100 Years of Oil
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Kern River field at 100: The city that oil built

Filed:April 27, 1999

Californian staff writer
e-mail: bchristie@bakersfield.com

One hundred years ago this month, two men hand-dug a 45-foot-deep shaft near the banks of the Kern River below the Panorama bluffs, then bored into the earth with an auger. What they discovered changed the fortunes of Bakersfield and shaped the future of the city.

James Elwood and his father Jonathan had tapped into a 3.8 billion-barrel reservoir of crude oil, a field so massive that it ranks as one of the nation's largest. For Bakersfield, the Elwood discovery meant a transformation.

Continental oil co.
Continental Oil Co.
The Kern County Museum
Bakersfield in 1899 was a trading and agriculture town of about 4,800. The biggest news in early June was the arrival of a Wisconsin man who hoped to construct an ice plant and brewery, and the search for an errant Army sergeant named Willis O. Griggs, who, already twice married, had "wooed and won" a Bakersfield maiden's hand in marriage. Bigamy was the charge, and the "gay lothario" was being hunted by the authorities, according to publisher Alfred Harrell's The Daily Californian of June 2, 1899.

The third story leading the paper's front page that day announced that the Elwoods had recently struck oil on the ranch of Tom Means on the Kern River. It didn't go unnoticed.

The announcement set off a boom, and over the next several months reports of more discoveries at Kern River routinely commanded front-page space.

The value of land in the field skyrocketed, and the city was jammed with men seeking their fortunes in the newly discovered oil field, according to a 1914 history of Kern County published by Wallace C. Morgan, who wrote for and edited the Bakersfield Morning Echo and was Bakersfield's first city manager.

Although oil had been mined and gathered from seeps, shafts and open pits on the valley's west side since the mid-1800s and oil had been found and refined near McKittrick and Maricopa since the 1890s, the discovery of the Kern River field is credited with launching the county's modern development.

Today, three other billion-barrel fields and more than 70 lesser discoveries join with Kern River to employ approximately 10,000 workers, provide more than two-thirds of the state's oil production (a full one-third of its total oil needs) and millions each year in property taxes to county and local government, schools and special assessment districts.

But even more importantly, the generations who have worked in the oil fields have brought a culture of hard work and survival to the city that may never have been sustained otherwise.

The oil workers of the early 1900s lived in the fields, coaxing the molasses-like oil from the wells, constructing massive, earthen-walled tanks along the river to hold millions of barrels of crude, piecing together pipelines that ran to the Pacific Coast, drilling around the clock for more oil.

That oil was king is evident in the name chosen for the sports teams at Kern County Union High School, now Bakersfield High: the Drillers.

The name was appropriate, for in the early decades of the century, KCUHS was populated not only with "flatlanders" from Bakersfield and "goat ropers" from Lamont, but scores of "bullshippers" from Oil Center, the name given to the cluster of workers' homes in the center of the 10-square-mile oil field.

Until the 1940s, most of the workers who toiled at Kern River lived right there. Oil Center had a population of 7,000 in 1914, more people than had resided in Bakersfield alone the year the field was discovered.

The reason was simple.

"The community was established because the oil companies needed to provide living quarters. Transportation was still rough and rugged," recalls Dean Van Zant, 71, who grew up in Oil Center and attended grade school at the now-closed Aztec School, located where Texaco's Kern River headquarters now sits. "We're looking at 10 to 11 miles of rough road between Bakersfield and Kern River."

Oil Center itself had about 160 homes, plus rooming houses and general stores. The town also had a post office and a justice of the peace.

The majority of the residents, however, lived on individual oil leases, the men working as "pumper" responsible for making sure the mechanical apparatus that moved the oil kept running. Others lived in crew quarters, basically rooming houses, and spent their days on well-pulling crews.

12 hour days
12 hour days
Instead of the look of a modern oil field, with its individual pumping units and tank batteries, Kern River boasted a collection of centralized "jack plants," which provided power to several wells at once. In the early days, steam engines housed in small shacks provided pumping power, but gasoline motors gradually took over the task. From these centralized power plants, cables would be strung to the individual wells on each lease, the taut cables pulling on pump rods descending into the well.

The oil itself, always accompanied by large amounts of water, would flow from the pumps into open earthen sumps, where it separated and sand from the well would settle out.

The water was drained off into streams, eventually reaching the Kern River. The oil was heated and run into gathering lines. Unlike the vast majority of oil fields, the water produced in association with Kern River's oil is fresh.

For retired oil-field worker Bill Cordes, describing life at Kern River in the 1930s brings memories of walking home from school past wooden derricks, joining eight or nine classmates in party-line telephone calls to collaborate on homework and afternoons picking off jackrabbits and squirrels with an old .22 rifle.

"My Dad would tell me when I got back from school, ‘here's your rifle and here's some shells, and while you're at it, grease the jack plant,'" recalls Cordes, now 75 and residing in Cayucos near Morro Bay. "Those squirrels would undermine a sump if they got a chance."

Spilled oil wasn't thought of as a pollution problem then, only as wasted profit.

Generations of youngsters were raised on the Kern River field, and three school districts were formed at various times to educate them. The oldest and longest-lasting was the Aztec, established in 1901 and operated continuously until it was folded into the Standard School District in Oildale, and the Oil Center school house, closed in 1966. The two other districts, Toltec and Petroleum, were formed in 1910 and 1911, respectively, and ended up folding into Aztec in 1932, according to district histories provided by the Kern County Superintendent of School's office.

The latest Aztec schoolhouse, built in 1939, is still used by Texaco.

