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CELEBRATE! : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : THE GROWTH YEARS : ROUGHING IT : Bits and Leases: Ray Thompson remembers the oil boom of the '20s. 'We had to be quick--everyone wanted to get to that oil first.'

May 22, 1988|ERIC SCHINE | Schine is a Times business writer

Ray Thompson came to Huntington Beach in 1926 to find work as a roughneck. The second big Southern California oil boom, which had started in 1920, was in full swing. The pace was fast and furious, and the work was dangerous. "We had to be quick--everyone wanted to get to that oil first."

Thompson was not unfamiliar with dangerous work. He'd left the coal mines of southern Illinois a few years earlier, and he'd seen too many of his relatives and friends die in those mines. Times were tough and California the place to go. He was 25 years old then. Now 87, Thompson looks from his Huntington Beach house, high on a bluff, to a field that once was filled with towering, clanking oil rigs and that today is packed with tidy, quiet trailer homes.

The great oil strikes in Huntington Beach during the 1920s were not the first in Orange County. Drillers hit oil as early as 1882 in the Brea Canyon area. Ten years later, the Chandler Oil Mining Co. put down several wells near Carbon Canyon, and the tiny settlement of Petrolia sprang up around them. The town, which was renamed Olinda in 1897, had vanished by the early 1940s. But when the Santa Fe railroad branched north from Santa Ana, the Olinda oil fields became some of the busiest in California. By 1909, the Santa Fe Railway Co.'s 54 wells had produced more than 1 million barrels of oil in the Olinda fields, according to a 1910 Orange County Tribune article.

By the time Ray Thompson came to Huntington Beach, oil had become the main engine driving Southern California's growth, attracting laborers from all over the country. Thompson, like many newcomers, didn't know the first thing about working an oil rig. Says Thompson today: "When I asked for my first oil job, the contractor looked at me and asked, 'Are you a roughneck?' So I said, 'Sure I am,' which, of course, I wasn't at the time."

After working for $7 a day on a couple of wells that came up dry, Thompson landed work with Standard Oil Co., the biggest driller in town. He moved up from roughneck, the person who does the dirtiest work, like digging ditches and maintaining the pumps, to derrick man. "I went through some pretty lean times, so it was good news to sign up with Standard."

The first impression Thompson had of working for the big oil company was the food: "The kitchen was always open. The head cook was a gal named Gertie--and she could really cook. With all the different shifts, there were eight meals a day, and I darn well ate at every one of them."

Thompson was good at his job because he was strong--built like a weightlifter, and not too tall, according to his younger cousin, Raymond Stricklin, who calls Thompson "Uncle Ray." For hours at a stretch, Thompson changed the huge drill bits and sent new lengths of pipe down the well. "Uncle Ray could get in and out of the hole and climb up the rig as fast as any derrick man," says Stricklin, who spent much of his youth hanging around the oil rigs.

Stricklin's father, Oscar, had moved the family to Southern California in 1919. Oscar Stricklin, who died in 1974, came from the same southern Illinois mining town as his cousin Ray. Oscar had lost both his father and a brother in the mines by the time he was 16. The oldest of six surviving children, Oscar got a job on the Standard Oil construction crew. He helped build the Huntington Beach Camp, a complex of bunkhouses, a large cook house, offices and the company recreation hall. He proved so quick at building the old wooden derricks that by 1925 the company had put him in charge of all its rig construction in Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and at the Murphy Coyote wells in La Habra Hills.

At the crest of the drilling boom, Oscar Stricklin had 400 workers under his supervision. A crew of about 20 could put up an 85-foot-tall rig in about five days, according to Thompson. Then it would take several months of drilling before a well would "spud in." Rigs were built as close as 50 feet, and rig crews liked to wager on who could build a rig the fastest. "We were always in a race with the next rig over," recalls Thompson.

The well that changed everything was Bolsa Chica No. 1, which blew in Huntington Beach on Aug. 3, 1920, tapping the county's richest oil field. "When the Bolsa gusher came in, it was like a carnival came to town, or like a big fire. Everyone came to watch. The gusher went clear to the top of the derrick. It took them a week to cap it off," says Raymond Stricklin, who was 6 years old at the time and remembers the day vividly. The well stood at what today is a bit west of Golden West Street and Garfield Avenue.

According to an account written in 1976 by retired Huntington Beach Fire Chief Delbert (Bud) Higgins, the gusher poured more than 2,000 barrels a day onto surrounding corn fields, while 500 men with mules and scrapers worked feverishly to build a dike.

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