A mighty gusher of oil shot to the top of the 65-foot California Star Oil derrick on September 26, 1876. Known as "Pico Number 4," it was the first commercially successful oil well in the western United States.
The well was tucked away in the Santa Susana Mountains formation of Pico Canyon, approximately four miles west of the present-day Lyons Avenue exit off of Interstate 5 in the Santa Clarita Valley. It had been punched to a depth of 617 feet by a French immigrant named Charles Alexander Mentry, just thirty years old but nonetheless a veteran of the world’s first commercial oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Transient oil workers migrated to Pico Camp to harvest the bounty, and by 1880, as many as 100 families lived in what was being called "Mentryville."
Young oil men lived in bunkhouses, while those with wives and children built clapboard cabins of imported redwood. Theirs was the first village in the Santa Clarita Valley to enjoy natural gas lighting. Townspeople erected a schoolhouse in 1885, and a 13-room mansion was occupied by oil field superintendent Alex Mentry and his family in 1889.
At the turn of the century, Mentry died. Field workers started to abandon Mentryville in the early 1900s, by which time the canyon’s richest deposits of oil had been depleted, and greener or blacker pastures beckoned. After 1938, Mentryville’s sole inhabitants were the head foremen and their families, who stayed on to manage the flow of oil that would eventually ebb to a trickle.
Not only did Pico Number 4 give birth to an industry in California; it was also the longest-running oil well in the world when it ceased operation in 1990.
Pico Canyon draws its name from General Andrés Pico, who led Mexican forces into battle in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Pico won important skirmishes but ultimately was forced to surrender his sword at the Capitulation of Cahuenga in 1847. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, California officially became a territory of the United States.
Pico’s ties to California ran too deep for him to consider leaving. He retired to the 16,000-acre Rancho San Fernando, of which he had been the patron, and started exploring nearby canyons. In 1855, he began hauling "asphaltum" out of the canyon that would bear his name.
Pico used the mucky substance as a lubricant and a caulking compound, and for tarring roofs on his rancho. It was too smoky to use for illumination.
The petroleum was easy pickings. The term "Pico Springs" refers to the pools of oil that once seeped to the surface of the canyon floor. Natural crude can still be seen flowing in the mountain stream that courses into the alluvium beneath Mentryville.
In Pico’s day, the canyon was public land. It sat between the Rancho San Fernando to the south and the 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco, which covered the western Santa Clarita Valley and eastern Ventura County.
Ironically, what was once public land and would later pass into oil company hands, is public land again today.
Andrés Pico may have been one of the 19th Century’s earliest "discoverers" of oil in the canyon, but he was certainly not the first person ever to extract it.
The Tataviam Indians, a Shoshone-speaking people who moved into the area around A.D. 450, skimmed petroleum from the oily pools to waterproof baskets and soothe arthritis. Like their Chumash neighbors, Tataviam women probably also suspended tar balls from their grass- and animal skin skirts to weigh them down.
Loosely translated, tataviam means "People of the Sunny Slopes." They lived in approximately twenty small villages throughout the Upper Santa Clara River Valley, often building their brush huts, or wickiups, on south-facing hillsides. Never numbering more than 2,000 at any one time, the peaceful Tataviam tribe began to fade away after the August 8, 1769 arrival of the first Spanish explorers, the Portola party, at Castaic Junction. The last full-blooded Tataviam, Juan José Fustero, died on June 30, 1921 at Rancho Camulos, eight miles west of Mentryville.
While it is not known who preceded the Tataviam, archaeological evidence suggests that Pico petroleum was a popular commodity as much as 10,000 or more years ago along the two important trade routes that converged in the Santa Clarita Valley, one running east-west from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura, the other north-south from the San Joaquin Valley into the Los Angeles basin roughly the same route that would be cleared for 19th-century wayfarers by General E.F. Beale.
In 1863, General Edward Fitzgerald Beale came down from his 300,000-acre Tejon Ranch to take over a roadwork project in Fremont Pass, south of what would become the town of Newhall. The project had been started some years earlier by Beale’s old battlefield adversary Andrés Pico.
With picks and shovels, Beale’s men cut a spectacular 90-foot-deep, vertical-sided gash through the mountain, enabling stagecoaches to enter the Santa Clarita Valley from the south and improving the single transportation linkage from Los Angeles to Fort Tejon and points north.
Beale took an interest in petroleum exploration upon reading a widely-publicized account of oil discoveries in the area in 1864. The report, titled "Rivers of Oil," was based on the findings of Dr. Vincent Gelcich, a chemist from Los Angeles who had established the Santa Clara Oil Company in Pico Canyon and who encouraged his associates to stake claims there.
In 1865, Beale teamed up with Pico and Gelcich and organized the Los Angeles Asphaltum and Petroleum Mining District to sort out the area’s often-conflicting claims.
