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Black Gold in San Diego?

By Mike Bryant

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the automobile was beginning to take hold in this country. The search for oil and gas to run these newfangled contraptions was all the rage, and San Diego was not to be left out. Hundreds of oil wells were dug in San Diego County from Oceanside in the north to San Ysidro in the south, from Ocean Beach to East County, and all points in between. The fact that San Diego does not resemble Tulsa might be a clue as to the success of these ventures. You don't remember seeing that oil derrick the last time you drove through Mission Valley or Kearny Mesa? That's because most of the wells turned up dry. No Texas Tea here!

Certificate of purchase from La Costa Oil Co., with Temecula, Chula Vista, and San Diego and Imperial Valley stocks shown in foreground, courtesy Bryant Collection; inset Mission Valley, 1914, courtesy Mike Cunningham

The first drilling for oil in San Diego County took place in National City in the 1880's. The Bancroft Well, as it was named, struck water at 700 feet. At that time, water was worth more than oil or gas. The drilling was stopped. Water was as good as gold in arid San Diego. Everyone was happy with the find, and felt that there was no need to go any deeper. In fact, most drilling operations struck water, but a few did find oil and gas deposits. The problem was there weren't sufficient amounts of oil and gas to make it profitable, or the companies simply ran out of money to keep the operations going.

The failure of all the early attempts to find "Black Gold" in San Diego County, did not stop those who would not give up the idea of striking it rich and becoming the next oil baron. Even our city officials were not above trying to cash in on this craze. In 1919, Mayor Louis Wilde formed his own Jazz Cat Oil Well Company and sold shares to the good citizens of San Diego. Large ads appeared in the San Diego Union proclaiming, "Is there oil in San Diego County? If so, we want it." Mayor Wilde sold shares to whom he called "Subscribers" at ten dollars each, which at the time was equal to a week's pay for the average worker. Apparently, there was a controversy as to where the search for oil was to take place. In his ads, Mayor Wilde stated, "We Are Not Going To Drill On The Jamul Ranch At All. Such Rumors Are Silly, For You Might As Well Look For Sea Gulls In The Cuyamacas."

California has been a part of the oil rush since it began, this is San Diego's small role in the dependency we all share today.

National City, 1924. Courtesy Mike Cunningham

The Mayor it seems was no stranger to controversy. Born July 16, 1865 in Iowa City, Iowa, Louis J. Wilde became an insurance salesman and made a small fortune investing in Texas oil. He moved to Los Angeles in 1902, but ended up in San Diego one year later. In San Diego, Wilde became a banker and started the American National and US National Banks. He financed the completion of the US Grant Hotel in 1910. On the hotel's opening night, October 15, 1910, Wilde presented to the people of San Diego a gift in the form of a $10,000 electric fountain across the street in Horton Plaza. The fountain, designed by noted architect Irving Gill, was the first successful combination of flowing water and lights. Wilde had it inscribed "Broadway Fountain For The People."

In 1912 he went on trial for embezzlement for underreporting $1,000 in funds. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted, and turned his sights to real estate, where as a land developer, he invested heavily in San Diego property. In 1917 Louis J. Wilde beat heavily favored San Diego businessman George Marston for Mayor by 3,551 votes. He also ran again in 1919 and won a second term as Mayor of San Diego. His flamboyancy and temper were legendary. His battles with fellow city officials and in particular the City Attorney made for great conversation around city hall and the newspapers. His outspokenness made him popular and well liked by the citizens of San Diego. It was during this tenure that Mayor Wilde came up with the scheme to sell subscriptions in an oil-drilling venture he called the Community Well. Investors were offered a share of the profits if a well came through. As it turned out, no oil was ever found. The subscribers who financed the venture became angry and accused Mayor Wilde of using his own land for drilling sites, and profiting from their losses. With declining popularity, Louis Wilde decided not to run for re-election in 1921 and passed away in 1924 at age 59. The search for oil and gas in San Diego County would continue until the late 1930's, but never found was that elusive petroleum that would have forever changed our local landscape.

Using a tripod and timer, Felix Kallis takes his picture next to Community Well #5 in Tecolote Canyon in 1940, courtesy of Rurik Kallis

As a lad growing up in the Linda Vista section of San Diego in the 1950's and 60's, I spent a lot of my free time exploring Tecolote Canyon. Little did I know that the old pile of lumber, near where the golf course clubhouse now stands, was one of "His Honor's" last attempts at becoming San Diego's first oil baron. It was not until the mid-1960's when I read a column by Herbert Lockwood titled "The Skeleton's Closet," in the weekly newspaper, the Independent, that I would learn the significance of that pile of old wood. According to Mr. Lockwood, the well in Tecolote Canyon was called Community Well Number 5, after the first four turned out to be dusters. At 1,274 feet, Number 5 fared no better than the previous four, so it was abandoned, as were the hopes and dreams of the good citizens of San Diego. The wooden derrick stood for many years, but it too eventually ended up as nothing more than a pile of memories, as was San Diego's search for "Black Gold."

About the author Native San Diegan Mike Bryant has had articles published in various trade papers, and has been featured for his museum quality collection of San Diego bottles and memorabilia in both the San Diego Union-Tribune and Antique & Collectables Monthly Magazine.

2009 - Volume 40, Issue 1


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