The early history of oil in Los Angeles would not be complete without the story of Emma A. Summers. The story begins when Edward Doheny and Charlie Canfield came to Los Angeles in the 1880s to get rich. Their well hit pay dirt in 1892 and started the oil boom with the discovery of the Los Angeles oil field; although this was not the original discovery of oil in southern California, it was the well that got things started. Doheny’s genius was in finding a market for the oil, and he went on to become one of the most powerful and richest people in America. The movie, There Will be Blood, is roughly based on his life.
But in his own backyard he was beaten soundly by a piano teacher. This is her story.
Black Gold Fever
From the 1890s to the early 1930s Los Angeles was an oil boom town. New giant discoveries were made on a regular basis, from Brea-Olinda in 1880 and Los Angeles City in 1892, to Santa Fe Springs in 1919 and Wilmington in 1932. In fact, over 50 oil fields of the 68 discovered to date were found in that period. The oil men were rough and often played a treacherous game and no single company had a dominant share of the action. Businesses were started by drillers who flooded the local stock exchange with shares of start-up oil companies. The Los Angeles Stock Exchange had to open a special facility just to trade oil stocks – and the most successful entrepreneur was Emma Summers.
Born in 1858, Emma A. McCutchen was the daughter of a merchant banker and longtime mayor of Hickman, Kentucky. She was schooled at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. After her 1879 graduation Emma married a carpenter, Alpha C. Summers, and headed west through Texas and eventually to Los Angeles, settling in 1883 on Old Fort Hill, before the old fort and gallows had vanished. She set up her piano teaching business at 517 California Street, a beautiful site with a ‘majestic panorama of winter sunsets’, – currently the site of the Hollywood Freeway, just north of Our Lady of the Angeles Cathedral. In 1890 Fort Moore and the gallows were replaced by Los Angeles High School, a brand new four-storey brick building. Emma prospered here and built a nice savings account.
In 1892 Doheny and Canfield drilled the discovery well for the Los Angeles oil field in the nearby Crown Hill area. This was a neighbourhood of neatly trimmed gardens and gingerbread houses, and the development of this field would change everything. The area was already subdivided into town lots which created a nightmare for development. The oil field would eventually encompass hundreds of small properties. Each owner had to drill or his neighbour would drain his oil under the ‘Law of Capture’, which means an individual can draw oil from under his neighbour’s land as long as the oil flows from one property to the other. Oil development became so horribly managed that the first environmental laws and regulations were established to prevent it from happening again.
Emma didn’t take long to get black gold fever. In 1883 she invested $700 of her savings to purchase a half interest in a well located a block or so from her house. Drilling ran into problems so she borrowed $1,800 more and sat by the well each night for weeks. Eventually it came in and she borrowed more to buy stakes in several more wells on Crown Hill. The production rate of her first wall has been lost, but it produced profitably for ten years. She later recalled, “When I found myself $10,000 in debt, I thought if I ever got that paid and as much more in the bank, I would be glad to quit.” She got the $10,000 in the bank and didn’t quit and soon became a constant presence in the ever-growing forest of oil rigs.
A Class Act
By 1897 Crown Hill (bounded by Temple, Figueroa and 1st Streets and Union Avenue) was overrun by oil men and promoters. There were over 500 oil derricks pumping away in the residential neighbourhood. Speculators, conmen and hopefuls turned the area into a bleak scene where some got rich and others lost everything. Tent cities sprang up and of course the prostitutes, bootleggers, gamblers and saloon keepers followed. They were busy 24 hours a day.
Summers could see that many of the operators were inefficient, corrupt or just incapable of participating in the oil business. She jumped right in. She went out to the wells and learned how the equipment worked and how to sell the oil. She also found ways to consolidate activities from several small operators. She directed activities and ordered equipment by day and did the bookkeeping and gave piano lessons in the evening. She also had 40 horses, 10 wagons, a blacksmith shop, and she expanded into processing with boilers. The oil in the field was thick, viscous and sediment laden (known as brea), so boilers were used to heat the oil, making the sediment fall out and the oil much more valuable. Emma was an independent self-sufficient woman, and it was said that she never let any raw edges show. She was a class act.