That led to the formation on June 24, 1865 of the San Fernando Petroleum Mining District. It issued patents to Andrés Pico and his nephew Romulo for the Pico Springs, and to local entrepreneur Henry Clay Wiley, who was probing a nearby canyon. Wiley, the son-in-law of Andrés Pico, owned a hotel-restaurant-saloon with partner Ignacio del Valle, civic leader and patron of the Rancho San Francisco.
Pico and Wiley are not alone among Santa Clarita Valley oil pioneers whose names have been attached to roads, canyons and, in Wiley’s case, an elementary school. Memories of Darius Towsley, Dr. Rice and Christopher Leaming live on in their canyons, while Lyon Canyon and Lyons Avenue remind us of Sanford Lyon. (An errant scribe long ago omitted the apostrophe from "Lyon’s" Avenue, a mistake which persists to this day.)
Lyon owned the Lyon’s Station stage stop in the future downtown Newhall. He, too, had been scavenging in the local canyons and shrewdly joined forces with Pico and Beale, who had been snatching up claims. With Col. R.F. Baker and others, they formed the first Star Oil Company.
In 1868, Lyon, Wiley and Los Angeles lawman William W. Jenkins ventured into Pico Canyon on the advice of José Francisco de Gracia Lopez, who, like Andrés Pico, had been hauling asphaltum back to the Mission San Fernando. This was the same Francisco Lopez who discovered the first California gold, ten miles to the east in Placerita Canyon, on March 9, 1842 six years before Sutter’s Mill.
Lyon, Wiley and Jenkins obtained a lease from Beale and Baker and started digging in Pico Canyon by "spring-pole." They chopped down a tree, anchored one end with rocks, suspended the trunk over a forked tree limb and jumped up and down on stirrups attached to the other end, inching an auger into the earth.
From fifty feet down, their well yielded nine 31.5-gallon barrels per day. It was an emerald-green, superior grade oil that needed refining.
A two-still refinery was built behind Lyon’s Station, where Eternal Valley Cemetery sits today. The refinery failed to produce smoke-free kerosene, however, and was soon abandoned, as was the fledgling Star Oil Company itself. By 1875, most of the area’s original wildcatters were gone.
A continent away, the Titusville gushers that had been so lucrative since their eruption in 1859 were now all but tapped out. The oil men of Pennsylvania looked to the West.
Demetrius G. Scofield was one of the Pennsylvania oil men who knew of the western "rivers of oil." He arrived at the Barbary Coast in 1875 and promptly headed south to search out the acclaimed Pico Springs.
Scofield immediately recognized Pico Canyon’s potential. He returned to San Francisco and lined up investors for a new Star Oil Company, which was christened California Star Oil Works (CSO) on July 8, 1876. Scofield bought out Beale and Baker and took over several claims that had been in dispute following the death of Andrés Pico in February of that year.
Now all Scofield needed was a wildcatter with enough talent to make his dreams of riches in oil come true.
Alex Mentry proved to be that man. Born Charles Alexander Mentrier in France in 1846, "Alex" Mentry came to America at age seven. His father, Peter, a blacksmith, Anglicized the surname when he moved the family to Titusville.
Alex Mentry excelled at all things mechanical and became a driller, worrying 42 successful wells in the eastern fields.
Arriving at San Francisco in 1873, he soon was digging wells in Grapevine Canyon for a Los Angeles firm. He teamed up with two other Pennsylvanians in 1875 and purchased the Pico Oil Claim. He deepened the old Lyon-Wiley-Jenkins hole and spring-poled two more before selling the claim to Scofield in June of 1876.
Familiar with Mentry’s remarkable skill, Scofield convinced him to stay on. Mentry, who was living on a 180-acre estate in Placerita Canyon, began drilling a fourth well in Pico Canyon.
From a depth of 300 feet, this fourth well averaged thirty barrels a day. Using one of California’s first steam-powered oil rigs, Mentry dug deeper.* On Sept. 26, 1876, a mighty geyser shot through the 5 5/8-inch casing. Demetrius Scofield was a rich man.
Three weeks earlier, Southern Pacific president Charles Crocker had connected Los Angeles with San Francisco via rail in an historic ceremony at Lang Station, at the eastern end of the Santa Clarita Valley. It wasn’t long before the railroad was charging more to haul oil than Mentry would pay. The driller fought back, laying the state’s first oil pipeline: a two-inch line from Pico to Ventura. Fearing the competition, Southern Pacific lowered shipping rates, and the pipeline was never used.
Mentry moved into the first of his three homes in Pico Camp and started gravity-feeding oil through a pipe to Scofield’s new refinery near Pine Street in Newhall. With four stills operating by 1879, the "Pioneer" was California’s first viable oil refinery.
Scofield moved fast. On September 10, 1879, his investors formed the massive Pacific Coast Oil Company and, with Scofield as manager, swallowed up all of the old oil concerns.