heavy machinery, timber, and all the etceteras for oil mining and the comfort of the miners, have been hauled up these almost perpendicular roads... the deepest well on the mountains is a little over 1,500 feet in depth, and none have yet been sank but what have yielded oil in remunerative quantities. A 2-inch iron pipe, about seven miles (11 km) long, runs from Pico canyon to the refinery in Newhall, and through this an average of one hundred and seventy barrels of crude oil is sent every twenty-four hours...[21]

By 1883, Pacific Coast Oil Company (which later became Standard Oil of California) had bought out the competition in Pico Canyon and had 30 wells said to be producing 500 barrels per day (79 m3/d).[22] When the Times sent a reporter to do a follow-up story in 1883, he found a camp with its engines being run day and night, employing 80 to 100 men, mostly "robust, healthy young men from the mountain districts of Pennsylvania."[23]

In 1895, a pamphlet issued by the State of California stated that the Pacific Coast Oil Company had 40 wells operating in Pico Canyon producing 500 barrels per day (79 m3/d) and one well that had produced 1,500,000 barrels (240,000 m3).[24]


Charles Alexander Mentry, of Mentryville

A boomtown named Mentryville was built a short distance from Well No. 4. The town was named after Charles Alexander Mentry, who lived in the town and served as the superintendent of the Pico Canyon operations until his death in 1900.[13] He reportedly treated the workers at Pico Canyon with dignity, and the operation never suffered a strike. When Mentry died, the entire town of more than 200 persons,[8][25] except for three individuals left behind in Mentryville, traveled to Los Angeles for his funeral, bringing with them a large floral arrangement in the shape of an oil derrick.[13]

During the 1930s, most of Mentryville's residents left, many tearing down their houses board by board and nail by nail, and taking it all with them.[25] By 1962, Mentryville had become a ghost town, with only a caretaker family living in Mentry's old 13-room house. A visitor to the camp that year reported that "rusted oil equipment cluttered the canyon," toppled derricks lay rotting, and the cemetery was "choked with weeds, hidden and forgotten."[8]

In 1995, Chevron donated the Mentryville site and the surrounding 800 acres (320 ha) in Pico Canyon to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for the Mentryville and Pico Canyon Parks.[26] A group called the Friends of Mentryville was organized to restore the buildings and open the old town as a historic park.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  2. ^ "Well, CSO 4". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-09-06.
  3. ^ a b "Well No. 4, Pico Canyon Oil Field". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-11-18.
  4. ^ "Mentryville Path to Be Repaired". Daily News (Los Angeles). 2007-06-17. ("Mentryville was established in 1876 after workers drilled what became the first commercially successful oil well in the West.")
  5. ^ Judy Raphael (1998-10-08). "Boomtown Bash: Tiny town of Mentryville, site of 1876 oil rush, will hold festival fund-raiser". Los Angeles Times. ("The well, known as Pico No. 4, was the first commercially successful oil well in the western U.S.")
  6. ^ Nicholas Grudin (2003-08-03). "Ghosts of an Era: Mentryville Is a Monument to Both the Start and Decline of the Area's Oil Drilling Industry". Daily News (Los Angeles). ("Scofield formed California Star Oil Works, and with skilled oil man Alex Mentry, tapped the first commercial oil well in California - Pico No. 4.")
  7. ^ Jonathan Gaw (1993-02-21). "Oil in a Day's Work The Boom May Be Over, but a Few Wells Pump On". Los Angeles Times. ("Oil men had been groping around the canyons of the area since 1876, when the first commercially successful oil well west of Pennsylvania was built several miles south of Lechler's ranch in Pico Canyon.")
  8. ^ a b c d Charles Hillinger (1962-04-23). "Ghost Town Memento to Oil Field's Past: Only One Family Lives in Mentryville, Where the California Oil Industry Was Born". Los Angeles Times.
  9. ^ a b c d e Charles W. Snell (March 12, 1963) National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings: Well No. 4, Pico Canyon Oil Field, National Park Service and Accompanying 3 photos, from 1961 and undated.
  10. ^ "Newhall Items: The Prospects - The Star Oil Co. - History of the Pico Oil Spring". Los Angeles Times. 1882-04-07.
  11. ^ a b c "California's Original Oil Well is Discovered, Fifty Years Old and Still Running: Papa of Oil Wells Found; This One was Drilled Fifty Years; Past And has been Producing Ever Since; Was the First Well Struck in This Region". Los Angeles Times. 1918-10-27.
  12. ^ "First Oil Well in California: Hole Drilled in Pico Canyon in 1870 Is Still Producing". Los Angeles Times. 1925-06-07.
  13. ^ a b c d "C.A. Mentry's Funeral: Remains of the Pioneer Oil Man Laid to Rest in Evergreen by His Masonic Brethren". Los Angeles Times. 1900-10-08.
  14. ^ a b "Influential Career: Facts About the Life and Work of the Late Charles Alexander Mentry, a 'Self-Made Man'". Los Angeles Times. 1900-10-20.
  15. ^ "Oldest in California: Producing Well in 89th Year". Los Angeles Times. 1965-01-17.
  16. ^ a b Cecilia Rasmussen (2006-01-29). "L.A. Then and Now: After Oil Boomtown's Bust, Nature Added Its Blows". Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ John McKinney (2001-04-22). "Hiking: Walking a Canyon Where Scenery, Industry Make Historic Companions". Los Angeles Times. ("By the time it was capped in 1990, Pico No. 4, was the longest continuously operated oil well in the world.")
  18. ^ Judy Raphael (1998-10-08). "Boomtown Bash: Tiny town of Mentryville, site of 1876 oil rush, will hold festival fund-raiser". Los Angeles Times. ("It continued running until 1990--making it the longest-running oil well in the world.")
  19. ^ Eric Harnish (1996-03-15). "New boom for historic oil town? Aging, weather-worn Mentryville to be opened to public this spring". The San Diego Union-Tribune. ("It's California Star Oil Works No. 4, the state's first commercially producing well and the world's longest continually producing well, which yielded oil for 114 years until it was capped in 1990.")
  20. ^ "Our Oil Production". Los Angeles Times. 1882-02-15.
  21. ^ a b "George and Me: We've Been Raking in the Loose Change About the County; San Fernando, Its Rabbit and Wheat Crop; Newhall - The Oil Region - Standing a Road on its End". Los Angeles Times. 1882-05-07.
  22. ^ "Subterranean Slickness: As Found in the San Fernando Oil District; Some Notes of a Region of Untold Oleaginous Wealth - The Operators and Their Operations - Quality, Output and Price of the Oil". Los Angeles Times. 1883-06-09.
  23. ^ "Newhall: A Trip to the Oil Wells of Pico Canyon - A Lively Camp - Lighted and Heated by Natural Gas". Los Angeles Times. 1883-03-04.
  24. ^ "Petroleum". Los Angeles Times. 1895-01-01.
  25. ^ a b Debra Sorrentino Larson (1986-05-22). "Mentryville State Landmark a Ghost of Once-Bustling Oil Town". Los Angeles Times. ("During its heyday around the turn of the century, about 100 families lived in Mentryville. No precise figures exist on how many people lived there, but some families had up to a dozen children.")
  26. ^ Nicholas Grudin (2003-08-03). "Ghosts of an Era: Mentryville Is a Monument to Both the Start and Decline of the Area's Oil Drilling Industry". Daily News (Los Angeles).
  • Pico Canyon chronicles: The story of California's pioneer oil field by Gerald G Reynolds (Author) ASIN B0006ELL0S

External links[edit]