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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

The Gush of Oil Was Music to 'Queen's' Ears

July 11, 1999|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

The proposed Angel City business and entertainment center on Crown Hill just west of downtown Los Angeles already has aroused criticism, most of it surrounding the development's novel centerpiece: a giant, sword-wielding bronze angel that builders hope to place atop a 750-foot tower.

A little more than a century ago, the neighborhood was also a focus of public attention, much of it centering on a deeply religious piano teacher-turned-wildcatter, Emma A. Summers, who initially was dismissed as a "mere woman" but went on to change the course of the city's history as the "Oil Queen of California."

Now cradled in the arms of the Hollywood and Harbor freeways, Crown Hill is one of the five hills that ringed the original City of Angels. Once disparaged as "a howling wilderness," the hill had by the 1880s been covered with elegant Victorian mansions rivaling those on Bunker Hill. Crown Hill, moreover, had an additional amenity--public recreation.

Nestled in its center, bordered by a white picket fence, stood 2nd Street Park, complete with a playground and lagoon for boating. The park was the pride and joy of Crown Hill's elite families, who bore such pioneer names as Bixel, Croft and Witmer.

Born in Kentucky before the Civil War, Emma A. McCutchen was the daughter of a merchant banker and longtime mayor of Hickman, Ky. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, she married Alpha C. Summers and they headed West, stopping off on the Texas frontier before hitting Los Angeles.

In 1883, before the old fort and gallows had vanished and before the city started building the Broadway tunnel, the Summerses chose a lot on Fort Moore Hill for their home, enchanted by the majestic panorama of winter sunsets offered by the site. It was there, on California Street (where the Hollywood Freeway is today), that Emma set up shop as a piano teacher.

Dabbling in real estate with the proceeds from her lessons, she soon amassed a small nest egg.

Her opportunity to parlay it into real money began when two discouraged miners, Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield, hit town and bought a $400 lot at Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard on Crown Hill. They purchased it from the Witmer family, which owned 650 of Crown Hill's 900 acres.

Forty days later, in November 1892, Doheny and Canfield struck oil by using a 60-foot eucalyptus tree as a drill. The boom was on.

Summers, stricken with black gold fever, invested $700 of her savings to purchase a half interest in a well between Court and Temple streets, in what is now the Civic Center. She went into debt to buy stakes in several wells on Crown Hill.

By 1897, the once-quiet Crown Hill neighborhood--by then bounded by Temple, Figueroa and 1st streets and Union Avenue--was overrun with promoters, drillers and more than 500 chugging and wheezing derricks. Gingerbread houses and neatly trimmed gardens were quickly transformed by homeowners and leasing companies attempting to turn backyards into pay dirt.

As wells pumped night and day, the overgrown paths of the hill bustled with the men who came west to work for Summers, who would soon end up controlling half the production in the central area of the Los Angeles City Oil Field.

Tent cities sprang up all over town, attracting prostitutes and bootleggers. Gambling houses and saloons were busy 24 hours a day.

Rolling up her sleeves, the genteel Summers joined her grease-spattered workers during daylight hours, directing their labors, while at night she handled the bookkeeping and gave music lessons to finance continued drilling.

With her strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency, she never let any raw edges show.

"It's a gusher!" cried Summers every time one of her rigs struck oil and a tower of black gold streamed into the sky.

By the early 1900s, she controlled half the production in the original Doheny-Canfield field, with 14 wells producing 50,000 barrels of oil a month. But half wasn't enough, and Summers set out to corner the market by mastering the laws of supply and demand as thoroughly as she once had mastered musical skills.

Selling her oil to downtown hotels, factories, Pacific Light and Power Co. and several railroad and trolley lines, she soon was treated like royalty and became known as the oil queen.

The price of oil peaked at $1.80 a barrel before hitting bottom at 15 cents in 1903. There was so much cheap oil that to reduce the tremendous surplus, the city began spraying it on unpaved roads to hold down the dust.

The policy turned the streets into a gummy black mess that stuck to shoes and carriage wheels. More practical minds discovered other markets: household heating, water heating, railroad locomotives and asphalt.

Still, the city was so awash in petroleum that great quantities of oil leaked from redwood storage tanks, and oil-filled gullies overflowed into the streets during heavy rains. In 1907, so much oil accidentally drained into Echo Park Lake that the lake caught fire and burned for three days.

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