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Oil drilling derrick, De Laveaga Park, Santa Cruz, c. 1926. Local subscribers funded an oil-drilling project on public lands that drilled fitfully (with each infusion of investor money) from 1924 through 1927, reaching a final depth of 3,400 feet, finding only traces of oil.

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Secret History


What the frack?
Chasing the temptation of oil in the Santa Cruz Mountains

There's some weak history floating around Santa Cruz County regarding the history of oil and petroleum production. In a recent newspaper article about the contemporary process known as "fracking," Santa Cruz County staff was quoted as saying that the oil or gas production potential in the county was "unclear," and that there has been "no viable extraction of oil" in the county in the last 50 years."

Well, maybe there hasn't been since 1963, but the historical landscape for the century before 1963 is pockmarked with all kinds of oil and oil-related episodes both within the county and just outside the county line. Including times when oil was shipped out of here in paying quantities. Had they done a bit more research, they would have found my buddy and co-conspirator, Professor Gary Griggs' article titled "Hydrocardons in the Hills" published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 15, 2011, describing the geology of that area and one of the 1950s North Coast oil rushes.

There are periodic oil rushes in the county beginning almost immediately after Edwin Drake's famous 1859 oil discovery in Titusville Pennsylvania. Refined Pennsylvania oil became kerosene, and was quickly replacing candles and whale oil as the choice for illumination across the country. (One of the regional oil-extraction industries directly affected by kerosene was the whale oil industry that finally ceased in the early 20th century because the price of whale oil had fallen to a point where the low economic returns didn't justify the dangers and hard work of whaling.)

The Oil Rushes
There have been a series of Oil Rushes in Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz Mountains beginning in the 1860s, and again in the 1880s, and then in the early 20th century, and then in the 1920s and then in the 1950s. Sometimes they got oil quantities and qualities that paid for the cost of extraction and a little money left over and sometimes not…but they usually got oil. Each time, as technology improved and the price of oil went up, they went at it again. So, maybe here in 2013 the forces of economics, politics and technology have converged creating yet another Oil Rush that might spill over into Santa Cruz County?

Oil sticking up out of the ground – The First Oil Rush
The memory of the Gold Rush was still clear in the minds of Californians when word of Drake's oil discovery arrived in 1859. The vast majority had missed out on the riches of Gold Rush, but they had learned that those who got there first were usually the only one's to strike it rich. So, their "rush" triggers were set very lightly. When news of the Pennsylvania Oil Rush reached California, ex-gold miners, entrepreneurs, and speculators spread out over the state, looking for any indication that there might be oil beneath the surface. The geological formation that attracted continuous attention throughout Santa Cruz County's history was the unusual material that jutted up above the surface about six miles north of Santa Cruz on the coast. A hard, grayish mixture of sand and oil that early observers called "asphaltum" or, bitumen.

In 1863, a mere four years following Drake's discovery in Pennsylvania, the Santa Cruz Petroleum Company was incorporated for the purpose of manufacturing oil out of the "inexhaustible bituminous rock" located on the ranch of Moses Meder. The plan was to heat the rock and distill the oil out of the resulting vapor in a group of retorts that would be fueled by the abundant firewood in adjacent canyons. The company officials claimed that the resulting oil, after a bit of refining, would be "pure, clear, almost colorless, and almost entirely free from offensive smell." One early observer noted that the bituminous rock indicated that there was "probably an oil reservoir similar to Pennsylvania's" located beneath the North Coast and that it all indicated a potential of "enormous profit."

One of the bitumen mine pits that still pockmark the North Coast

By May of 1864, the Santa Cruz Petroleum Company had six retorts up and running and they claimed that by selling the best of the resulting oil at 75 cents per gallon, each retort could produce almost $500 per day. One of the greatest expenses was transporting the broken rock to the retorts and the resulting casks of oil into Santa Cruz. Local farmers hired out their teams and wagons to the company to provide both. As with most industries in their infancy (particularly ones try to interest investors), it is difficult to sort out truth from fiction. But in late 1865 the company made its first shipment of 700 gallons of oil out of Santa Cruz by sea to a refinery in San Francisco.

Petroleum School (1865-1875)
On May 22, 1865, in response to a request from residents on the North Coast, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors created two new school districts between Santa Cruz and Pescadero. (Pescadero was in Santa Cruz County until 1868.) The northernmost, centered on Scotts Creek, was named for the Mexican land grant in that area – El Jarro. The second bordered the new El Jarro district and reflected the local commonly-accepted Petroleum Hills place name. The new school was officially named Petroleum School. .

The First North Coast Oil Well
Meanwhile, oil prospectors interested in drilling for oil could not resist the possibility that the bitumen indicated that there was an "oil reservoir" beneath the North Coast. So, while the retorts were puffing smoke into the air up on the side of the hill overlooking the coast, two companies had derricks set up "adjacent to the coast" and were drilling down, using horses to turn the augers, at a rate of one foot per hour, working twelve hour days. The supervisor of one of the wells brought into Santa Cruz a container of the mixed oil and water they were getting out of their well, but after that first couple of months, nothing more was heard from the well drilling operation. And, when Pennsylvania petroleum products began to arrive in California selling at a price cheaper than the bitumen-retort company could produce locally, the Santa Cruz Petroleum Company ceased operation.

Perhaps the most significant indicator of the end of this early Santa Cruz County hydrocarbon rush came in 1875 when Petroleum School was renamed Laguna School.

But, the bitumen was still there, and oil still seeped out of wells and fissures throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, waiting for price and technology to initiate another rush. And, in California, forever driven by the always-around-the-next-corner next "strike", there would another oil rush. And another.

Stay tuned.

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