Discovery of Oil in Venice

This being January, it always seems that the beginning of each year holds a promise for the future, yet inevitably brings a depressing reality to the months that follow, somehow resigned to the fact that not all your resolutions will play out as intended.

So it was for Venice in January of 1930. Things had been on the rough side for the city recently, and yet the future seemed to be looking rosy. It had been 5 years since the upstart city had merged with Los Angeles, and the town had been roaring through the twenties as a leading amusement center. But the previous year brought a sad ending to the ubiquitous canals, the city’s calling card, which were mostly filled-in to allow for more automobile traffic.

Those damn cars! They were everywhere. And in Southern California, they were spreading like wild fire. And to feed this conflagration, gasoline and the oil industry was on the upswing.

Why, by 1913, there were nearly 123,000 automobiles in California, prompting the opening of the first service station - or “gas stand” - on the corner of Sixth and Mateo streets in downtown Los Angeles. And as the number of automobiles mushroomed, gas companies worked hard to keep pace. By 1925, Union Oil had more than 400 service stations on the West Coast.

But then on October 24, 1929 came the great stock market crash, which spawned the Great Depression. Things were looking down for lowly Venice, as there became little disposable income to help support the local amusements. And then on December 18, 1929, the Ohio Oil Company discovered oil on the Venice peninsula, on county property just east of the Grand Canal and Avenue 35, now Eastwind. All of a sudden, things were looking up, as oil fever struck Venice. Soon the drilling of oil supplanted the amusement industry, and the possibilities of untold wealth for the community were almost too good to be true.

And so, the rush was on. Oil fever swept the town, and within a month Los Angeles allowed drilling south of Leona (Washington Street). By January 8th, 1930, 2000 Venice property owners enthusiastically supported residential oil drilling. There seemed no end in sight.

Oil had always been a part of Southern California, dating back to the Chumash Indians and the seeps, or areas where the natural gas and tar just appeared bubbling up from the ground. Native Americans had known these seeps for thousands of years. In 1543, Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo noticed the native people using the naturally occurring tar, or “pitch”, to waterproof their canoes. Like the La Brea Tar Pits, for example. Natural oil just waiting to be utilized. And in America, the thirst for oil was now becoming a prime importance. In the Pennsylvania oil fields, the country's first oil well was drilled near Titusville in 1859. The first commercial oil discoveries in Pennsylvania spurred both commercial and academic interest in the coastal California oil, tar, and gas seeps.

In 1887, the Ohio Oil Company was founded under the leadership of president Henry M. Ernst in northwestern Ohio - the country’s leading center for crude oil production at this time. In 1889, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust purchased The Ohio, as solely a discovery and well pumping operation, at that time selling crude to Standard Oil. Oil had become big business.

From the 1860's to the early 1900’s, every oil or gas field discovered in California was located on the basis of nearby seeps. In California, the earliest oil exploration efforts began in areas where numerous seeps, such as Ojai and Santa Paula, occurred. The Union Oil Company of California was incorporated on October 17, 1890, in the small town of Santa Paula, the first major oil company in California. The first well to strike oil in Southern California was drilled in 1892 by Edward L. Doheny at a depth of 160 feet, the Los Angeles Field at the corner of Colton Street and Glendale Boulevard, near present day Dodger Stadium. It was drilled using the unlikeliest of instruments: a sharpened end of a eucalyptus tree. And soon Los Angeles became cluttered with oil wells.

In Beverly Hills, after the Civil War, wildcatters and roughnecks drilled oil wells. In 1900, Burton Green, along with several partners, purchased “Morocco,” as the town was then known, for the Amalgamated Oil Company and commissioned a new round of oil exploration. After drilling many unproductive wells, they reorganized as the Rodeo Land and Water Company in 1906.

The Ohio Oil Company also started to look west in the teens, as crude fields always played out, but success was very slow. In the future, it decided to let the wildcat drillers find the oil and then buy proven reserves. Its long-term plans made profits while wildcatters took the risk.

Shell Oil began oil exploration in Long Beach on Signal Hill in 1919. In 1921, the Union Oil Company discovered oil on the Alphonzo Bell Ranch in Santa Fe Springs. And in Manhattan Beach, just before 1920, property was sold to George Martin who leased it out for oil drilling, now referred to as the Martin Ranch.  In 1926, a well was dug by the Julian Petroleum Company for G.W. Johnston.  It was referred to as the Julian well.  Salt water invaded both these wells, and nothing became of them.

