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Oil runs deep in L.A. history

The Southland is replete with examples of the petroleum industry's handiwork, and here's a guide to some of the more notable oil-related sites.

July 19, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As those doomed fiberglass mammoths in the bubbling ooze at La Brea Tar Pits attest, oil in Los Angeles is an old story. But how much of that story do you know?

Oil in Los Angeles: An earlier version of this article described an Echo Park oil well dug by Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield in 1892 as the first in Southern California. It was the first oil well in Los Angeles, but not the first in Southern California.--

Have you seen the Echo Park parking lot where two desperate prospectors dug Los Angeles' first oil well? The tiki-tinged oil well islands of Long Beach? The derrick in disguise at Beverly Hills High School?

When you're awash in dire news about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it's easy to forget that Los Angeles is a major petroleum producer. That may be because much of the machinery is disguised by stagecraft, or because Southern California's last high-volume spill was a side effect of an even larger crisis: In the 1994 Northridge earthquake, an Arco pipeline broke and sent 190,000 gallons of oil into the Santa Clara River in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

No sightseeing excursion in Los Angeles is far from an oil well or pipeline. As of January, state officials counted 3,071 active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles County, 842 of them offshore. Together, they produce more than 66,000 barrels a day. (In mid-June, government scientists said the BP disaster could be spilling up to 60,000 barrels a day.)

This L.A. petro-tour shines a light on just a few of this area's derricks and pumpjacks (a.k.a. nodding donkeys), and it draws heavily from "Urban Crude," an exhibition and daylong tour assembled last year by the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City.

"Most people are vaguely aware of the oil infrastructure around Los Angeles," said Matthew Coolidge, director of the center. "But to actually get the big picture — a sense of the scale of it — is something most people haven't done."

1. We begin at the parking lot of the Echo Park swimming pool (a.k.a. Echo Deep Pool, 1419 Colton St., Los Angeles; [213] 481-2640). There's no plaque and no other hint I could find of this place's historic significance. But this parking lot covers the spot where Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, a 460-foot hole that yielded oil in 1892. The results not only enriched the drillers but also changed Southern California's landscape forever.

2. For the next chapter in the Doheny story, head 3.8 miles southwest to Mount St. Mary's College, Doheny campus (10 Chester Place, Los Angeles; [213] 477-2500, Before Mount St. Mary's took over, this was the Doheny estate, and the family's three-story 1899 mansion remains. You can park outside the small campus and walk in. Photography is forbidden without advance permission, and the mansion interior is usually closed, but there are occasional Saturday tours that include the first floor (usually 2 1/2 hours, $25 a person). The next tour dates: Sept. 18 and Dec. 18. Also, gatherings of 10 or more adults can arrange their own group tours. (More info: [213] 477-2962, Whether or not you get inside the mansion, be sure to head to the top level of the campus' Ken Skinner Parking Pavilion. From there, you can look down and see that oil extraction continues. Behind discreet fencing, the 23rd Street oil site on campus has eight wells that together yield about 16,000 barrels a year.

3. La Brea Tar Pits (5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; [323] 934-7243,, neighbored by grassy fields and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been attracting visitors for more than a century. Popularity jumped after a particularly bracing Sunset magazine headline in October 1908 ("Death Trap of the Ages"), and the Hancock family donated the land to the county in 1924. Visitation increased in the 1960s, when the county's Natural History Museum opened a formal viewing platform at Pit 91 and the fiberglass beasts assumed their positions. In 1977, the Natural History Museum opened its satellite Page Museum at the site.

4. You don't need to set foot on the campus of Beverly Hills High School (241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills; [310] 229-3685, to see its oil derrick. In fact, you shouldn't. Instead, park nearby or just drive past to check out the derrick, which is clad in flowery slipcovers that serve as soundproofing. For decades, on-campus operations have included more than a dozen wells. For the year ending June 30, interim Assistant Supt. Mary Anne McCabe said, the wells yielded $550,000 for the district. Lawsuits blaming the wells for illnesses among students have been dismissed.

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