The Pico Ghost Camp - Part 1

Note: Arthur Buckingham Perkins (1891-1977) arrived in Newhall with his wife Marguerite in 1918. He became interested in the history of the area and wrote many articles in the Newhall Signal about that history. He also wrote at least three scholarly articles for the Quarterly of the Southern California Historical Society. He is considered the first historian of Santa Clarita.

The two Pico Camp articles from 1962 have not been edited by me (except to fix a couple of minor errors). I have also not made any comments. This is pure Arthur Perkins. The photos at the bottom of each article are scans of copies I made of the actual aged newspaper articles so the quality is not very good.

The Pico Ghost Camp – Part 1

By Arthur B. Perkins

From The Newhall Signal, Thursday January 18, 1962

Ever driven out to the end of the old Pico Road? Sure, you're right - there's nothing out there. Macaulay once wrote "A people that take no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.,” meaning, maybe, that in this governed, planned (?), stable existence the past frequently gets lost to sight – including the he-men that opened up this Valley a century back, equipped chiefly with the intestinal fortitude (isn’t that polite enough?) that made today possible.

Those men came before permits, subsidies. They stood on their own feet. In that day, if you flopped – that was your business.

You could have gone out the old Pico Road even then – but let’s start at a beginning and re-hash the Story of Pico – a Ghost Camp.

Away back in 1865, County Records tell of the formation of the “San Fernando Petroleum Mining District,” blanketing public lands, bounded by the Land Grants of Rancho San Francisco, Simi and Mission San Fernando. As of today, say westerly of Highway 99, including the canyon areas of Lyon, Wiley, Rice, Gavin, Tousley, Leaming, Dewitt, More and Pico. Each of those names memorialized a local pioneer.

It is true, that today’s maps substitute Wickham for Big More. Little More was once Dewitt. Try and find Lyon Canyon – although that family still owns and occupies it.

The Pico Road? My suffering saints! It antedated Newhall. It is also true that Pico camp was really named Mentryville, but that name didn’t stick, and, as there was never a post office there you can’t prove anything. And why should folks have to start with three blocks only called Tenth St. to Newhall Ave. The street name has become “Lyons” (and that particular pioneer never spelled his name with an “s” on the end of it) for a couple of miles to 99.

So you crossed 99. On your right is the ranch field Jake Swall used to lease, back in the 1890’s. It ran from Newhall Ave. westerly to the Pico foothills. Back in the early twenties, the ranch sold quite a chunk of it mighty cheap. Reputedly the deal helped to hold down taxes.

South of the Pico road, Kenny Powell had a homestead. Ken was a son of Mike, nephew of old Judge John. The Powell brothers were running cattle here way back in Indian days – same as Civil War times. The Powell’s had a homestead up in Dry Canyon, with orchards and everything, but when the City put in its reservoir, the rising water level drowned out the trees. Think of that – as of today.

At 1.65 miles from 99, you’re passing Little More canyon on your left. The Navy is supposed to have some kind of project there with No Welcome on the doormat for visitors. Just beyond, Larinan’s apiary marks old Big More (now called Wickham) canyon. One of these “More’s” was originally Dewitt.

At 2.4 from 99, Dead Cow canyon is on your right and at 2.55, still on right, is Spring Canyon, now called Dead Horse, and paved over to the potrero, once the Barnsdall Oil Company’s pride and joy. It opened most successfully in 1937. Now it is a part of the Sun Ray Oil Mid Continent oil layout.

Only a short distance further, a big square comfortable house looms up. There’s a slightly decrepit stable, just across the dirt road. There’s a fence. There’s a gate. If you haven’t arranged an invitation from the Standard Oil Company of California, maybe you’re through for the day.

From the gate, it’s 1.6 miles to “the Works,” once the center of petroleum activity in California. By the time you reached “the Works,” you had come completely through the old Camp, although you might not believe that without pictures. You saw no buildings. They aren’t there any more.

Look around closely from “the Works.” That’s quite a title for an open front sheet iron shed, slightly skewed, and a decayed cabin across the dirt that hasn’t fallen down yet, but it does have a little further to sag.

Know what that wreck is? Believe it or not, ‘twas the Field office of old Pico. The shed was an old storage shed. The Machine shop, wherein absolutely anything could be evolved, dreamed up, or otherwise fabricated – if it had to do with an old field, used to stand above the field office, both at the base of the CSO hill. Across the road, a bridge carries over the Pico creek (named maybe by an unconscious humorist) by the gasoline plant – only the plant isn’t there any more either.

Right by the field office, there’s a modern pump, and a plaque which marks #4 (either CSO or PCO), probably the first commercially successful oil well in California. It “went on the pump” in 1876. It still produces oil – in gallons instead of barrels.

It can be truthfully said that No. 4 sparked the drilling of 74 oil wells in the Pico. By 1911, 43 wells were producing. 33 had been abandoned. Two were drilling. Annual production was from 90 to 100 thousand barrels. There’s nothing like a little production in a mining camp to stimulate interest. The statement applies to either petroleum or gold.

No. 4 was drilled by Alec Mentry a graduate of the Pennsylvania oil fields, and led to Mentry’s superintendency of D. G. Scofield’s Pico interests. The job lasted the rest of Mentry’s life. So did No. 4.

The well was probably drilled on land leased, or borrowed from Beale and Baker. Edward Fitzgerald Beale always reminds one of a Dumas character, a d’Artagnan in a more modern setting. Romance hung about his career in California from his barefoot race with Kit Carson from Kearny’s beleaguered troops at San Pasqual, to San Diego, to his death as the owner of a quarter million acre ranch in the San Joaquin, still existing as La Liebre.

