John Vonderlin: 1865: All Eyes on the “Oil Springs”

Story from John Vonderlin

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Hi June,

  This article, from the February 2nd, 1865, issue of “The Daily Alta,” preceded the two articles, “Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Oil Lands #1 and #2,” and describes the excitement about black gold sweeping the nation. Enjoy. John 


Petroleum Excitement in California


   A petroleum excitement is prevalent in California, although it is evidently far from its climax. At every corner of Montgomery street, between California and Washington streets, squads of men daily, during business hours, distill petroleum. Everybody has a friend interested in petroleum, who communicates to him confidentially the brilliant prospects of bis enterprise. Nearly every newspaper has an item about petroleum. From Humboldt to Saa Diego the motto of every pilgrim and the chorus of every song is “petroleum,” and the word has a far sweeter sound, and suggests a far more successful fate than “excelsior.”     

   True, tbe excitement is not confined to this State. The whole civilized world appears to be affected. The fortunes made bjr coal oil in Pennsylvania are enough to fix the attention of all speculators and to awaken the envy even of Californians. Neither the gold of the State nor the silver of Nevada has made so many millionaires. It is, indeed, doubtfnl whether in the history of the world, there is elsewhere any record of so many great fortunes being obtained so speedily, with so little labor, with investments of money so small, and without the spoliation of any one. It is said that the coal oil produced by Pennsylvania is now worth more annually than all the yield of its great iron and coal mines, which have to be worked at vast expense, whereas the coal oil flows out in a perennial stream from many wells, with little expense save barreling. In late numbers of the New York and Philadelphia papers we see a number of advertisements of petroleum companies, giving notice of dividends, varying from one to five percent, per month, on the nominal stock which, in many instances, is double the actual capital paid in; and though not a few of these companies bought their lands at high prices afi«r the wells had been bored by individuals who made fortunes by selling. No State in the Union has so many petroleum springs as California. Oil springs existed at many places in Pennsylvania and Virginia, but they couM not compare in number or abundance with those of this coast. Scarcely a county near the coast, from Oregon to Lower California, that is without them. In Eel Eiver Valley there are several of considerable size; near Pescadero, Santa Crnz, there are half a dozen; and south of Monterey Bay, thousands of acres are covered with the asphaltum formed by the drying up of the oil which has come to the surface mixed with dirt, and has lain under a burning sun for nine months in the year. The principal deposits of asphaltnm, including those from which large supplies for the roofs and sidewalks of San Francisco are obtained, are mentioned in the Pacific Railroad Reports, and in Hittell’s  ” Resources of California, and these are probably the largest deposits on this continent. It is to be presumed that when the oil can rise from its deep chambers in the earth, through a straight and clean pipe, the flow will be abundant aod of good quality. People are confident of success, and capitalists have invested their money. Not less than a quarter of a million in gold, if report be true, has been spent in buying petroleum lands along the southern coast, and men are now engaged in boring at half a dozen different points.


 [Note from June: One of the best books I have read on the history of oil is called: “The Prize, The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” by Daniel Yergin, for more information, please click here



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