Photos from the Vault

Union Oil built Nipomo refinery during rapidly changing 1950s

The original cutline from the Telegram-Tribune read as follows: COKING PLANT SKYSCRAPERS ... Nearly 1,700 persons are now employed in the construction of Union Oil company's new coking plant southwest of Arroyo Grande. Some 3,200 acres of unproductive sand dunes are being converted into an industrial plant for manufacturing coke, sulphur and high grade feed stock gas oils for use in big Union Oil refineries in the San Francisco and and Los Angeles areas.Completion of the first of two identical independently operating coking units, highest structure on right, is scheduled for March. Caesar equipment, towering structures surrounding the two coking units, includes gas-fired heaters, heat exchangers, fractionalization columns for separating gases, and liquids, condensers, after-coolers and multiple stage pumps, Bechtel corporation is building the $5,000,000 plant.
The original cutline from the Telegram-Tribune read as follows: COKING PLANT SKYSCRAPERS ... Nearly 1,700 persons are now employed in the construction of Union Oil company's new coking plant southwest of Arroyo Grande. Some 3,200 acres of unproductive sand dunes are being converted into an industrial plant for manufacturing coke, sulphur and high grade feed stock gas oils for use in big Union Oil refineries in the San Francisco and and Los Angeles areas.Completion of the first of two identical independently operating coking units, highest structure on right, is scheduled for March. Caesar equipment, towering structures surrounding the two coking units, includes gas-fired heaters, heat exchangers, fractionalization columns for separating gases, and liquids, condensers, after-coolers and multiple stage pumps, Bechtel corporation is building the $5,000,000 plant. Telegram-Tribune

The 1950s were a decade of dramatic change.

Growth was the watchword in the county and California as the population mushroomed. The county grew by more than half from a population of 51,417 in 1950 to 81,044 just 10 years later.

Highway 101, California Men’s Colony, Atascadero State Hospital, California Youth Authority, Union Oil refinery, Morro Bay Power Plant and expansion at Cal Poly were all part of the changing landscape.

At the same time, Cold War tensions were rising.

▪  March 7, 1955: Salt Lake City was shaken by an atomic bomb tested 370 miles away in the Nevada desert.

▪  March 14, 1955: Dial phones were scheduled to be installed in San Luis Obispo in January 1956.

▪  March 21, 1955: A massive simulated invasion took place in San Simeon, with 5,000 soldiers and 10,000 spectators.

In 1955, the flash of atomic bomb testing could be seen in San Luis Obispo in the early morning sky.

▪  March 29,1955: Two atomic bombs were tested in Nevada, and the flash was visible through early-morning fog in San Luis Obispo; the pedestrian tunnel in Atascadero was under construction as the freeway was coming.

▪  April 16, 1955: Three-year-old Jill Fryer covered her eyes as her older sister Jane, almost 5, received the first polio vaccination in the county. Her pediatrician father, Dr. Harry J. Fryer, administered the shot.

▪  April 21, 1955: The St. Anthony Oil company of Los Angeles purchased a uranium lease on Theodore Twisselman’s ranch east of Paso Robles.

Refinery’s beginnings

Recently, the Nipomo Mesa oil refinery, now owned by Phillips 66, has been in the news with a proposal to receive oil by rail. Six decades ago, the plant was brand new.

Union Oil had almost completed construction of a coking plant on the Nipomo Mesa according to a story published in the Telegram-Tribune on March 12, 1955. Coke is a high-carbon fuel used in blast furnaces for metallurgical purposes such as steel-making.

The first member of the staff was due to start work within a week, and 90 workers would be hired to run the refinery. The plant was designed to produce about 600 tons of coke a day and handle 21,000 barrels of crude oil, piped in from fields in Santa Maria.

Bechtel Corp. was the contractor and expected to finish work in early April. Three plants were built, a sulfur producing unit, coking plant and utility unit producing water, fuel oil and steam.

Some 3,200 acres of unproductive sand dunes are being converted into an industrial plant for manufacturing coke, sulphur and high grade feed stock gas oils for use in big Union Oil refineries in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

Telegram-Tribune caption

The caption on a construction photo from Jan. 15, 1955, said that nearly 1,700 workers were employed to build the plant, which was estimated to cost $5 million.

“Some 3,200 acres of unproductive sand dunes are being converted into an industrial plant for manufacturing coke, sulphur and high grade feed stock gas oils for use in big Union Oil refineries in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.”

The project would take 10 months to build, according to a caption from June 17, 1954, when construction was beginning.

It was part of a larger $40 million oil refinery expansion program undertaken by Union Oil in the region.

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