The same basic story can describe oil towns like Taft and Fellows on the county's west side: huge oil fields, riches for some, hard work, rough living and fair wages for many.

Reed Crude Oil
Teams hauling to the Santa Fe Railhouse in1899
The Kern County Library
The prospects of the Kern River field have ebbed and flowed with the tide of economics and oil discoveries. In the first two decades of the century, oil prices would collapse nearly every time a new field would be discovered, and almost each time another fabulous gusher would blow in at the massive Midway-Sunset field near Taft.

Because Kern River produces thick, heavy crude oil at fairly slow rates, it was less profitable than other fields with lighter oil or higher flow rates.

Kern River's production went from zero in early 1899 to a peak of 16 million barrels a year, or more than 47,000 barrels per day, in 1906, then declined steadily for the next five decades. Parts of the field were closed during the Depression, re-opened to full production and drilling during World War II, then shut in again after the war ended. Its wells normally produced fewer than five barrels of oil per day, not enough in lean times to justify large operations, although small, independent lease operators like Bill Cordes' father, Walter Cordes, never ceased pumping oil.

From 1925 until 1955, the field averaged more than 10,000 barrels per day in production. Operators struggled with water flooding into the producing zones, the result of an often incomplete layer of impermeable rock between layers of oil sands and water-bearing formations and improper or incomplete well completion work.

Most of the Oil Center homes were moved off the property to Oildale in the mid-1930s, when tax assessors began charging oil companies property taxes on them, Van Zant said. "You can still go down Decatur Street in Oildale and see oil-field houses," said Van Zant.

Provided by companies rent-free to their lease operators, the practice saw its demise during this period. Although many homes still were scattered among the leases, Oil Center began to change.

By the time George James came to work for Shell Oil at Kern River in 1962, things were ready to change.

The field was still operated in much the same way as it had been all along, James recalled, although production had increased to an average of 20,000 barrels per day in the previous five years as oil companies worked to coax more oil from the ground.

"It was a lot of jack plants and redwood sloughs running down to the tanks," said James, 63, who now works as a reservoir technician at Texaco's Kern River operations. "The wildlife out here was just teeming. There were badgers and deer and skunks and porcupines, rabbits, rodents and bobcats."

3 families
The Kern County Museum
The animals were drawn by the water, but environmental regulations and the advent of a new technology that would begin the resurgence of Kern River would soon end that practice. That technology also would result in the end of the era that saw families living among the wells.

Shell Oil had been experimenting with injecting steam into an oil field in the Orange County city of Yorba Linda in the early 1960s, and soon transferred the technology to Kern River.

"We ordered some (steam) generators and started putting them in the field," James said. A well that had been producing five barrels of oil per day was injected with steam for several days, allowed to soak, then brought back on production. "We were amazed," James said. "That thing came in at 100 barrels per day!"

Tidewater, later bought by Getty, which itself was later bought by Texaco, had been doing similar experiments with heating the oil at Kern River. The first project involved injecting heated water into the wells; that project didn't prove successful, and soon after, Shell began using steam, and Tidewater followed. So did all the other major operators. From 1962 to 1968, production increased from 27,000 barrels per day to 68,800.

The secret of Kern River had been unlocked, and the life of a field that had produced only about 10 percent of the original oil in place during more than 60 years of operation had been extended by decades.

After only tapping a tiny fraction of the oil with "primary" production, cyclic steaming, and then steam flooding, had made it possible to extract from 70 percent to 80 percent of the oil.

The same steam-injection technology has revived the Midway-Sunset and many other fields in Kern.

But the last of the lease operators who lived at Kern River were forced out by the advent of steam, which made well spacing much closer and filled the open spaces of the field with steam generators, pipelines and new storage tanks as the sumps were replaced.

By 1968, the seven major oil companies then operating at Kern River were operating 166 steam generators, with Getty Oil owning 99 of them.

The increase in crude production through the use of the technology was phenomenal, and as the engineers began to understand more about how best to use steam to drive oil from the layers upon layers of sandstone formations, the increases continued.

But the giant oil-fired steam generators gobbled between 25 percent to 40 percent of the crude pumped from the field, and the inefficient burning of unrefined oil pumped tons of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxides into the air. And the practice of allowing produced water to flow to the Kern River itself was ended by environmental regulation. Experiments with deep disposal wells were attempted, and some of the water was used in the steam generators, but expensive water treatment plants were eventually brought on line, allowing the water to be used for irrigation in farms north of the field.

The oil price collapses of the early 1980s forced the operators to once again look for more efficient ways to get the oil from the venerable field. Luckily, the concept of using cogeneration plants came along at just the right time.

A cogen plant is basically a power plant that produces two types of power — electricity and steam. The beauty for an oil-field operator is three-fold. First, cogens use cleaner- burning natural gas, which cuts down on air pollution that regulators hate. Second, it provides electricity, most of which is sold to outside utilities, thus helping offset the cost of running the plant.

And third, they provide the steam the field needs to reach peak production.

With the improvements in technology, the field will likely be in production for decades to come. Other huge Kern fields, like Midway-Sunset and South Belridge, will be producing as well. But a quirk of nature that placed the Kern River oil field near a small trading town is one of the primary reasons the city went from under 5,000 in 1900 to more than more than 330,000 today.

"Kern River, because of its proximity to Bakersfield, is the reason most of the industry is here," said Claude Fiddler, a former Chevron executive who now works as a consulting geologist and engineer. "If it wasn't for Kern River, it's possible Taft could be the center of the county."

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