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SLO tank farm was once one of the world’s epic construction projects

Construction of the massive Union Oil reservoirs on Tank Farm Road in 1910. In the era before diesel fired bulldozers, 300 teamsters were required to run the horse teams excavating 80,000 cubic yards of earth from each reservoir. Each reservoir cost $250,000 (about $6,000,000 in 2016 dollars.) The roof on the largest reservoir could have covered Spanos Stadium.
Construction of the massive Union Oil reservoirs on Tank Farm Road in 1910. In the era before diesel fired bulldozers, 300 teamsters were required to run the horse teams excavating 80,000 cubic yards of earth from each reservoir. Each reservoir cost $250,000 (about $6,000,000 in 2016 dollars.) The roof on the largest reservoir could have covered Spanos Stadium. Chevron photo

Drive by the nondescript mounds of dirt on Tank Farm Road, and there is little sign that it was one of the epic construction projects of the early 20th century.

Drilling foreman Charles L. Woods had the nickname “Dry Hole Charlie.” On the morning of March 15, 1910, his nickname was washed away with oil.

Lakeview No. 1, located between Taft and Maricopa, hit money 2,200 feet down. Natural gas and oil roared out of the hole and a crater formed so deep and wide that the drilling derrick was swallowed into the inky pool. In hours, Lakeview produced a petroleum lake larger than Union Oil’s first year of operations.

The company was already shipping via pipeline to tankers out of Avila Beach. Oil field workers tried to contain the deluge with earthen dams, but more storage was needed.

The Daily Telegram reprinted a story from the Oil Book of San Francisco on Sept. 10, 1910. Six-hundred men were working to build the two largest reinforced concrete oil reservoirs in the world.

Why so many workers?

In the era before diesel-fired bulldozers, 300 teamsters were required to run the horse teams excavating 80,000 cubic yards of earth from each reservoir. It was known as Tank City, which had a blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, machinery shop, tool houses, cook and bunk houses. The horses needed a vast amount of hay and grain in addition to the 1,500,000 feet of lumber and 18,000 barrels of cement.

Each reservoir cost $250,000 (about $6 million in 2016 dollars). The roof on the largest reservoir could have covered Spanos Stadium. Maino Construction had helped build the roofs.

It was not without problems.

Contractor Weber-Duller went broke. Local firms like Sandercock Transfer, San Luis Hardware and Implement Co., California Portland Cement Co., Pioneer Paper, Salinas Valley Lumber and Pacific Coast Coal filed liens against Union Oil’s works. One of the concrete reservoirs gave way as the 8-inch oil line fed into the tank.

When stories are told about the site, the 1926 lightning-caused fire is the one most often told.

Two men were killed and only five of the original 19 reservoirs and tanks could be saved.

»» Related: The San Luis Obispo Tank Farm Fire

Steam generated from the burning oil forced oil over the tops of the reservoirs, turning the tank farm into a sea of flames.

By 1972, the now three massive oil storage reservoirs south of Tank Farm Road were retired, and the lightning rod towers were identified as a potential risk to airplanes.

Two of the roofs were 4.8 acres and a third was 9.2 acres. The largest had a capacity of 1 million barrels, and the other two 750,000.

Today, current owner Chevron is in the process of preparing the former Union Oil tank farm site for development.

Sources:

“Unocal: A Century of Spirit”

Daily Telegram, Sept. 10, 1910

Telegram-Tribune, Jan. 8, 1972

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