Beale pioneered, successfully, so many things – for example, Beale’s Cut. That’s a gash in the mountain crest between Newhall and San Fernando that made the Toll Road possible. Beale and Baker ran sheep on a baronial scale. They even pioneered in California oil.

D. G. Scofield also pioneered in California oil. Primarily, he was on oil man, trained by the vicissitudes and tribulations, of the great Pennsylvania oil boom that followed the success of Col. Drake’s first oils well at Titusville.

It was Scofield that inveigled Alec Mentry into coming west. With Mentry attending to the field interests, Scofield was free for promotion, first maybe in the California Star Oil Works Company, operating in Pico. Later, Scofield’s concept of Pico possibilities, let to the promotion of the Pacific Coast Oil Company, around 1879, which swept up the hungry little under-capitalized oil optimists of the Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Star oil companies, and glued them together into a going concern that kept on going till it became the Standard Oil Company of California and Scofield became its president.

The Pico Canyon is narrow up by the wells. Right where Petroleum canyon, with its oil springs, took off to the right as Pico canyon took off 90 degrees to the left was a rather small, but wider, space, and it was here that such buildings as the machine shop, field office, and storage sheds were strung out. The gasoline plant didn’t come till much later.

It was 7 ½ miles down to Newhall, a metropolis of maybe 50 people – but average saloon capacity for a much larger population, a couple of stores, a railroad station and a post office. It was altogether too far to walk, so, naturally, as the little 42 foot derricks hatched, there might be a shack courteously designed as a cabin or one, or two, or three, scattered about it in the Pico Camp.

Finally the shacks got to be a handicap, crowding operations. Then, too, about 1880 Alec Mentry got tired of trying to train Californian vaqueros into a life on the derrick floors, and an importation of Pennsylvania oil field workers marked the infancy of the Pacific Coast Oil Company.

This isn’t a story of oil – just the story of California’s first oil camp. In other words, of the life of the folks as they developed the industry and the early community. It may have been the migration of some 20 eastern drillers et al that inspired the Boarding House, and also a two story dormitory for bachelors across the canyon.

(Continued Next Week)

This is a honey of a view of the old "Works." They almost needed a traffic cop. At the left is the old storage shed. (It hasn't quite collapsed as of last week). The larger structure was the machine shop. Over the horses shows the blacksmith shop. The pictures's date could be in the 1890's. If you can mentally thread your way in safety through the involved traffic jam, on beyond the blacksmith shop you would have found the road up the PCO hill, to the left. The CSO hill is to your right. And, at a later date, near the feet of the PCO road, was the gasoline plant. The sheet iron structure, showing against the end of the machine shop, was probably one of the earlier blacksmith shops. Its foundation shoring is still visible in the creek.

Believe it or not, these two views were taken at brief intervals of 70 years. Darryl Manzer substitutes for the wagons which have apparently been moved. He's holding one end of a "lightening rod" or sucker rod, which has been left over.

Mention was made of the Boarding House. This is it. It stood up by the shale bank. There may have been two boarding houses, an earlier one of two stories, located across brom Barton's old cottage at the foot of the hill, as you go to "the Works."

A most interesting view of work in Petroleum Canyon, by the CSO hill taken, it is believed, by Carleton E. Watkins, who photographed here at Pico in June 1877. A firebox boiler powered the pictured wells, not quite showing at the pictures lower left. A pipeline to the boiler shows suspended over the heads of the group of workers. There is nothing left at this site. About 1906, there was a yell of a fire over Pico's brush covered hills. Some of the old redwood rigs were destroyed and never replaced. This view is presented through the courtesy of the Standard Oil Company of California. - It's a honey.

This may be the oldest view extant of Pico. You are looking down the canyon. The fenced home (lower right) was occupied by Superintendent Alec Mentry. The big tank was later moved to a hill top on the left - where it still is.

Fifty years later, the lower Pico view was shot - this time looking up the canyon. As of 1928, (starting lower right) Charles Sitzman lived in the big house, next cabin was unoccupied, next the school, then the dance hall, then the T. D. Ary, then Chester Johnson, and last - on that side - Milford Cheney. Starting on the lower left, the barn, then John McDermott's home, Josh Wooldridge, Pete Pinkston, and the second boarding house by the shale bank. Not shown, about a mile further up the canyon was Hugh Barton's, and the William Biscalluz cottage, the Cochems cabin, old boarding house. Apparently, employees could build cottages on Company ground. If transferred, or leaving company employ, the builders could sometimes sell their places to the Company - if it was wanted - or move them.

Completing a trilogy, is a 1961 view of Pico. Only one or two buildings - but that's all there are. Believe it or not, the big tank, of 1883, shows on mountain crest at right. Another tank and a tree, partially conceal it.

A very old view of the CSO hill, showing cabins tucked in around the derricks. It so happens that today you can located these sites only by the ledges in place. The shacks are gone. The derricks have largely succumbed to time and weathering. Nothing remains of the bridge. The creek bed, under it, went on a rampage and changed positions decades back. The derrick in the middle of the picture, probably was on the "Star" well. At century's turn, this was a most active section. The picture was possible taken in the last half of the 1880's. Mr. Goldberg thinks the lower derrick may have been Well #32. The location was then marked by the bridge by the bluff. The bridge went many years ago, and the bluff was cut away for today's road. Anyhow the scene was there - once.