The Lakeview Gusher, Granddaddy of Oil Spills

The San Joaquin Valley has had many gushers, starting with the Shamrock gusher in 1896 and continuing with the spectacular Midway gusher in 1909. But none of these wells came close to rivaling the Lakeview No. 1 which flowed, uncapped and untamed, at 18,000 barrels a day for 18 months in 1910 and 1911.

Julius Fried, a grocer by trade, picked the site for the Lakeview well because he thought a clump of red grass indicated good oil land. When Fried and his partners naively spudded their well in the axis of a syncline on New Years day in 1909, hopes ran high. Yet drilling progressed slowly, and their company went broke when the well reached only 1,655 feet. Neighboring Union Oil offered to help by taking over the drilling operations, but only in their spare time when crews were available.

"Dry H*** Charlie" Woods, a driller with a string of "dusters" to his name, was assigned to the well. Charlie's luck changed on the morning of March 15, 1910, when the well came in with a roar from a depth of 2,225 feet and blew the crown block off the top of the derrick with an estimated initial flow of 125,000 barrels a day. On coming to work that morning, Charlie solemnly commented that Lakeview "must have cut an artery of the earth's great central storehouse of oil, whereas all previous wells had been merely pinpricks in the earth's thick hide."

A roaring column of sand and oil twenty feet in diameter and two-hundred feet high gushed into the air, and issued a stream of oil at its base, dubbed the "Trout Stream" which flowed down every adjacent ditch and gully. Rather than diminishing in force, the gusher grew stronger each day and eventually buried the engine house in a mountain of sand. Although the wooden derrick remained standing a few weeks longer, eventually it too, and all the drilling equipment as well, were completely swallowed up by a huge crater that formed around the drill well.

Torrents of oil poured from the wild well, and hundreds of men worked round the clock building sandbag dams to contain the crude in twenty large, open air sumps. The flow continued unabated, and thirty days after the well first blew in the flow was estimated at 90,000 barrels a day. The Lakeview No. 1 quickly became America's most famous gusher.

A four-inch pipeline leading to eight 55,000 barrel tanks, about 2-1/2 miles away, was installed in the amazingly short time of four hours. From the tanks, an eight-inch line carried the oil to Port Avila on the California coast.

Lakeview's roaring and spouting began to be measured, not in days, but months. It seemed little discouraged by the feeble efforts of humans to control it. Besides the labor of holding the oil, there was constant anxiety and fear. Adjacent landowners sued. Workmen cursed the sticky flood and labored in fear that spray from the well, carried on the wind for up to ten miles, could cause accidental fires. Preachers and their flocks prayed that oil might not cover the earth and bring about its flaming destruction. The entire oil industry wilted as this seemingly inexhaustible fountain brought crude prices down to 30 cents a barrel. Even Union Oil Company, with endless lawsuits, labor bills and low-priced crude on its hands, began to despair of having made the "richest" oil discovery in history.

Despite precautions, a nearby well known as "Tightwad Hill", blew out and caught fire midway through the life of the Lakeview gusher. Apparently, light from the fire of the Tightwad was so bright that tourists were able to view the distant Lakeview gusher even at night.

In desperation, a wooden box of massive timbers was pulled over the gusher with heavy cables, but oil still spurted out at 48,000 barrels a day. Eventually, this box too was destroyed by a huge crater that formed with a central cone of sand thirty feet high.

The gusher was finally brought under control on October, 1910 by building an embankment of sandbags, a hundred-feet in diameter, around the well and its crater. When this embankment reached a height of twenty feet, it created an oil pool over the crater that was deep enough to reduce the oil flow from an uprushing column to a gurgling spout.

When the bottom of the h*** caved in on September 10, 1911, the well died. Although Lakeview No. 1 produced 9.4 million barrels during the 544 days it flowed, less than half of this oil was saved-the rest evaporating off or seeping into the ground.

Even after the old h*** was cleaned and new casing installed, Lakeview No. 1 never again flowed more than 30 barrels a day and was finally abandoned. Because deeper wells drilled nearby missed the reservoir from which the old well produced, they were dry h***s. Two wells which did penetrate this reservoir found it drained. One, the Lakeview No. 2, did strike oil in May, 1914, but from a different sand at a depth of 2,622 feet. No. 2 flowed 1700 barrels a day and produced 38,376 barrels of oil and 15,000 barrels of emulsion before the 4-1/2 inch casing collapsed just above the oil sand.

Easily missed, the Lakeview reservoir was a narrow, oil-filled channel of sandstone, a few feet wide by a mile long, onlapping onto an angular unconformity. In fact, the Lakeview No. 1 actually missed this sandstone by several feet, yet fluid pressures within the reservoir were so great that the oil forced its way out through the enclosing shale and into the adjacent well bore to create the greatest gusher California has ever known.

The version of events accepted by the State of California puts the flow rate near 100,000 barrels a day at times. “It’s the granddaddy of all gushers,” said Pete Gianopulos, an amateur historian in the area. The ultimate volume spilled was calculated at 9 million barrels, or 378 million gallons. According to the highest government estimates, the Deepwater Horizon spill is not yet half that size.

Today, little evidence of the spill remains, and outside Kern County, it has been largely forgotten.

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