Saturday, October 3, 2009

History of Brea Canyon oil operators

The natural tar seeps in the Brea Canyon area have always been used (or exploited in some cases) by the inhabitants of the area. They can be found even to this day oozing down desolate hillside in the fields. The Native Americans used the crude petroleum as a waterproofing agent and as a glue, and they would smear it on their skin to cure ailments. Which made Gaspar de Portola remark that "the native inhabitants here are dirty". Basque shepherds used it as an ointment for sheep, and early settlers burned oily blocks of earth as fuel for heat. While timber rights were held by property owners, anyone was free to pick up brea (tar mixed with soil) wherever they happened upon it. Early attempts at recovering oil in quantities consisted of digging pits at tar seeps and filling barrels with oil. These pits were rather shallow because at 8 to 10 feet, the mixture of oil and sand became too soft to stand in without sinking. Oil refining was done on a small scale, sometimes in family kitchens. In the 1870s, chunks of "brea" were harvested and used in gaslights in the Los Angeles area, but was relegated to use as an insect repellent because of the odor it produced when burned. In the 1880s, more uses were found for crude oil, and machinery for oil extraction was invented and methods of refining improved. In about 1882, the Chandler Oil Mining Co. was drilling productively in the area where Tonner Canyon joins Brea Canyon. Shortly thereafter, the company moved its operations up Tonner Canyon to a place a short distance northwest of the current Stearns Property (which is between Brea Canyon and Carbon Canyon) and the settlement Petrolia was born. In 1890, Wallace Hardison and Lyman Stewart, who were active in the Petrolia area, pooled their resources with others and started the Union Oil Company (Union 76). In January 1894, Union purchased a 1,200-acre tract from the Stearns Ranch Co., which came to be called the “Stearns Fee.”
after their purchase, Union leased 100 acres of the eastern portion of this land to the Columbia Oil Producing Company. The Columbia Oil Producing Company transferred the land acquired by lease from Union in about 1919 to Shell Oil Company. This portion of the Stearns property is still known as the Columbia Lease. In a land title dispute, the Brea Cañon Oil Co. (still in business!), with Edward. L. Doheny as promoter, acquired 200 acres on the west end of the Stearns Fee from Union. The 1890s and 1900s were boom years for the oil business in Brea. New drilling technology developed, which was best described as “pounding a hole into the earth”. The ancestor of today’s oil rigs, this process made deep wells possible. In 1906, additional technology was introduced, which allowed companies to drill even deeper wells. Oil companies in this era of the Brea area included: Union, Home Oil, Central Oil, Murphy Oil, Fullerton Consolidated, etc. The development of the southern California oil fields around the turn of the century was stimulated by the U.S. Navy’s need for fuel oil. By about 1908, the U.S. Navy had, for the most part, switched entirely from coal oil to fuel oil to power its fleets. As a result, production yields on the Stearns Lease were quite impressive during this period. The heavy weight crude from the La Vida fault was ideal for fuel oil production. In 1897, the wells produced 12,700 barrels. The following year, output rose more than fourfold with the production of 60,000 barrels. In 1900, 510,000 barrels were produced, 40 times the amount produced just three years before.Stearns Camp, the center of operations on the Stearns Lease, was located onUnion Oil Road (later named East Deodara) near the mouth of the present Wildcat Way. These headquarters evolved from workshops, tent housing, and a cook tent into a community of boarding houses, homes, and warehouses. During the 1920s, new strikes and record-breaking production levels on the leases in the Olinda tract (east of the Stearns lease) overshadowed oil production and associated activities on the Stearns Lease. A 1928 air photo showed that Shell’s Columbia Lease was part of this heightened activity. The photo illustrates extensive development with numerous oil derricks and pumps, roads, and industrial and residential structures. However, very little of the Stearns Lease appears active at this time. Only the gas plant, roads, and a few oil
derricks and pumps are evident. During World War II, two army battalions quartered at Brea-Olinda High School (which was located on modern day State collage rd.) moved into more permanent housing on the Stearns Lease. During this “occupation,” Stearns Camp was known as “Camp Brea.” During the battle of the Pacific, local soldiers drilled wells, built bridges and roads, and prepared to revitalize the Stearns Lease, which was considered one of the nation’s strategic oil fields. However, the plans for increased activity on the Stearns Lease were never carried out because of the Allies’ slow advancement in the South Pacific. Historic maps indicate that the project area was not heavily developed by oil companies. Oil companies owned and exploited tracts to the north (Industrial Oil Company, Getty Oil Company), west (Naranjal Fee), and east (Shell Oil Company, Olinda Tract). The 1955 map for Union indicates that a few oil wells were located on the north and east edges of the parcel. Today, some of the original oil companies that were established in Brea are still in existence. Either as a company, or a lease name for oil wells. For instance, Brea Cañon oil co. is still operating with a production facility located at the begining of Brea canyon rd. The Union oil co. later UNOCAL pulled out of this area from the late 1980's to mid 1990's. The name Stearns still exists as a lease for oil wells and a street name. Birch oil co. which was a player in the growth of Brea, has a street named after it today known as Birch st. The columbia lease is still in existence, however, most, if not all of the wells have been plugged. Today, Linn western operating is the key player in all of the the Brea-Olinda field. They acquired it from Blacksand energy LLC around 2003. Before that, Shell was the owner of the field.

In my next few posts, I hope to capture some of the historical info on Brea Canyon. I would like to get a whole post on Brea Cañon Oil co. Also, there is a house located up in the oilfields behind Brea Cañon oil co that can be seen from Central Ave, I want to get a post on that with pictures up close hopefully, so stay tuned!


  1. Brea Canon Oil's leases in the Joughin Unit (Harbor City) have all expired as of February, 2002. However, since they have managed to get their O'Melveny & Myers judges to oversee the blatantly obvious cases against them for stealing another's property rights, they continue to get away with rampant theft. Their pipeline easement has expired as well - January 1st, 2002. They are thieves and they will be punished.

    1. Take a look at Linn Energy in the Stearns Lease
      They think they can make book with 2 turbines screaming 24/7 3oo yards from $600.K homes not 4 long
      they overpaid AERA at 12x book on hopes that fracing will bring in the bonanza- but look at the SEC filing Trading Oil and Gas Futures with puts and calls and deritivies killed more that one JR Ewing in Texas Time will Tell.

    2. You are absolutely right
      the menachino water flood was a bust ay 12 million dollars that plant is dead
      Oxy with Sansimea wells have been OG idle for years
      and the only real way this scraper field is making anything is what crude is going for today may 2014
      Oh Yeah now that DOGGR has washed thier hands if a lease is within incorp city boundaries City of Industry who owns all that land won't let Linn frac if the want to make a lake matthews watershed there.
      Read Linn Prospectus real well they are playing derivatives 2 way collars and puts and calls all over the oil and gas futures market. Th OC govnt went bust doing that under Bob Citron 20 years ago

  2. Anonymous source: how reliable is that?

    1. Pretty damn reliable.