Toxic California: Oil fields
Filed:April 27, 1999
By BILL RINTOUL
Oil columnist, Bakersfield Californian
After 14 months of drilling, it looked as though Lakeview No. 1 well near Maricopa would never produce. In fact, oil company officials had decided to stop drilling and try for production from shallow sands.
|Lakeview Gusher 1910|
This decision had not yet been relayed to Walter Barnhart, the production superintendent, when, on the morning of March 15, 1910, he tethered his horse beside the wooden derrick and learned from driller Roy McMahon that the bailer was stuck in the hole.
Barnhart told McMahon to limber up the bailer — a long pipe used to remove mud, sand and water from the well — by yanking the cable up and down. When the driller reversed power to take a strain on the cable, the heavy bailer blew out of the hole with enough force to send it crashing into the crown block at the top of the derrick. Oil spurted high into the overcast sky, men scattered, and Barnhart's horse bolted, not to be caught for a week.
A classic blowout had begun.
The blowout capped an effort that had almost brought financial ruin to the well's original backers. Wildcatters R.D. Wade, F.E. Dunlap and Charles F. Off had organized the Lakeview Oil Co. to drill on a 340-acre lease acquired from Barrett & Dunn, rig-builders in the Midway field. With them were Julius Fried, another wildcatter; and among other lessors, F.P. Wells, a Buffalo, N.Y., industrialist who made oars for the British Navy. They began their first well on New Year's Day, 1909, and spent six months, and more of their capital than they cared to spend, laboriously drilling with cable tools to a depth of 1,655 feet. At that point they sold controlling interest in the well to Union Oil Co. and Union took over as operator. Some eight months and 570 feet later — at a depth of 2,225 feet — the Lakeview gusher was born.
There was no stopping the column of dark brown oil that shot up from the well, flowing at an estimated average rate of 18,000 barrels per day. Oil demolished the wooden derrick, and sand buried the engine house, bunk houses and coal shack. Particles of spray drifted for miles, bringing down the wrath of every housewife who had hung up a line of laundry. The roar from escaping oil and gas could be heard throughout the field, and the plume of oil was visible 30 miles away.
News of the blowout reached Frank F. Hill, director of production for Union Oil in Santa Maria. He lost no time heading for the wild well, traveling by car through Cuyama Valley.
A torrent of oil that someone had named the "Trout Stream" was flowing away from the Lakeview gusher when Frank Hill took charge. The stream threatened not only to dissipate the oil so that it could never be recovered but also to flow into Buena Vista Lake, the source of irrigation water for Miller & Lux farming operations.
Work began immediately on building huge earthen reservoirs to trap the oil in the sloping land between the wild well and the lake, eight miles away. All the teams and scrapers that could be hired in the Midway field and some from as far away as Suisun City, 300 miles to the north, worked around the clock to build 20 huge sumps, covering some 60 acres. Before the job was done it cost more than $350,000.
Some 400 men labored to build a barricade around the well, lacing sand bags and sagebrush into a levee to hold back the flow of oil.
Three pumps, including two 4-inch pumps and one 6-inch, worked to full capacity delivering oil to a pair of 55,000-barrel tanks on Producers Transportation Co. property at Maricopa. The tanks soon proved inadequate to handle the uncontrolled flow, which reached a peak estimated at 90,000 barrels per day.
Jill and Keith Pickett of Edison
Fire was a constant threat. Frank Hill assigned experienced men to work with crews of newcomers, hoping to prevent the one mistake that could prove fatal.
Guards were posted to keep sightseers at a safe distance. Fires were strictly forbidden in cookhouses on leases near the gusher. Activity was halted at other wells in the area.
The only casualties, and there were many, were the men whose skins could not stand the distillate baths that were necessary after 10- and 12-hour shifts in the oil spray that enveloped the well.
The stream of oil flowing from the Lakeview gusher was small compared with the excitement the well generated. Thirty-nine new oil companies were formed in two weeks, and the price of real estate in the nearby community known variously as Moron or Taft, its final name, rose until two lots on Center Street sold for the record price of $250. The town teemed with newcomers, among them a former mayor of San Francisco who claimed to have a new drilling device that would enable an operator to drill to 3,000 feet in three weeks. Enterprising citizens opened tent hotels. The price of a night's lodging was 35 cents, 10 cents more than the cost of a good meal.
Stockbrokers took half-page ads in the newspapers, advising readers to jump on the stock bandwagon. The stock of Monte Cristo Oil Co., which had 600 acres near the gusher, rose to $3.50 a share. Serious talk of forming a stock exchange in Bakersfield arose.
One man whom the gusher did not cheer, however, was the city attorney of Bakersfield. He had acquired the Lakeview property in 1901 for $5 and subsequently sold it for not much more after a 1,000-foot dry hole was drilled on a nearby lease.
Among the visitors who came to see the phenomenon were Gifford Pinchot, an adviser to Roosevelt and Taft, and his brother, Amos Pinchot. The gusher could soon be seen at night, too. A well known as Tight Wad No. 3 on 25 Hill, four miles away, caught fire and lighted up the countryside for miles around.
As oil flowed, the price of crude oil dropped from $1 a barrel to 10 cents a barrel. One enterprising company sized up the situation, built its own earthen reservoirs near Bakersfield, and bought all the cheap oil it could get, storing it for the day when the price would rise.
Finally, on Sept. 9, 1911, 544 days after the well blew in, the Lakeview gusher caved at the bottom and died as suddenly as it was born. It had produced an estimated 9 million barrels of oil, a record for the time. More than 4 million barrels had been saved. The remainder was lost.
Union Oil Co. dug a 100-foot shaft to find the top of the well's casing, then proceeded to redrill, putting the well on the pump in January 1913. The once-mighty well produced 30 barrels of oil a day for a while, then died. In the 1930s, General Petroleum Corp., later Mobil Oil Co., redrilled the Lakeview gusher, and, failing to produce oil, abandoned it.
Today a short side trip off Highway 33 just north of Maricopa, along the old Taft-Maricopa Highway, leads to the oil-hardened, sand-bagged crater that marks the Lakeview gusher. The Trout Stream has long since dried.
A bronze plaque stands beside the Lakeview gusher. Dedicated in February 1952 by the Native Daughters of the Golden West, Kern County Historical Society and Kern County Museum, the plaque calls the well "America's most spectacular gusher."
Kern River oilfields from the bluffs
Kern River oilfield sump