Midnight Battle at Midway

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By Sarah Woodman
Until the fall of 1908, when the lands thought to be valuable for petroleum were withdrawn from agricultural entry, it was possible for two people to claim rights to the same section of land—one under mining law and one under agricultural law. Understandably, this led to numerous conflicts. One such conflict arose in April 1901.

After the battle, Chanslor maintained a large presence in the oil industry in Kern, owning several organizations including the Chanslor-Canfield-Midway Oil Company, pictured here in 1909.

After the battle, Chanslor maintained a large presence in the oil industry in Kern, owning several organizations including the Chanslor-Canfield-Midway Oil Company, pictured here in 1909.

Oil was a new business venture at the turn of the century, and the laws governing the oil lands were confusing and inadequate. To obtain public land in California—whether to own or just to use—one had to either apply under the laws providing for mining use or the laws providing for the disposal of agricultural lands. Until the fall of 1908, when the lands thought to be valuable for petroleum were withdrawn from agricultural entry, it was possible for two people to claim rights to the same section of land—one under mining law and one under agricultural law. Understandably, this led to numerous conflicts.
The Mount Diablo Mining & Development Company obtained land from locators for $15 an acre on section 26 in the Midway field, which is located near the present-day town of Taft. They then filed an agricultural claim and completed about $1,200 worth of assessment work. The Mount Diablo Company was owned by Joseph Anderson Chanslor, one of the most prominent oil speculators and real estate brokers of the time.
On April 14, 1901, the newly-formed
Superior Sunset Oil Company moved onto the northwest corner of section 26 with the intent of filing a mining claim once oil was discovered. They built a bunkhouse and cookhouse as well as started building a derrick. Associated with the company were: president Jesse W. Crosland, owner of Bakersfield Hardware Company; director Will S. Kimball, a Bakersfield drug clerk; director George Haberfelde, a sewing machine agent; stockholder Charles L. Claflin, a Kern County lawyer and former Superior Court Judge of Modoc County; and investor J. T. Walker, a former sheriff and county supervisor in Nevada. Employed by the company were: George P. Cornell Jr., a 25-year-old laborer; Tom Briggs, a carpenter; F. M. Barling; and a Chinese cook.
The Mount Diablo and Superior Sunset people could have tried to work out the dispute over section 26 in court, but legal action probably would have taken months if not years. Wanting the matter resolved as soon as possible, the Mount Diablo people decided to take matters into their own hands. On April 19, 1901, approximately 20 officers, directors, and stockholders of the Mount Diablo Company formed a vigilante group and set out towards the contested land. The men involved were: Joseph A. Chanslor; Dr. Augustus F. Schafer, a Bakersfield physician; Ellsworth J. Boust, a former deputy US Marshal; J. W. Jameson, an attorney and oilfield investor; Dunlop, first president of the Mount Diablo Oil Company before selling to Chanslor; and a number of other local men.

Joseph Anderson Chanslor

Joseph Anderson Chanslor

Armed with repeating rifles, shotguns, and pistols, the vigilantes snuck up on the sleeping Superior Sunset camp at about 12:30 a.m. That night’s new moon rendered the desolate area nearly pitch black, and those who witnessed the party’s travel through the area noted that the men wore their hats low and their collars up. The vigilantes approached in a semi-circular line and stopped upon reaching a small rise overlooking the camp – about 60 yards from the bunkhouse and 150 yards from the derrick.
Cornell was the first of the Superior Sunset company the vigilantes encountered. Hearing the approach of the party, Cornell hollered for them to stop. One of the vigilantes informed him that they were there to take back the land and instructed Cornell to surrender and put his hands up. When Cornell defiantly refused and told them to put their own hands up, one of the vigilantes said, “Kill him, boys,” and the vigilantes opened fire. Cornell attempted to take cover behind the water tank as the vigilantes fired two volleys. Woken by the first volley and perhaps acting on the instinct of a former sheriff, Walker rushed toward the bunkhouse from the derrick where he had been sleeping. The other Superior Sunset men either hid near where they had been sleeping or took cover in the darkness of the desert.
When the vigilantes eventually stopped shooting, they yelled a warning to the hiding Superior Sunset men that they would be back if the land was not vacated. Fifty-three shots were fired during the ambush but only two men were hit: Cornell and Walker. Cornell was shot twice—one of the shots shattered the bones in his left leg and the other entered his chest and emerged near his spine. Walker was shot in the right side above the waistband with the ball passing through the body and tearing out part of the spine. None of the vigilantes sustained any wounds, and it is unclear if any of the Superior Sunset men even fired a shot.
At some point during the melee, Crosland had taken cover somewhere in the desert, and at about 2:00 a.m., he came in out of the darkness and started for McKittrick to get a physician for the two injured men. Both were expected to die, but, miraculously, both survived although with serious disabilities.
A few days after the battle, the Mount Diablo and the Superior Sunset companies reached an agreement that resulted in the Superior Sunset company selling out to Mount Diablo and going out of business. Criminal charges were filed against the vigilantes, but none of the vigilantes were found guilty. Not finding justice in criminal court, both Cornell and Walker attempted to sue the Mount Diablo Company for damages received. Walker sought $75,000 in damages. Kern County Superior Court awarded Walker $8,500, but unfortunately, Walker never saw any of the money. The defendants appealed the verdict, and the California Supreme Court overturned the decision. Cornell also brought civil charges against the Mount Diablo men, but presumably he was even unluckier than Walker for no mention was made in the newspapers about the result of the action.

A photo of a Chanslor-associated oil camp in Fellows, CA, taken around 1915 highlights just how much progress had been made since that fateful battle at Midway fifteen years prior.

A photo of a Chanslor-associated oil camp in Fellows, CA, taken around 1915 highlights just how much progress had been made since that fateful battle at Midway fifteen years prior.

Not finding recourse in either the criminal or civil courts, Cornell decided to seek revenge against two of his attackers. On the morning of April 16, 1904, as Schafer and Boust walked down 19th Street in front of the Arlington Hotel, Cornell, with the assistance of his brother Lloyd, shot at Schafer and Boust. Both shots went wild and George Cornell was arrested. Cornell was tried for assault with a deadly weapon but was acquitted.
Most of the men associated with the Midnight Battle at Midway went on to lead extremely successful lives. After the Mount Diablo Company sold their property in the Midway field for $1,500,000 in 1910, the stockholders became extremely wealthy. Unfortunately, the two gunshot victims weren’t as lucky. J. T. Walker slipped from public record after losing his civil case. Never recovering from the ordeal, George Cornell, Jr. committed suicide in 1911 by shooting himself through the heart.
Much of Kern County’s oil history has been romanticized and celebrated, but no less important are the stories of greed, intimidation, and attempted murder. The Midnight Battle at Midway shows that oilmen could be ruthless in their quest for black gold.

Photos Courtesy Kern County Library

Article appeared in our 30-4 Issue – October 2013

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