An Excerpt from the book Prohibition Madness, by Claudine Burnett
|First oil well on Signal Hill, 1921.|
(Public domain photo)
The possibility of sudden wealth had a universal appeal and an incessant flow of promoters, both honest and dishonest, were soon on the scene. Real estate promoters around Signal Hill could barely keep up with sales. Even the City of Long Beach, which owned 36 acres of land between the Shell and Sandburg holdings, had a grandiose dream---becoming the richest city in the world, a city that would end taxation.
The oil bonanza of 1921 continued. Shell well no. 2, Nesa, on the west slope of Signal Hill, struck oil at 12:45 a.m. on September 2nd. It came in with such an explosion that everyone thought an earthquake had struck. People as far away as Los Angeles were awakened by the blast. Other wells struck black gold on October 26th, November 17th and December 13th. On November 28th, the city owned municipal oil well hit pay dirt, shooting two hundred barrels of fluid above the top of the derrick. For many years afterwards this single well brought $360 a day into Long Beach city coffers.
Amid all of this oil Signal Hill, which had been renowned for its scenic grandeur, productive soil and magnificent homes, was transformed, with land prices soaring to undreamed of heights. A 1906 advertising brochure had described it as “the most beautiful home site in Southern California.” But things had now changed. Building restrictions, paved streets and walks and curbs were supplanted by oil leases, oil stocks, derricks and drills. Palm trees and rose gardens were trampled to make way for boilers, tool houses and speakeasies. Los Angeles Times reporter Syl MacDowell summed it up: “Where the oil monster sets its foot, beauty flees.”
|Oil in the streets, Jan. 1922. |
(Public domain photo)
H.F. Ahlswede described his experiences:
“After the experience with the three gassers we knew that it was only a matter of time when we would have to move. I want to tell you that it is very difficult to live as neighbor to one of these roaring gas wells. The first gasser was something of a novelty and proved there was something under the ground that resembled what they had been drilling for. When the fourth gasser suddenly developed into an oil gusher and commenced to pour sand and rocks about our premises, we knew the time had come to leave Signal Hill.”
Houses, streets and sidewalks were often covered with sticky black tar; rocks that came up with the gushers hurdled through roofs and windows. The time to leave had come. Fortunately many left rich, having leased or sold their Signal Hill real estate.
|Oil workers knew where to find the speakeasies. |
(Public domain photo)
Working the Hill became more difficult as time went on. At first the oil came naturally, almost gushing to the surface on its own momentum. Later it had to be pumped. By 1927 wells at Signal Hill were reaching five to seven thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth. Despite the fact that finding oil was becoming a little more difficult and expensive, “oil fever” still flourished.
|Excursions to Signal Hill was a popular way to sell shares|
in future oil ventures. (Public domain photo)
Real estate as well as oil investment became a booming business. All of these newcomers had to live somewhere. How about buying land for a home and keeping the oil rights under it? Such was the sales pitch used to sell property in the California Heights tract (bounded by California, Orange, Wardlow and Bixby Road in Long Beach) which opened during the oil boom of 1922.
When the Jotham Bixby Company placed 830 lots on the market on October 10, 1922, the real estate vultures descended in droves. The tract was just 1,500 feet from the Wiley No. 1 oil well and lot purchases included oil rights. Who was to say that oil wouldn’t be discovered under the new tract, making their owners wealthy? One ad stated:
“You could stand on one corner of California Heights and with a 30-30 rifle shoot the lights off the top of dozens of rigs - where gushers are spouting thousands of
barrels of the liquid gold daily. THAT’S HOW CLOSE WE ARE TO REAL MONEY.
OIL has made more rich men in Long Beach, in a shorter time, than all other interests combined. Are you among them? This is ‘Your Ship’ but you’ll have to step lively to get aboard.”
Within four hours, 185 lots were sold, within 24 hours 250. A syndicate of local businessmen who planned to drill for oil purchased twenty-five of them.
There was a problem with building houses on top of a potential oil field. Why spend money on installing water and gas lines when oil might be discovered at any moment? Because the question of oil beneath the property remained unsettled, improvements in California Heights were slow. It wasn’t until November 15, 1923, that water, gas, telephone and electric mains needed to build houses were complete. Once these were in and it became evident that not much oil was under the tract, residential development began. The Bixby Company got things off to a start by building 25 ready-made Spanish type bungalows that they sold on an “easy payment plan.” Other homes were built on a parcel-by-parcel basis, creating a variety of home styles including California bungalows, Spanish colonials and Tudor-style homes.
Long Beach was anxious to annex this potentially oil rich territory, and in an election held December 28, 1923, California Heights and other territory surrounding Signal Hill (identified on annexation maps as “Greater Long Beach”) became part of the City. However, residents of the Signal Hill area, now surrounded by Long Beach, were ardent opponents of annexation. Why share the wealth with Long Beach? Why not spend it on ourselves? This philosophy led to a new birth.
On April 7, 1924, the City of Signal Hill was created when voters in the oil district cast 348 ballots in favor of incorporation and 211 against. Because of oil they were now the richest city in America.