Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wednesday Search Challenge (Dec 29, 2010): First productive oil well in California?

I grew up in LA at a time when there were oil derricks everywhere.  I had friends with rigs literally in their back yards, and when driving around LA or the Long Beach area, it was very common to see the grasshopper oil rigs pumping up and down, and the smell of oil as you went past.  (FWIW, this is a "grasshopper" oil pumper. If you haven't seen one in action, the curved heads on the left bob up and down from the pivot in back.)  

At the end of the year I got to thinking about life in LA and all the oil shocks and crises that have been in the news during 2010.  And that made me think of a simple enough question: 

When was the first productive oil well drilled in California? And.. for extra credit, who drilled it and where?  

I'll warn you--this seems really simple, but answering the question definitively took me a while (and I'm still triple-checking my answer).  

For clarity, a "productive" oil well is one that pumped more than 10 barrels of oil AND the output of which was refined and not used in its native out-of-the-ground state.  

Search on!


  1. I'm a bit lazy this week, so here's my quick and dirty "good enough" answer. I did a straight Google search using the terms:

    history oil production california

    The top hit took me to a site from the Paleontological Research Institution with the history of oil in California -

    Using that as my sole source (I mentioned I'm feeling lazy today), I'd throw out this exerpt as a quick answer:

    "In 1865, only 6 years after "Colonel" Edwin Drake's monumental discovery in Pennsylvania, California's first productive well was drilled by the Union Matolle Company in California's Central Valley."

  2. As I said, the first answer may (or may not) be the right one. One reason to doubt it is that the phrase "California's first productive well was drilled by the Union Matolle Company in California's Central Valley." can be found in lots of hits (including some in Russian), suggesting that the original text has been copied and recopied so many times that its source is unclear. This is one of those times when checking the source is really necessary!

  3. Daniel,

    I have two possible answers.

    When: 1865 / 1876
    Who: Union Mattole Oil Company / Charles Alexander Mentry (California Star Oil Works)
    Where: on the North Fork of the Mattole River near Petrolia (formerly, New Jerusalem and Petrolea) an unincorporated community in Humboldt County, California / near Mentryville in Pico Canyon, District Newhall, Los Angeles County, California

    The answers depend on the definition of “productive" oil well or “commercial" oil well.

    My search strategy:

    Because I wanted to find a reliable, high quality piece of information, I started my search with the ext:pdf qualifier. My search strategy was: [first productive oil well drilled in California ext:pdf]

    The first hit brought me to a document from the California Department of Conservation with the title:”Oil and Gas Production History in California” (
    The text says: “the Stanford Brothers refined and sold the first shipment of oil from the Mattole well, the first oil produced and refined from a California well. Reportedly, the refined “burning oil” sold for $1.40 per gallon.”

    But reading on in this document I found: “However some development continued, the most important in Pico Canyon near Newhall. Here in 1876, well “Pico” 4 was completed, producing 30 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 300 feet. The well, the first truly commercial oil well in the state…..”

    Other links when searching for [first productive oil well drilled in California mattole|matolle|”Pico Canyon”]:,_California

    To be honest, I'm not sure which of the two results is the answer to your questions.


  4. productive for who? For the owners? For the citizens? For the actual inhabitants that will may have to truggle against some health issues maybe?