Times Past

Time Past: SLO County has its share of oil deposits

On August 27, 1859, Edwin Drake discovered a pool of crude oil at a depth of 69 feet near Titusville, Pa. Petroleum soon replaced whale oil in lamps and as a lubricant. It quickly revolutionized the way we lived. It dramatically changed the world.

The American Indian populations of California were familiar with oil deposits.

Long before the arrival of the first European explorers in 1542, the Chumash were using petroleum resources.

Between the mouths of the Santa Maria River and San Luis Obispo Creek there were ample reserves of the heavy, tar-like oil. There were numerous points of seepage along the inland creeks in Price Canyon. The Huasna district is noted for its Tar Springs Ranch. The name of Pismo Beach means tar or brea in the native Chumash dialect.

The Chumash employed what they called “pizmo” for mending steatite pots, waterproofing baskets and sealing their driftwood plank canoes which they called tomols.

Women cast empty acorn shells filled with pizmo onto a colorful basketry mat in a gambling game that resembles roulette.

The American Indians regarded pizmo as a readily available natural resource.

Auguste Bernard DuHaut-Cilly captained the French merchant brig Le Héros along the California coast, 1827-28. In his Voyage autour du monde he wrote:“While we went along by this shore, we found the sea almost everywhere covered with asphaltum, now in the form of round flat slabs of some thickness, now in that of large sheets of oil and tar, spread over the water and displaying yellow or blue reflections. The odor exuded by this stuff was powerful enough to be annoying, and make breathing troublesome and difficult. I knew not for some time whether this natural pitch spread over the entire channel in such great quantity flowed from some point on the coast or its source gushed up from the bottom of the sea: it was only on another stop at Santa Barbara that I learned that halfway from this presidio to Point Concepcion, between the rancho de Los Ortegas and that of Los Dos Pueblos, there is a large pond of asphaltum boiling unceasingly, and whose excess overflows into the sea from which this spring is not far distant.”

During the 1880s, the Pacific Coast Shipping Company took advantage of the Central Coast’s “immense” supplies of asphaltum. The company began mining about 100 tons of asphaltum a month from large outcroppings on the Corral de Piedra, Pismo and Santa Manuela Ranchos near the Pacific Coast Railway’s line through the Edna Valley beginning in 1883. By the end of the year they were shipping 1,000 tons a month. It was used chiefly for paving the streets of major urban centers in the Bay Area from San Francisco and Oakland, south to San Jose.

The original processing plant was located at Hadley in the Edna Valley near the entrance of Price Canyon, where the Southern Pacific’s 1901 standard gauge line crossed the Pacific Coast Railway’s 36 inch railroad. An additional facility was needed, especially for processing oil-bearing sandstone that was quarried near Avila and loaded on the railway at Dougherty Spur, located up San Luis Creek from Avila.

Construction of the Port Harford — now Port San Luis — Asphalt Company on the north side of San Luis Obispo Creek was begun in 1887.

The asphaltum was taken on flat and gondola cars to the refinery. It was heated, cleaned and then “hardened” by large, steam driven fans and then loaded back on the rail cars and taken to the wharf for shipment.

The asphaltum processing peaked in 1911 and declined as oil shipments became a priority during the World War I.

By that time, the greater demand for fuel oil placed the little industrial village of Avila at the Pacific end of two of the world’s first oil pipelines.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.