Smoke Rings

Santa Fe Springs oil fields

Content Tools

Box 2446, Santa Fe Springs, California 90670

I remember when I was a young boy how I would lay in bed at night and listen to the distant chorus of huge hit-and-miss oil field engines chugging their soleful song to me. In the early forties, Santa Fe Springs, one of the Southern California boom-town oil fields of the 1920's, was wide open country dotted with green fields and groves of fragrant orange trees. My family had settled on the side of what was 'Little Lake' and set up ranching operations. My Grandfather had chosen his land well because when the oil boom came, wooden derricks sprouted on his land like weeds. I remember little but remains of the glorious days of steam in the Santa Fe Springs oil fields, but I remember well the huge, more efficient, one-lung gas engines that replaced steam when the flow of natural gas from the wells began to decrease. Since the gas engines were so much more efficient in their utilization of fuel, it wasn't long into the thirties before steam had made its last gasp.

In the hey-day of the gas engines there were many names to be seen; Black Bear, Union Tool, Superior, Bessemer, et al. Santa Fe Springs was beautiful wide open country in those days, so no attempt was made to silence those grand old engines. The place echoed with a chorus of exhaust reports, and the ground purred with the gentle rumble of hundreds of engines.

The engines I remember best, and the ones I loved the most, were the grand old Union Tool engines built by the large Union Tool Company of Torrance, California. These engines, called 'Ideal', and sold by the National Supply Company, are the ones I used to hear as I fell asleep. These majestic hit-and-miss engines were louder than the throttling engines and so reigned above them. I used to dream about these engines and pictured them in all kinds of fanciful settings. Many were barren of beautiful surroundings, but some set snugly in a little tin engine house nestled into an orange grove and were surrounded by lush and beautiful trees. Behind the engine house would sit a large concrete water tank which often would be sheltered by a handsome and friendly tree. Attached to the engine house was a long, slender tin belt hall. Along side the belt hall, there stood on a massive 'Sampson Post,' a thick 25 foot long wooden walking beam which creaked as it moved up and down. From this, there arose majestically into the bright blue sky a towering wooden derrick. To many, I suppose, this is rather unsightly, but to me, a young lad, this was all very handsome and proper. To add to my enchantment of the 'Ideal' engines, my Dad had some of these and I can remember spending long idle hours (while my Dad worked on the well) sitting in the engine house watching the engine slowly lumber along and listening to the long, wide belt peel off the engine pulley and disappear into the murky depths of the belt hall. Sometimes I would just sit and listen to the valves tap out their musical melodies or stand on a box and watch the water splash endlessly into the water tank. The water would play games with the moss floating on the surface, and often little bugs would dart to and fro, missing the little waves caused by the water splashing into the tank. I can still remember a few times, when the day's work was done, my Dad would wash his grimy oily pants in the warm water of the tank before taking them home to my Mom.

Today, I still live in Santa Fe Springs, but it is a city now and the excitement of the old oil fields of yesterday is no longer present. Several years ago the last of my old 'Ideal' friends went to sleep and there is nothing to hear now but the constant rear of cars and trucks. Naturally, I am for progress, but it saddens me a bit that we cannot carry some of the magic of yesteryear with us. In this regard I have been very lucky, as I have been able to secure and save a few of my old friends to keep me company as I walk down life's road. I suppose that there are engines that are better made and of better quality, but to me the old Union Tool engines are one of the best because they were part of my home, and I lov'em.

These were built by the Union Tool Company. These two pictures are catalog illustrations of this type of engine.

Courtesy of Terry Hathaway, Box 2446, Santa Fe Springs, California 90670