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.
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This post was first published on KCET.org on August 11, 2011, as "Photos: How Oil Wells Once Dominated Southern California's Landscape" and has subsequently been expanded and updated. A different version was published on Gizmodo's Southland in November 2013.