Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Pioneer Oil Refinery 1876:
By The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
September 27, 1975.


The origin of petroleum is locked away with many other secrets of the earth, and it has been awaiting man's use for millions of years. The first natural source of energy was wood. In parts of the old world its source became partially depleted by the 15th Century. Next coal was used as an energy source, particularly for heating. Whale oil was used as a fluid for lighting, starting about the time of the founding of this Republic. Oil was known in antiquity, but not extensively used The Egyptians used crude petroleum to help preserve their mummies and grease the wheels of their chariots. The Romans also used oil for the latter purpose. The early Spanish settlers in California knew of oil as a valuable roofing material. The early American settlers realized the value of this material as evidenced by the will of George Washington, in which he listed an oil spring on his land as a valuable possession.


Mechanical Engineering played a valuable role in the first commercial development of oil in the United States. George H. Bissell, a New York lawyer, purchased a 100-acre plot of land near Titusville, Pennsylvania, which contained several oil springs. In New York, he formed the first petroleum company in the United States, The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Bissell had noted that salt wells were drilled and pumped by tools suspended from a wooden frame or derrick. This method, involving mechanical engineering fundamentals, appeared to be far superior to collecting oil in ditches or skimming oil from the surfaces of ponds Bissell prepared to drill for oil using the latest technology He hired Edwin L. Drake, a minor stockholder to direct activities. He was assisted by an experienced salt well driller, William A. Smith, and his two sons.

The drilling apparatus consisted of a bit that was attached to the end of a (suspended) rope. This "drill" was powered by a steam engine through a wooden windlass. Drilling progress was made at the rate of three feet per day or even less. Starting in June 1859, drilling operations continued until a depth of 69 feet was reached on August 27, 1859. Crude oil rose to within a few feet of the top of the well. From this point it was removed to barrels, or concrete lined pits. This was the birthplace of the industry. Within a few years pipelines had replaced barges and rail domestically as the chief method of oil transport. Just a few years later, in the early 1870s, the demand for oil extended to California. Oil explorations were started in the Pico Canyon area, just west of and not far from present day Newhall, California. The Pico Canyon area is shown on the map (Figure 1).


Four successful wells are traced to the Pico Area, and these early wells were drilled by less sophisticated methods than those used at Titusville. These wells required a refinery to produce a salable product, and in late 1873, construction was started by Los Angeles Petroleum Company on a small unit with principal components that were fabricated in San Francisco. The refinery site was located near Lyon's Station (see map), a stage stop approximately three miles north of San Fernando Pass. This venture proved to be unsuccessful for Los Angeles Petroleum. It was unable to turn crude oil into a "smoke free" kerosene. The company was also beset by financial troubles.

Meanwhile application of proven drilling methods from the Pennsylvania Oil Fields greatly improved the production of Pico No. 1, kicking it down to a depth of 120 feet, with a production of 10 to 12 barrels daily, the best of any oil well in California. Mr. C.A. "Alex" Mentry, an experienced driller from Pennsylvania was engaged by the former leasers of the refinery at Lyon's Station to do this work.


In 1876, the California Star Oil Works Company was organized and in June a 20 barrel still was installed near Lyon's Station. Using improved drilling practices, Mentry drilled Pico No. 4 to a depth of 370 feet, with an output of 25 barrels a day. Today, almost 100 years later, Pico No. 4 still produces a barrel a day of 37-gravity oil. It is now the oldest working oil well in the history of the West. Mentry also used new drilling practices on Pico No. 1, increasing its depth to 175 feet and tripling its production to 30 barrels daily. The success at Pico No. 1 made the installation of a new refinery virtually mandatory.

The location of the new refinery (see map) was selected at Andrew's Station on the outskirts of the present town of Newhall. The newly constructed Southern Pacific Railroad line between San Francisco and Los Angeles bypassed Lyon's Station, but passed near Andrew's Station. This appeared to be the logical site for the new and enlarged refinery.

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