Question submitted by Chris Agliotti
Summerland was founded as a Spiritualist community in the late 1880s. It then became home to the first U.S. offshore oil drilling operations in the mid 1890s. A few years before that, however, saw the development of a significant natural gas industry. The discovery of these gas deposits caused great excitement to the extent that some enthusiasts felt that the South Coast had the potential to become home to a megalopolis that would rival San Francisco or Los Angeles in size.
It all began on June 16, 1890, when a Summerland resident, unknown now, sank a small pipe into a barren patch of ground within the town limits. Nothing would grow in this 20-foot diameter area, and the ground had a burnt appearance and brick-like consistency. It was also giving off a faint, slightly unpleasant odor. The unknown driller reportedly hoped to strike a hot sulfur spring, the type of which was fairly common in the Santa Barbara area.
As he sank his two-inch pipe into the soil, there arose the strong smell of gas after he had drilled down only a matter of inches. He continued to drill, and within a few feet he hit a gas pocket. To announce his discovery, he lit the stream of gas flowing up through the pipe and allowed it to burn through the night.
During the next few days, operations at this newly-discovered well accelerated. With workers drilling by hand, the pipe was pushed down to a depth of 22 feet, when an even larger pocket of gas was struck. This tremendous volume of gas rushed up through the pipe with a roar. Once again, the column of gas was ignited, creating a flame some 12 feet high and 3 feet across at the top. An engineer estimated some 1,440,000 feet of gas flowed out of the pipe on a daily basis.
This discovery of the first significant natural gas deposit in the area caused great excitement. Editorials rhapsodized how a cheap supply of fuel would be a boon to local manufacturing industries. Others pointed out how the use of natural gas would save the area’s dwindling oak forests, which were rapidly being depleted as a fuel source.
In July, a syndicate was formed to further exploit the well. This syndicate hoped to supply all of Summerland’s energy needs, with further plans to pipe the excess to Santa Barbara. Drilling continued, and in mid August, almost 50 feet down, yet another reservoir of gas was struck. Tools and debris shot skyward with a roar as workmen ran for their lives. News of this incident brought people pouring into Summerland in the following days to view the great gusher. Crowds gathered on Stearns Wharf to view the light show in the evening when the well was ignited.
This new discovery set off a wild period of speculation in Summerland. Wells were sunk along the beach, in backyards, in the middle of the street, all in the effort to cash in on the perceived bonanza. Litigation clogged court dockets as drillers infringed on competitors’ claims. Newspapers in San Francisco and Los Angeles demanded that construction of pipelines to their fair cities begin immediately. There was talk of having Santa Barbara’s electric plant relocated to Summerland. On a more prosaic level, local boys took advantage of the situation by drilling their own small pipes into the ground and lighting the gas in order to play baseball after dark.
It was all very exciting and all too short-lived. By the end of 1892, two and a half years after that first discovery, the great Summerland gas boom was over, the gas fields largely played out. Residents returned to their quiet ways, little knowing that the even greater frenzy of the oil boom was right around the corner.