Saturday, January 11, 2014

Signal Hill

Every year for the past few years, right around December sometime, my sisters and I get a small oil royalty check from Signal Hill. In the grand scheme of things, especially petroleum based things, it's not all that significant, and in fact the people at Signal Hill have offered to buy the rights back for a better, though still not princely sum. I am not inclined to dismiss anything that gives me a little money every year no matter how small (you should see the royalties I get from the couple of story anthologies I have work in if you don't believe me) but I asked my sister, who tends to know more about these things, if it was maybe a good idea for reasons I wasn't thinking of. She said she was keeping hers--for the history apart from anything else.

The history? I asked.

There Will Be Blood? Upton Sinclair? she asked.

But I hadn't seen the movie and I definitely hadn't read the book. (Oil!, by the way.)

That's where the oil in them comes from, she said.

Where exactly is it, anyway? I asked. It hadn't really occurred to me that Signal Hill was an actual place. I thought it was just a company name, if I actually thought about it at all.

She knew it was in Southern California somewhere, but not a whole lot more than that, if I recall correctly. So I decided it would be a good topic for this blog.

That was about a year ago. In fact, it probably came up in exactly the way it has now, which is that a check has come, making me think about it again. Meanwhile though, we've traveled between L.A. and Oceanside to visit my aunt a few times, and there is actually a Signal Hill turnoff on the highway. We've never had time to explore, but maybe someday we will.

The reason we have these royalties is that my grandfather invested in oil leases or rights back in the 1920s. I'm not sure how he got involved, not that it was probably so uncommon back them. He had been a poor kid who lived out in the middle of nowhere on what I like to think was a ranch but may not have been so glorious as that, and by dint of effort put himself through law school at night and ended up with a pretty fancy office in downtown L.A. So it may have been through his lawyerly social connections, or it may have been through his knowledge of the Southern California "outback" that he thought this a good idea, I really don't know.

I do know though, that both my mom and my aunt were born in the nineteen twenties, and I heard mention of a pitcher of martinis in the refrigerator even though it was the era of Prohibition, and I've had other indications that the social crowd was, well, not sedate. So I can imagine my grandfather knowing some people who would maybe know people like those in the book and the movie. But we're getting into pretty speculative territory here, as I imagine my grandfather "knowing" people from fiction I haven't read or watched. So let's move on.

Signal Hill, it turns out, is an actual hill smack dab in the middle of Long Beach. It's 365 feet high. According to several sources, the Tongva Indians of the region used it to set signal fires, which could be seen as far as Catalina Island. (Actually, that's not all that far away, but I quibble.) It was part of the first large rancho land grant in Alta California, while the state was under Spain's jurisdiction.

Before the discovery of oil, Signal Hill played quite a different role. It was sought after property because of the view, so there were mansions built on top of it. At the bottom, more poignantly, there were many Japanese truck farms. The disappearance of these, though, is not something we have to blame the rise of oil for.

Although I remember seeing oil pumps at work in my Southern California childhood, I didn't know that oil was so ubiquitous in the region until I started research for the trivia book I coauthored. As The Center for Land Use Interpretation notes in this interesting looking online exhibit:

Los Angeles is the most urban oil field, where the industry operates in cracks, corners, and edges, hidden behind fences, and camouflaged into architecture, pulling oil out from under our feet.

Signal Hill might be described as the epicenter of all oil exploration in the region. (And "epicenter" is always a good word to have in the frame when it comes to California.)

Here's what happened. After some initial failures by the Union Oil Company in 1917, things looked bleak (or, I suppose, good, if you didn't want a lot of oil drilling in your back yard) until the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company struck gold, black gold, on June 23rd, 1921. Although the hill had also been the site where Balboa Studios shot outdoor scenes for the likes of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, all that was gone the moment "Alamitos Well #1" sent forth a gusher 114 feet in the air. Before too awfully long, there were a hundred oil derricks on the hill and, as Wikipedia mentions, Signal Hill " because of its prickly appearance at a distance became known as "Porcupine Hill"."

It was incorporated as its own city a scant three years later to avoid zoning restrictions and paying taxes per barrel to Long Beach. Notably, it elected Jessie Nelson, the state's first woman mayor. As the city of Signal Hill proudly proclaims of itself:

Ultimately one of the richest oil fields in the world, it produced over 1 billion barrels of oil by 1984.

I think Signal Hill is the slight swell in the distance here.

Things didn't stay that way, of course. They never do. But it is still an oil producing city, a city on a hill, sending my grandfather, his daughters and his granddaughters in turn a little money every year, which I for one will try to spend in a mitigating sort of way. There won't be blood if I can help it.

I wasn't successful in finding a picture of my grandfather, but in the course of doing so, I found a very nice picture of my mom, back before she had married into the Graham family and long before I was anything at all.

Carolyn Stanley Brunton, (future) oil heiress.


  1. I learned a bit about Signal Hill and other Southern California oil fields on my recent visit to Los Angeles. Why, you might ask? Because Raymond Chandler worked in the oil business and would have spent time at Signal Hill. In retrospect, I'm glad he washed out in that business, because he was pretty good in the field he eventually made his life's work.

    My drive to LAX did take me through the Baldwin Hills oil fields, so I was able to imagine a Chandler connection. And don't forget that oil was the source of the Sternwood fortune in The Big Sleep.

  2. For someone born in Southern California I am woefully not up to speed on Chandler. Sounds like you may be a bit more up to speed on California oil fields than I am.

  3. You've seen them; to me, oil derricks moving and up and down in the background of Chandler movies were fantastic when I first saw them. Who ever heard of oil in California? So I was thrilled to see a few of the derricks working in Baldwin Hills.

    I suspect that if you do get around to reading some Chandler, certain details will make sense to you that escaped me.

  4. Speaking of Baldwin Hills there is a good mystery series with a protagonist from there. Paula Woods' Charlotte Justice series. I think I only read the first couple, but I liked them.

  5. I also found out that Baldwin Hills was, or was near the, er, epicenter of the Rodney King riots.

  6. Yes, which just happened to be the subject of what I think was the first Paula Woods novel in the series.

  7. And an area where middle-class and well-off African Americans lived. One of the James Ellroy novels I read recently has an off-hand mention of big-name black entertainers living there. But the book's setting was well before 1992. I don't know what the area was like then.

    California is a pretty interesting place. I'm reading Kevin Starr's Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915-- but also Two Years Before the Mast (thanks to Starr's favorable citation).

  8. . I don't know what the area was like then -- in 1992, that is.

  9. When Paula Woods was writing the first Charlotte Justice novel in the late nineties, Baldwin Hills was still an enclave of well-to-do African Americans, and her character's family are largely in the professional classes.

    I've read a little Starr, not much.

  10. This was really interesting, Seana, and now I will get There Will Be Blood from the library, and then untangle Upton Sinclair from Sinclair Lewis and the dinosaur Sinclair gas stations.

  11. Yes, Nancy, I too will have to make sure and watch there will be blood and read Oil! Upton Sinclair might have made governor of the state if he hadn't been tarred with a socialist brush when he tried to advocate health care back in the day.

    Marketing has a lot to answer for.