Emma’s business absorbed many failed competitors and forced others out of business. She set out to corner the market by mastering the rules of supply and demand. Her major clients were downtown hotels, factories, several railroad and trolley lines and the Pacific Light and Power Company. She produced the oil, refined it and delivered it to the customers. “It has been like this with me always,” she recalled. “I saw a chance in the oil business and sunk a well, and that carried me on and on until I couldn’t stop.”
By 1900 she controlled half the production in Doheny and Canfield’s oil field with 14 wells producing 50,000 barrels per month! She treated her customers and workers fairly and made a fortune. They treated her like royalty and soon she became known as the Oil Queen of California.
Production peaked in 1901 when 1,150 wells pumped 1.8 MMbo. By then, with over 200 operators in the field, there were too many wells draining a limited reservoir. Oil prices went up to $1.80 and then dropped to 15 cents a barrel in 1903 because production vastly surpassed the demand. For a short period of time it dropped to 10 cents a barrel. The cheap oil was used to seal the unpaved roads of Los Angleles for dust control, but the gummy black brea stuck to the carriage wheels and to shoes. Soon asphalt was invented and oil was used instead for household and water heating and it was found to make a great fuel for locomotives. Oil prices were volatile and seesawed unpredictably, but as demand grew Emma made her move to corner the market.
Emma set up a suite of offices in the new I. W. Hellman Building at 4th and Spring Streets where she distributed oil products. She did this without taking on any other investors. Summers had an eye for detail, was well organised, highly intelligent and most of all, patient, as she bought out the busted operators for pennies on the dollar.
The cheap oil had leaked from redwood storage tanks and downtown Los Angeles had become an environmental mess. Soon Los Angeles clamped down on the oil operators with new regulations, bringing a cleaner city and rising oil prices. World War I and the rise of the automobile added to her wealth, and Emma expanded her empire to include theatres, apartment buildings, a mansion on Wilshire Blvd., several ranches in the San Fernando Valley, Summers Paint Company and a highly valued art collection.
Oil Boom Peaks
Decline finally came to Crown Hill and the workers and their families moved to new oil strikes in Santa Fe Springs, Long Beach, Torrance and Inglewood. Summers’ wells continued but their output was small in comparison to the new discoveries and after 1915 only two wells were drilled in the field.
For Emma the oil boom had peaked and troubles followed. “There are men in Los Angeles who do not like Emma A. Summers,” read the July 1911 issue of Sunset magazine. Soon after her move to the new mansion on Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies seized about $60,000 worth of oil and watercolor paintings to satisfy a $1,000 court judgment against her in a dispute over the sales of sugar stock. Emma soon left her new mansion, which was located where the Bullocks Wilshire would be built in 1929.
Emma moved into a large home she owned on California Street which sat atop the Broadway tunnel. She turned the place into an elegant and profitable hotel, appropriately called the Queen. She then moved out of the Queen and set up a very comfortable residence at the Biltmore Hotel and then at the Alexandria Hotel for most of the rest of her life. She moved into a Glendale nursing home in 1940 and died there in 1941 at the age of 83.
Several questions come to mind. What happened to her husband? He died sometime before 1939. Did she have children? What of her family – did she involve other family members in her businesses? Her brother ran the paint business and her niece got married in Emma’s Wilshire mansion, but there appears no mention of children.
More than 70 years after her death, Emma Summers remains an inspiration to anyone who wants to succeed in business.
This article was summarized from the following references and several internet sources.
Rasmussen, Cecilia, 1999, “The Gush of Oil Was Music to ‘Queen’s’ Ears”, L.A. Then and Now, Los Angeles Times
Rintoul, William, 1981, Drilling Ahead, Tapping California’s Richest Oil Fields, Western Tanager Press, Santa Cruz, California, 291p.
Rintoul, William, 19XX, Drilling Through Time
Rintoul, William, 1978, Spudding In, Recollections of Pioneer Days in the California Oil Fields, Valley Publishers, Fresno, California, 240p.
Rintoul, William, 1991, The Los Angeles Basin: Oil in an Urban Setting, in K.T. Biddle, ed., Active Margin Basins: AAPG Memoir 52, p. 25-34.
Wikipedia, The “Oil Queen of California”; peak years