Photos: How Oil Wells Once Dominated Southern California's Landscape

Oil wells along Huntington Beach. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Ever since the legendary oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny and his partner, Charles A. Canfield, struck oil northwest of downtown Los Angeles in 1892, extracting petroleum from the land beneath Southern California has been a major part of the Southern California economy. For decades, it also had a powerful effect on the landscape of Southern California. Oil derricks towered over sandy beaches, houses, schools, golf courses, and orange groves. In one case an oil derrick even stood stubbornly in the middle of a Beverly Hills street.

Many of the wells have since been closed, and in some cases the towering derricks have been replaced by the ever-nodding horsehead pumps, but the surreal views of oil derricks dominating the Southern California landscape survive in the following images, drawn from several of the region's photographic archives.

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Southern California's first actively-exploited oil field near the present-day neighborhood of Echo Park. Photo circa 1895-1901, courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Summerland oil piers near Santa Barbara, circa 1901-1903. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Postcard showing the Signal Hill oil field, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.<br />

Postcard showing the Signal Hill oil field, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Oil wells in Huntington Beach, 1935. Courtesy of the Frasher Foto Postcard Collection, Pomona Public Library.

People frolic along the Playa del Rey beach, the skyline dominated by oil derricks. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Oil derrick in the middle of a Beverly Hills Road, 1940. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Collection.

Harbor Junior College's 1951 homecoming parade celebrated the region's history of oil extraction. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Some regional boosters promoted Southern California's agriculture and oil reserves in the same breath. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
Oil derricks made for unusual hazards at the Alta Vista Golf Course in Placentia in 1961. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives

Island White, an artificial island in Long Beach Harbor, hides an oil well. 1986 photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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