Field In Trouble

Unocal still pumps oil the old way in Ventura County. But a proposed residential development could force a shutdown.

September 22, 1989 | PATRICK LEE | Times Staff Writer

SANTA PAULA A Bible-quoting Presbyterian from Pennsylvania, 200 Chinese immigrant laborers and an equal number of hard-drinking wildcatters converged in the arid hills of Ventura County a century ago with a single goal: Oil.

Their work created the wells that powered the company that was to become Unocal Corp., the Los Angeles-based energy company that observes its centennial next year.

Partly as a remembrance, Unocal still maintains and operates some of the era's ancient equipment there, and the wells continue to produce oil--the old-fashioned way.

But as the company observes its 100th year, it faces the prospect of having to shut down the Ventura County operations that have otherwise withstood the effects of time and weather. There's a stronger force at work: Development.

Unocal won't discuss details. But C. R. (Dick) Marshall, Unocal's production foreman for the Ventura area, said a group of investors is considering an upscale residential development on about 1,200 acres near Unocal's oil fields above Santa Paula.

The company is talking with developers about possible conflicts between the project and the old oil wells--and if push comes to shove, Unocal could just shut the whole thing down as early as next year.

"It would just cost too much to upgrade them and maintain them," Marshall said. Unocal also wants to preserve its rights to future oil production near the site, he said.

The operations consist of a handful of wells sunk as long ago as 1884, still operated by 19th-Century-style "jack line" pumps.

The operations also include an unusual group of tunnels dug by Chinese immigrant laborers in 1890 to tap nearly vertical deposits of oil. About 28 of 60 tunnels remain productive, dribbling out water and about five barrels of oil a day.

The operations are all that remain of the bustling oil field that gave birth to Unocal in the late 1800s.

The Pennsylvanian was Lyman Stewart, co-founder of the company, who came to California to prospect for oil. He found it in the hills above Santa Paula, where the native Chumash Indians used sticky black goo from natural seeps to waterproof their baskets.

"Lyman was a geologist, and he rode horseback through here, and he just . . . mapped all these seeps," said Marshall, a 16-year Unocal veteran and unofficial company historian. "Then he would go to the property owner and say, 'Listen, I'd like to get the mineral rights to your property' "--rights he'd buy for $2 to $5 an acre.

With rights to about 38,000 acres in hand, Stewart then set about drilling for oil, primarily in the Adams Canyon area.

Stewart and his hearty mustachioed banker partner Wallace L. Hardison formed the Hardison & Stewart Oil Co. It and two other oil companies merged in October, 1890, to create Union Oil Co. of California, now called Unocal.

Sent Stream Down Canyon

The area was the site of Unocal's--and California's--first gushers. In January, 1888, Adams Canyon Well No. 16 hit big and got credit for saving the fledgling company from bankruptcy.

According to old company logs, "the oil shot up to a height of nearly 100 feet and flowed at the rate of 800 to 900 barrels a day. Before it could be controlled, it sent a stream down the canyon for a distance of seven miles."

Four years later, Adams No. 28 surpassed the first well. In February, 1892, it came in, blowing oil over the derrick, flowing down the canyon into the Santa Clara River and out to sea, according to a Unocal history. At its peak, the well produced 1,500 barrels of oil per day.

On Sulphur Mountain, which formed one of the canyon's walls, the terrain was too steep to build derricks. Following the example of an earlier prospector, Stewart decided to tunnel for oil.

About 200 Chinese immigrants--known for mining skill--were shipped into nearby Port Hueneme and installed in boarding houses near the oil field.

Working in crews of about a dozen, the laborers set about digging an ingenious network of tunnels to tap the oil deposits. The tunnels angled uphill from the entrance to allow oil to run out in redwood sluices. Fresh air blew in through a water-powered ventilator. At the tunnel's entrance, a man with a mirror reflected sunlight back into the tunnel's darkness to help diggers see and stay aligned.

The work was long and arduous. Crews with picks and shovels took four or five months to dig an average 300- to 400-foot tunnel. And some tunnels ran more than 1,500 feet.

Explosion Killed 4 Men

The work was also dangerous. Cave-ins were common, and crews took canaries with them--much as coal miners do--to detect natural gas buildups. In 1890, an explosion rocked Adams Canyon Tunnel No. 4, called the Boarding House tunnel because of its proximity to the diggers' camp.

Hardison's brother, Harvey, and three other men entered the tunnel to investigate--and a second explosion killed all four.

Even outside the tunnels, life was rough. The white drilling crews lived in separate camps from the Chinese mining crews, but fights nevertheless erupted between the two, Marshall said.

In Santa Paula, hard-drinking roughnecks routinely shot up the local saloon, despite the best efforts of the devout Stewart to keep them in check.

Now, little is left of the tunnels except the pipes that continue to collect oil. Many of the tunnels collapsed during the torrential rains of 1969, Marshall recalled, and only a handful are still open to the surface.

The vertical wells are in better shape: three of the old units that powered the drilling pumps remain. Components of the wooden pumps themselves have been replaced over the years with steel; only Slocum Well No. 15 is preserved as it was, made entirely of redwood.

The operations produce enough oil to pay for their upkeep and make a few dollars for Unocal, maybe 25 to 30 barrels a day. That's minuscule compared to the average 400 to 500 barrels a day from a modern well on nearby Sulphur Crest, Marshall said.

"It's really not an economical project," Marshall said. "They just keep them going for the history and because it was part of the early company."


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