But by then, it became obvious that oil fever had struck and it was everywhere. Oil wells were in people’s front yards, backyards and by late 1929, on the beach in Venice and Santa Monica. There were hundreds of them. The royalty checks were welcome but the tranquility of the land was destroyed. The wells were everywhere.

Within a year, 148 oil wells covered the area, producing over 40,000 barrels of oil daily. Jobs were created, but environmental destruction was wide spread and polluting the surrounding residential area and beaches. Drilling waste clogged the remaining waterways. It got so bad that on April 9, 1934, the Del Rey Oil Co. drilling permit was revoked for dumping oil waste in Venice Lake, located at 500 Washington Boulevard. The Venice peninsula had become a played-out, polluted mess.

I’m sure by now, we all must have seen the few photos of the Venice peninsula in its forest of oil wells heyday. And because you’re reading this via the internet, I’d recommend you facilitate yourselves of a complete history of oil in Venice, by going to It tells the whole story, almost.

When I first came to Venice, there was only one oil well that I was aware of, and it wasn’t even on the peninsula. It was right off the Ocean Front Walk, just south of Westminster Avenue. So out of place and ugly, right there on the sand, the famous south wall of the then nude beach. I remember a couple of towers rising above the cinder block walls, and I always wondered what different world existed within those confines.

And then sitting at the Sidewalk Café on a windy afternoon, the breeze would instantly remind me of what went on there, the stench of the oil industry. The acrid fumes billowed off the ocean from the well, swamping that inland section downwind. The smell was sometimes something noxious.

That’s because oil was being pumped out of 11 wells located there, not the allowed number, one. From 1965, three years after the citizens of Venice vigorously objected to this proposed oil well right on the beach, until 1990, both the City of Los Angeles and the oil companies, who consecutively occupied the site (Socony Mobil, Stinnett and Damson) were in gross violation of the original contract. The unsightly oil derrick was camouflaged as a lighthouse and the area adjacent to the Venice Pavilion was landscaped.  From June 1966, the oil companies pumped 2000 barrels per day from the site for 25 years, with little or no interference from the residents and without ever paying a dime back to Venice.

Under the Coastal Tidelands Trust, it was obligatory upon the City of Los Angeles to divert royalties from oil exploitation (in this case, 16% of the gross) back into the area that was being exploited. The purpose of this obligation was to ensure that the areas being exploited would benefit. To this end, the Parks and Recreation Department assured the local citizens that the Venice Del Rey area would become the "epitome" of recreational and home improvement. Unfortunately the reverse was the case, as it so often is. Venice properties depreciated and stagnated for at least the next two decades while, at the same time, developers and speculators were afforded the perfect opportunity to cash in on some prime real estate which has, since, rapidly appreciated in value, becoming some of the most desirable in Los Angeles!

Damson Oil Corporation leased the site from the City in 1976. Oil production stopped in 1989 and Damson began deconstruction of the facility in 1991. The lease terms required the deconstruction of all facilities and restoration of the beach to its original condition upon the cessation of production. However, after removing all the usable equipment and capping the oil wells, Damson filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the site. Left behind were subsurface soils with extensive hydrocarbon contamination, sumps containing oil and potentially contaminated sludge and water from the extraction process, oil well vaults, and 3.2 miles of pipeline leading to an offsite facility. The City sued Damson to recover $1.8 million through the bankruptcy proceeding in order to complete the cleanup, but was awarded only $800,000. And so the site sat empty, a blight on the beach.

But finally, in 1995, the refurbishment of the Ocean Front Walk  began to be implemented. And on January 15, 2001, the Windward Plaza was officially opened, and the remains of the old oil well were just a vision in the past. Out with the old, and in with the new, so that once again the oceanfront would retain the character of Venice Beach: “unique, funky, eclectic, artistic and free... a safe, fun, family place.”

And so, I guess you could say that oil’s well that ends well. Sorry, I had to get that in here somewhere. And to those early year resolutions that never quite seem to play out properly, take heart in the fact that once was the grimy beach section of Venice, with hopes of big money cast aside by the stench of oil, is now the glorious peninsula section, where big money is all it takes to reside there.