B & W Photograph of Oil Well Fire at Night c.1928-29 AP220

“Oil Well Fire. Santa Fe Springs Calif. Burning oil extending 300 feet in the air at night.” signed by the photographer Warren M Sargent, giving his Long Beach address. A spectacular image by any measure and superb example of American news photography of the era.

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In 1907, the Union Oil Company of California began drilling near the intersection of Norwalk Blvd. and Telegraph Road, locally known as “Four Corners,” with the spudding in of the Meyer No. 1 well. That well, and a subsequent one, failed. In 1921 the Union-Bell well blew in as a 2,500-barrel gusher and set off an oil rush by major oil companies and fly-by-night producers. Within a year the Santa Fe Springs oil field was considered one of the richest pools in petroleum history. Santa Fe Springs became a promoters’ paradise. Prospective investors were bussed in to the field, served a free lunch in circus tents, and told stories about the fortunes made in oil. By 1923 the state legislature limited the amount of stock that could be sold in a well.

In the 1920’s the field produced as much as 345,000 barrels daily, exceeding production at Signal Hill and Huntington Beach. As the decade went on, production slowed, and by 1928 the Wilshire Oil Company was drilling in deep sand levels. Production levels dropped each year from then on, but by 1938 the field had yielded a total of more than 440,000,000 barrels of oil.

Fires were frequent: fom Sep 16, 1928 to June 29, 1929, the field suffered no less than 4 such events, impacting a total of 14 wells. The LA Times did not keep records of the photographers who covered them. This is not one of the images published.

Photographer Warren M Sargent first turns up in our research as having sold his studio in Decatur, Ind., with plans to move to Chicago, in The Bulletin of Photography, Wed February 2, 1921. We find him having taken the frontispiece portrait of Henry M Hoyt in his 1929 memoir “A Frontier Doctor”, listed as Warren M Sargent Studios, Long Beach, California.The 1930 census records from Los Angeles lead us to believe he was born in 1894.  A journeyman professional photographer, operating a portrait studio in Long Beach, and on hand to catch this moment.