Santa Barbara County Notables

Summerland Oil & Gas Production


The Piers at Summerland Housed the First Offshore Oil Wells in the Nation and Possibly the World
National Geographic February, 1920

Oil and gas exploration occurred in the Summerland area in the mid-to-late 1800s as prospectors sought to exploit these resources. Early wells did not produce oil and gas in satisfactory quantities. However, prospectors kept trying and in 1886 Henry L. Williams completed the area's first successful onshore well, leading to the discovery of the Summerland field. Approximately 40 productive wells under various owners followed as production from the Summerland field represented the first major production of oil and gas in Santa Barbara County. Over time, prospectors noted that the wells nearest the ocean were the best producers.

In 1894, Henry L. Williams drilled two wells on the beach. He drilled another in 1895 with encouraging results. These results led Williams and others to consider the possibility of pursuing offshore deposits. They constructed piers from the shore seaward and drilled wells from them. This drilling activity led to the discovery of the Summerland Oil Field (offshore area) in 1896. This is the first offshore field developed in the nation, and possibly the world, by means of drilling offshore wells from piers.

Twenty-two companies built fourteen piers before the end of the Century. By 1902, there were approximately 412 wells on these piers, though many were already haphazardly abandoned as they flowed for only a short time. By 1920, only a few of these wells were still active. Though the majority of production activities from the Summerland piers lasted for only approximately 25 years, the lessons learned and technology created there helped to advance the petroleum industry.


Summerland Oil Field


In 1890 a large deposit of natural gas was discovered. It was tapped and piped to many of the homes for lighting. The town's children often played baseball after dark, since they could easily light the street by tapping pipes into the ground and lighting them. The gas was followed in 1894 by discovery of oil. A man drilling a water well found oil in the excavation and soon may of the townspeople were drilling. Then piers were built into the ocean, derricks erected on them, and Summerland had the first offshore oil field in the Western Hemisphere.

Oil brought new people to town, anxious to make their fortunes or just to find jobs in the new industry. Hotels and rooming houses were built and saloons were popular gathering spots, to the dismay of the Spiritualist. Many of them left during this period although the temple continued to be active until the 1950's. Residents in Montecito hated the look and smell of their small neighbor to the east; wells and other related facilities were sabotaged including those of J. Paul Getty, who joined the drilling community for a short time.

The oil boom lasted only about ten years or so, and then supplies began to dwindle. Drilling did continue, though, until the 1920's. Eventually the ocean tides and storms destroyed many of the wells and the field was abandoned. The depression years were hard on Summerland. Jobs had dried up with the oil and the lack of a dependable water supply kept the town from expanding. After World War II some new homes and apartments did appear, but residents called the town a "small wonder" since housing was inexpensive but most had wonderful ocean views.


This page was last updated August 9, 2009.