July 25, 2017

There's (Black) Gold Up In Them Thar Hills

I was on my way to see the wildflower "superbloom" at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

I could see the large swaths of yellow, purple, blue, and orange on the Temblor mountain range in the distance on that day earlier this year—but on my way north through the town of Taft, it was hard to ignore the oil.

This part of southwest Kern County was once a "forest" of oil derricks, with over 7000 of them scattered throughout the area in the 1920s. Back then, they were wooden.

Those original derricks are gone, now, but a 106-foot replica of the Jameson #17 (circa 1917) stands at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft...

...right above its original well.

On the reproduction rig (circa 2005), all of the functional equipment is actually original—from the calf-wheel (which is essentially a spool for the drilling rope) to the Pitman rod and the walking beam.

In fact, the entire oil museum is essentially a recreation of an old oil camp—a kind of company town for oil drillers, their families, and support staff. It's not far from what you might've found run by oil companies like Berry Petroleum (founded in 1909 by a successful gold miner named C.J. Berry).

Back then, the roads were too poor and the automobiles were too few for the oil drillers to live very far from the fields where they worked.

But what you see there is not altogether the past-tense culture of this part of Kern County...

...since the Midway-Sunset Oil Field (upon which the museum sits) is the largest in California and the top-producing oil field in the Lower 48.

It's been 100 years, but these oil fields are still producing, and there are plenty of pumpjacks (a.k.a. "nodding donkeys") still pumping away.

In fact, Berry Petroleum hit the million-barrel mark just two decades ago, in 1996.

By 2006, the Midway-Sunset Oil Field had produced nearly 3 billion barrels.

And it's estimated that its got more than 500 million barrels of oil left in its reserves to be pumped in the future. (Much of that is currently controlled by Chevron.)

But the "oil camp" at the West Kern Oil Museum, on three acres of land where the Jameson Oil Company considered their well "tapped out" in 1974...

...has been strategically curated to appear abandoned...

...with its rusted relics and its desolate landscape.

Even its exhibits of more modern oil drilling equipment seem to be frozen in time.

Yes, the once-famous gushers have been capped.

And the bones from the McKittrick tar pits have been excavated and carted off somewhere else.

And what remains are former tent houses that date back as early as 1911...

...bunkhouses for the single male oil workers... shops...


...and even a bus stop for schoolchildren.

But here, in this part of Kern County, you might find some "black gold"—that is, California crude— oozing out of the ground all on its own somewhere, no pump needed.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Chevron's El Segundo Refinery
Photo Essay: Ventura Oil Refinery, Abandoned - Part 1
Photo Essay: Ventura Oil Refinery, Abandoned - Part 2
Photo Essay: The Rusty Ruin of Antique Machinery

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