By Delores Hanney
They were gathered together, a whole crackpot grove of grubby towers, uglifying the once lovely shoreline, fouling sand and surf and the toes that might touch them with despicable tar-y blobs. The wells sprung up, too, in private yards in Venice, like bad-smelling lawn statuary, appallingly bereft of beauty but providing of welcome income, thereby engorging 95% of the residents with an eager-beaver impatience to despoil their own nests.
Maybe the response would have been more measured had the discovery of Venice oil — on December 18, 1929 — not followed so closely upon the catastrophic crash of the Wall Street Stock Market less than two months before, sending the formerly-successful swan diving out of the windows of tall buildings, irretrievably ushering in the Great Depression.
The motivation was set in motion, one might say, in 1897 when then-17-year old Earle C. Anthony built the first automobile in Los Angeles that sent him scooting around town at up to six miles per hour. From this vehicular genesis the car population grew exponentially. By 1909, the city of L.A. nailed down the bragging rights to the greatest number of automobiles per capita of any city in the world.
The gasoline to power all those autos was mostly sold in 5-gallon cans out of drug and grocery stores. In 1912, Anthony had another brilliant brain fugue and like some avidly rearticulated Johnny Appleseed began ambitiously spreading canopy-covered fueling stations along the California roadways. SoCal’s unquenchable thirst for oil was well underway — as was the drilling to slake its thirst inaugurated by Edward L. Doheny, using picks and shovels and a sharpened eucalyptus tree trunk, near the current site of Dodger Stadium.
The Ohio Oil Company was the oil-finding functionary of Standard Oil. Weirdly enough, its maiden discovery attempt in Venice was focused on land abutting the chi-chi residential neighborhood east of the Grand Canal at Avenue 35. As if it had just been waiting for a petroleum seeker to come along and hit it with a refreshing Heimlich maneuver, the earth promptly coughed up black treasure — and just as swiftly Venetians went wonky with oil fever.
Verily, as oil fields go, it proved to be a rather puny puddle and between its feeble volume and its rampant over-drilling the boom played out with a relative quickness.
That first ambiance altering well produced 3000 barrels of oil per day — initially — others up to 5000 barrels daily. Nine months after the original strike, there were fifty wells pumping for the Standard Oil brand — as well as that of other major oil companies — creating weekly Depression-era paydays for hundreds, boosting the rank of the Del Rey field to the sixth largest oil field in the state. But the beach was corrupted; an elementary school was closed, its students dispersed for their safety. An explosion obliterated one of the rigs and the swoony, upscale neighborhood was a mess.
At the end of 1930 there were 148 wells giving up almost 47,000 barrels of oil each day; by the next year, 450 wells were producing. In 1932 there was a great slacking off. Many of the wells were depleted; production of the others was plummeting.
Sadly, “when you’re dead, lie down,” was not a philosophy that would come into play here. Rather, it would be a decades long process of ever-diminishing returns and revolting drilling waste that continued to pollute the waterways and poison the land. On top of which, Venice was being steadily stiffed by the City of Los Angeles for obligatory royalties due it — according to the Coastal Tidelands Trust — to offset the damages which rained down on the exploited area like some monstrous torrential typhoon.
Equally alarming for L.A.’s redheaded stepchild, in the 1960s the City kept trying to promote new drilling for oil in Venice, finally prevailing with a slant-drilled, offshore well. To soothe the outraged, its grimy derrick was tricked out as a lighthouse then garnished with attractive landscaping. The whole time Venice’s supposedly guaranteed share of the proceeds was brazenly redirected to fund a fishing pier in San Pedro.
Another clear case of oil well abuse.