Southern Pacific Oil Train circa 1908

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Oil and trains have been a long-time part of our community, but not many people may recall just how big of a deal it was at the turn of the 20th Century. Imagine people from all over California taking trains and buggy rides out to Kern County specifically to see our oil fields in action! Sounds too incredible to believe? Well, read on and start believing!

Photo courtesy of the Mmichael J. Semas Collection

Photo courtesy of the Mmichael J. Semas Collection

Detailed in Kenneth Takahashi’s and Donald Gautier’s A Brief History of Oil and Gas Exploration in the Southern San Joaquin Valley of California, our love affair with oil really started in the 1860s when John S. “Uncle John” Hambleton marveled at the “asphalt outcrop and oil seeps on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.” His friend, Judge Josiah Lovejoy, formed the Buena Vista Petroleum Company and started marketing the oil they were recovering from pits near what is now McKittrick. Back then, mule-drawn wagons were the way to transport the crude.

Fast forward to the 1890s and asphalt was in high demand, “as Americans began to realize the quiet, dustless benefits of paved and oiled roads.” Still with no rails running in the western side of the Valley, the drillers graduated to teams of 16 to 24 horses to haul boxes of the stuff. The drivers took great pride in their control of the horses, and “large crowds would gather to watch the spectacle and make bets as the teams made their U-turns on Chester Avenue.”

The railroads first factored in here mainly as a means to bring curious travelers. By the end of July 1899, “134 more wells had been started and the Kern River field was producing nearly 1,000 [barrels] per day.” This turned the nation on its axis. Soon, both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads started to promote round-trip excursions from cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to our area, and people would shell out $10.60 each to come and witness the wonder that was Kern County oil production.

It wasn’t all just for fun, though! According to the Bakersfield Morning Echo, “By late 1901, 80 to 140 cars of oil a day were being shipped from the field by the Southern Pacific…Bakersfield was reported to be the second greatest freight-originating city in California in 1904, surpassed only by Los Angeles.” By 1913, both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads were hauling anywhere from 250-400 cars of oil every single day, and during this period, Southern Pacific’s facilities expanded greatly.

These days, folks may climb aboard the Amtrak rail to Bakersfield to catch a Condors game or go kayaking, but the days of buggy rides to the fields have long since passed. And while we still have a booming oil industry in Kern, the rails aren’t used in the same way. However, those in the know like to visit the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft and our own Kern County Museum to take in the history that is still bubbling right below our feet.


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