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The Los Angeles Oil Boom Through Maps

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Los Angeles is world famous for its sunny beaches and Hollywood glamour, but did you know that the California metropolis has a long history as a booming oil city? At both large and small scales, maps help tell the stories of this often forgotten part of the Los Angeles’s past and present.

The first commercially successful oil well in California, humbly known as “Well No. 4,” tapped the Pico Canyon Oilfield near the town of Newhall (now part of present-day Santa Clarita) in 1876. From this northern Los Angeles County locale, drilling operations would ripple across the region. The 1900 map below, drawn by engineers A.L. George and N.B. Blunt and published Stoll & Thayer, illustrates the scale of oil drilling in the region, including the Newhall, Puente Hills, and Ventura County Oil Fields.

Map of Los Angeles County with oil and mining districts as well as ranchos.
Sectional & road map of Los Angeles County: including part of Orange and Ventura counties, showing the oil and mining districts. Map by A.L. George and E.B. Blunt, published by Stoll & Thayer, 1900. Geography and Map Division.

Among the oil districts shown in George and Blunt’s map, “District 1” stands out, as it falls right in the middle of the urbanizing city limits of Los Angeles. After prospector Edward Doheny struck oil here in 1892, the Los Angeles City Oil Field became the latest hive of activity in the region’s oil boom. The proliferation of oil drilling in the field is apparent in petroleum engineer Ralph Arnold’s 1906 map, a portion of which is shown below. The map documents dozens of oil drills, both active and unsuccessful, less than 20 years after oil was first struck in the area. Across present-day Los Angeles, the field, just over one square mile in size, stretches from the Koreatown neighborhood in the west to an area between Dodger Stadium and Downtown Los Angeles in the east.

Map of oil drill sites amidst Los Angeles streets.
Detail from Street and section map of the Los Angeles oil fields, California. Map by Ralph Arnold, published by A. Hoen & Co., 1906. Geography and Map Division.

The discovery of other oil fields across the region and the race to capitalize on them spurred rapid population growth at the turn of the 20th century. The 1920s saw Southern California become one of the most prolific oil-producing regions in the world. The scale of the oil boom is vividly captured in a series of pictorial maps created by Edna M. Forncrook in 1922. In addition to pinpointing the major areas of drilling, Forncrook’s maps, with their exaggeratedly-sized oil wells, seem to emphasize the massive economic and geographic impacts of the oil industry on the region at the time. From the mountainous Transverse Ranges to Signal Hill, then the largest oil field in the state, near the coast, oil derricks dominate the landscape. What is also striking about Forncrook’s maps are the large expanses of agricultural land between towns, a far cry from the sprawling, urbanized patchwork of metropolitan Los Angeles today.

Panoramic map of oil fields across Los Angeles with oil derricks as exaggerated obelisks.
Detail from [Views of oil fields around Los Angeles]. Map by Edna B. and Clarence Forncrook, 1922. Geography and Map Division.

The city’s continual growth through the 20th century gave way to a more diversified economy, as the petroleum industry became overshadowed by aerospace technology, trade, and entertainment. Oil derricks no longer claim Venice Beach and Los Angeles may not have the popular reputation of being an “oil town,” but oil drilling and refining remain part of the city’s economy and landscape.

The Geography and Map Division provided historical maps for Los Angeles Mapped, an exhibit presented by the Library of Congress Ira Gershwin Gallery that was displayed from January 2006 to January 2007 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. A wide-ranging cartographic exhibit showcasing Los Angeles’s rich history, Los Angeles Mapped can now be explored through an online exhibition and a full listing of exhibition items that were displayed.

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