One evening in 1923, when Santa Fe Springs was mostly grazing land and about a dozen oil derricks, Leslie Johnson arrived to put in his shift on the oil field's first well, Santa Fe 1-A.
It was a tense time. The drilling crew had hit limestone at about 1,500 feet and would be out of work unless the rock could be penetrated. But that night, a new type of drill bit lay on the drilling platform, a bit designed by Howard Hughes and built in his father's Texas machine shop.
The crew was amazed, Johnson recalled, to see the new Hughes rotary bit dig through eight feet of limestone in an hour. The invention led to the eventual drilling of more than 2,000 wells in the Santa Fe Springs field, which has produced 611 million barrels of oil since 1919.
Johnson, who turned 90 last month, has seen the city's oil boom days of the 1920s become the oil gloom days of the 1980s. In its heyday, the Santa Fe Springs field yielded more than 218,000 barrels of oil each day, but production has dwindled to less than 100 barrels a day. City officials--tired of spending money to clean up soil contamination left behind by oil operators who abandoned unproductive wells--have passed ordinances discouraging further development of the field.
Sitting in the living room of his Norwalk home recently, Johnson brightened as he told of the days when the highway leading to the field was clogged with Model A and Model T cars driven by the 10,000 men who once worked the wells.
"They had a big oil field in Long Beach, but nothing to compare with this," he said. "It was a fantastic field. Just fantastic."
Johnson moved to California from his native Fayetteville, Ark., at age 25. Unemployed, with a wife and two children, he heard there were steady jobs in the oil field.
"The oil business paid you pretty good. They paid $5 a day then, seven days a week," Johnson said, adding that oil sold for $3 a barrel.
So for the first few months after he arrived, Johnson drove every day from his home in Fullerton to the Santa Fe Springs field looking for work. But his perseverance was not what landed him the job.
"I was told, 'If you'll go to Ford Motor Co. in La Habra and buy a new Ford, they'll give you an oil job,' " he said, since the brother-in-law of the dealership owner was an oil field boss.
So Johnson paid $500 for a 1923 Model A touring car--the first model ever with a slanted windshield, he recalled with a smile--and got his oil job.
The field had only about a dozen wells when Johnson went to work, and in his five years on the job he saw about 300 derricks constructed in a four-square-mile area. Each derrick was 120 feet tall and consisted of enough lumber to build a five-room house, he said.
When drilling first started there, he said, the oil was so plentiful that it would sometimes gush from the well and simply be drained into tanks.
"The oil was so good, so high grade, that you could set fire to it," Johnson said. "In the winter, the crews would drain it into a low spot and make a fire to keep warm."
Johnson recalled an occasion when underground gas pressure was so great that it blew out a well, swallowing the derrick into a hole the size of his living room.
"The men heard the rumble and ran for their lives," he said. "That gas blew there for about a month before the pressure went down. There was a sign posted on the highway--'beware of falling rocks'--that were blown up by the gas pressure."
The well was subsequently redrilled with a new derrick.
But the oil industry's power and the money it brought to the city in those early drilling days have disappeared. Revenue from the existing wells contributes only $160,000 annually to Santa Fe Springs' $21-million budget, and officials are seeking safer and more lucrative commercial projects.
There are still about 300 producing wells in town, including Santa Fe 1-A, which bears a plaque commemorating its as the field's first well. Johnson said a relative drove him to visit Santa Fe 1-A a couple of years ago, and he marveled at the old well pumping away in the midst of a city.
"Old life, it brings you a lot of changes," Johnson said. "You just change and live as the picture unrolls."