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How the oil boom played a pivotal role in the 90-year history of Signal Hill

Bexx Brown-Spinelli/flickr Creative Commons

File photo: The view from Signal Hill.

Tuesday marks the 90th anniversary of Signal Hill, the 2.2 square-mile city tucked into L.A. County near Long Beach.

The city has a long and storied history, which began with Spanish settlers and boomed during the "black gold" era of oil derricks.

For more, we're joined by Lori Woods, lead organizer of the anniversary events at Signal Hill and city council member.

Interview Highlights: 

For those who may not know, where is Signal Hill?

Signal Hill is right in the middle of Long Beach, right off the 405 Freeway and Cherry, so we've got a great view from our hill here. A 360-degree view from everything; all the way up to L.A., down to Huntington Beach and of course to the harbor and over to Palos Verdes.

Where does the name Signal Hill come from?

Prior to a lot of settlement in the area, it was an area that the locals would signal from the top of the hill to the surrounding neighbors as far as Catalina. 

When did the oil derricks show up at Signal Hill?

They were always exploring for oil in the early 1900s and there was several failed attempts but it wasn't until 1921 that an oil company came in and struck oil. It was known as Discovery, and that well is still operating—still pumping oil today. At any given time, the hill and the surrounding Long Beach oil fills were just covered with derricks. At one point, you probably couldn't walk more than 20 to 30 yards without running into another huge oil derrick. It was in the hundreds.

How dependent was Signal Hill on oil back then?

Well, that's why a city was founded. It was an unincorporated part of L.A. County in the Long Beach area, but it was not within Long Beach city limits. So when the oil started becoming very proliferated, Long Beach wanted to charge per oil barrel tax and the land owners at the time were not interested in being overtaken by Long Beach so they decided to incorporate themselves to prevent from paying the oil barrel tax to Long Beach. 

So the city of Long Beach actually wanted to take over Signal Hill? How close did that come to happening?

Yes, you can basically say that. I don't know all the details..but it was talked seriously enough and the community leaders at the time took a vote and the majority ruled that they would incorporate and become their own entity and they have been ever since. 

What about now when it comes to oil dependency in Signal Hill? How much of the city's revenue comes from oil?

Probably about seven percent. The city itself does not own any wells, but we have the mineral..and so about seven percent of our annual municipal finances come from our oil barrel tax that we impose on the local operators.

There's a celebration this evening to commemorate the day. What's on the agenda?

It's going to be pretty casual. There will be a basic introduction of any dignitaries that are there...our mayor Ed Wilson. And then we've got four or five of our residents who are in their nineties, they'll be sharing stories with us. We've got a lot of historic items on display that people can be able to read about, pick up, touch, feel. We're hoping to stimulate a lot of conversations, allowing people to discover the history of the city. 


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