Photos from the Vault

110 years ago, the oil tank farm in Avila exploded. It was heard all the way in SLO

Dozens of spectators watch efforts to contain a fire at the Union Oil tank farm in Avila Beach in January 1908.
Dozens of spectators watch efforts to contain a fire at the Union Oil tank farm in Avila Beach in January 1908. San Luis Obispo County History Center

Union Oil began to hit its stride in Central California in the early 20th century. Wells near Santa Maria and Coalinga were producing, soon to be followed by a bigger strike north of Maricopa.

When a piece of heavy drilling equipment fell off a wagon in the present-day Orcutt Hill oil field, the roustabouts decided to drill in place rather than move the extra distance to the intended site.

On Dec. 2, 1904, the earth roared, and oil and gas shot 150 feet into the sky. Luck had smiled, and the well became known as Old Maude.

“We can’t control it, what with 12,000 barrels of oil pouring out a day. We don’t even have tanks or pipelines big enough to handle the flow,” said a oil field worker quoted in the book “Unocal 1890-1990: A Century of Spirit.”

1969 03-31 avila tanks (2)

Two years later, Union Oil built storage in Avila Beach, and in 1910 massive tanks were constructed in San Luis Obispo.

Several years later, in 1926, the San Luis Obispo Tank Farm erupted in flames, but it was preceded by an earlier fire at the Avila Beach Tank Farm in 1908.

Both were caused by lightning strikes, leading one to wonder if the 1926 event could have been prevented by installing lightning rods.

One of the end-of-an-era stories I have covered has been the demolition of the Union Oil tanks in San Luis Obispo and Avila Beach.

Chevron now owns both San Luis Obispo and Avila Beach properties and is working on development plans.

The historic photos of the Avila tank farm fire were made by Frank C. Aston, a prolific San Luis Obispo commercial photographer. His work spans 1906-47, and the images were shared by the San Luis Obispo County History Center.

Mark Hall-Patton was curator and director of History Center’s predecessor organization when he wrote this story July 27, 1989:

County’s first tank farm fire was at Avila

Last week we looked at a disaster which befell one of the oil dreams of the Central Coast. Soon after the Oilport wharf had been washed out, our county was subjected to its first tank farm fire. This was not the well-known 1926 fire at the Tank Farm near San Luis Obispo but the 1908 tank farm above Avila.

On Jan. 27, 1908, lightning struck tank number 3 of the Union Oil Co. tank farm at Avila. The bolt struck at 3:30 p.m. and ignited the oil stored in the tank.

At the time the fire began, people on the scene were not sure whether the flames would spread to other tanks. George Ferguson, who was the resident agent for the Union Oil Co. and lived near the tanks, took the precaution to remove as many of his belongings as possible for fear that the flames would spread to his house.

With the amount of oil in the tank and the need for more workers to fight the fire, an alarm was sent to San Luis Obispo. A special train carrying a gang of men to fight the fire, was sent by the Pacific Coast Railway. The men brought with them all the wheelbarrows and shovels they could find or purchase, buying out every store in San Luis Obispo. At that time, the only way the fire could be fought was to build up the bank of dirt surrounding the tank and contain the fire. Putting out the fire in the tank was out of the question.

Fire burns to the ocean at the Union Oil tank farm in Avila Beach in January 1908. Frank C. Aston San Luis Obispo County History Center

Oil Tank 3, with a capacity of 50,000 gallons, had not been designed with lightning in mind. It was full of “distillate,” or partially refined oil, according to the newspapers of the time. According to the San Luis Tribune of Jan. 31, 1908, “There was never any thought here among oil men of danger from lightning when the tanks were put up. Lightning is something unusual for this part of the state. Gasses arising from such tanks make the situation very dangerous in case of lightning.”

The oil men and tank designers were obviously incorrect. The PCR ran a special train down to Santa Maria to pick up general manager W.L. Stewart and get him to the site of the fire. He was to supervise the firefighting efforts. The winds helped firefighting efforts by blowing the flames inland so that any escaping oil was kept confined to the area above Avila where the tanks were.

The fire did spread to two other tanks in the field. Tanks number 304 had about 30 men on top trying to keep it cooled using sea water when one of the men noticed it was getting too hot. He yelled to his fellow workers to get off the tank and all were off by the time the tank exploded a short time later. The explosion was heard as far away as San Luis Obispo.

The light from the fire was also visible from San Luis Obispo during the week the fires were being fought.

By Wednesday, Jan. 29, it was obvious that the fires were under control and would be confined to the tanks already involved. Given the proximity of the tanks to each other, it is amazing that only three tanks burned.

To control the fire and try to save some of the oil, oil from the burning tanks was pumped to tankers in the harbor. In this way the Union Oil Co. was able to save some of the 50,000 gallons in its tank and the Standard Oil Co. was able to save nearly 36,000 gallons from its two tanks, which had a combined capacity of 60,000 gallons.

Besides the three tanks, the only damage was to the Standard Oil pump house. It was destroyed when one of the flaming tanks overflowed and the burning oil reached it. Damage to the Union Oil tank was estimated at $50,000, and no estimates were available for the Standard Oil losses.

The disaster cost the oil companies dearly, but slowed for only a short time the role of Port San Luis as a major shipping port.

The tanks were rebuilt and can still be seen today (editor’s note: they were torn down in the summer of 1997) in the bluffs above Avila. Ironically, 18 years later, on April 7, 1926, a much larger lightning-caused fire, involving a 1 million gallon tank near San Luis Obispo, would push the memory of the Port San Luis tank farm fire into the background.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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