It was in 1958 that I first laid my eyes on the glorious and old Sespe Forks area of the Sespe oilfield. Discovered by Union Oil Company's Kentuck No. 1 in 1890, this area is still one of Southern California's most spectacularly scenic oil areas with the wells clinging to the precipitously tortured mountains of the Santa Susana Range. Sespe Forks consists of a cluster of oil wells above the confluence of Sespe and Little Sespe Creeks; and stretches from Sespe Creek to the mountains of the Topa Topa area, and in turn offers an awe inspiring view of the Santa Clara Valley and the small citrus growing town of Fillmore. Few of the wells are still pumping today and the production for most is less than a barrel a day. Several causes contribute to the old still surviving there. First; the owners of the unchanged areas are of limited means and making the necessary clean-up and modernization would be financially an unbearable expense considering the declining oil production. Secondly; the wells and equipment are virtually inaccessible. Original equipment for drilling was hauled into place by teams of horses or mules. To haul machinery up an incline, the animals would be marched to the top of the incline, a dead man was set, a pulley fastened to it and the animals went down the slope as the machinery went up. In later years tramways were installed to haul supplies and equipment to the wells. Now the original motive power for the trams is gone, and electric motors are today's sentinels for these early forgotten railroads.
My arrival in this historic wonderland was by truck. We, myself and a fellow by the name of Red, were taking a hydraulic pumping unit up to one of the wells for installation. Since oil only flowed very slowly into the old clogged holes, the hydraulic units were of value since they could operate the deep hole pump very slowly, as opposed to the old original standard rig in use until our arrival. It was exciting for me to catch glimpses of the old rigs clutching the sides of the crumbling, nearly vertical mountains as we wound our way along the kinky road notched into the steep cliffs high above Sespe Creek.
I can still remember how, in several spots, the creek had caused the sheer canyon walls to crumble and nearly destroy the road, and I held my breath as Red carefully steered the truck across the dangerous portions. More than once I lifted myself from the seat to stare helplessly over the edge knowing full well that if the freshly severed edge crumbled we both would be dashed to death on the menacing rocks below. It was with some relief to know that we had reached our destination. But had we? About 200 feet before me the road stopped at a sheer bluff reaching hundreds of feet into the cloudless blue shy. To my right, and 50 feet below me was a rubble and boulder strewn canyon floor rising on the other side into one of the most tortured examples of vertical earth I have ever seen. To my left, a medium sized ridge jutted from the massive mountain wall before me. The wells I would see today were on this ridge.
We had stopped at the lower tram. The upper tram began where the road stopped - at the massive bluff. Surrounding the lower tram was a cluster of ram-shackled tin buildings rotting under the steady trickle of mountain springs. These buildings once served as repair shops and storage areas. Fifty feet down the canyon from the tram base was a winding trail which led up the ridge past a group of oil storage tanks and eventually led to the resident pampers house (now abandoned), the burned remains of another house and a small jack-plant.
Our first task was to manipulate the hydraulic pumping unit onto the rickety tram car, which we did, with the aid of an old hand crank winch whose cable threaded its way through pulleys bolted to a tottering pipe boom. Once this crane might have been suitable, but time had now had its turn and the skeletal remains were just a hint of help. After a short battle everything was loaded onto the tram car and Red started the clumsy converted to electrical, winching mechanism. As the cable slowly tightened large safety hooks lifted from the rail ties and the car slowly, very slowly, moved up the crooked rails. Riding the car was exciting, but tediously slow. Theirs stop was the second of many landings - maybe 100 feet up. The short trip lasted for nearly ten minutes, and naturally, Red having operated the winch, had to walk up. The second landing was little more than some old 3 by 12 wooden planking which carelessly jutted out from the rear of the engine house. From here we dragged the equipment over a splintering wooden floor along side the engine house and down into place at the wellhead, some 50 to 60 feet distant. After setting the equipment and making the initial connections, I was set free to explore while Red completed the job.
I was still inspecting well number 8 when Red finished hooking up the electrical and started the little hydraulic unit. Above me the cables hanging in the stately wooden derrick swayed as they danced in the cool breeze sweeping up from the rugged canyon floor. The rig floor breached the mountain on one side and the whole affair, derrick, belt hall and engine house were supported on the other by stilts. I remember walking on the 'scenic' side to admire the view. Below me was a small house built right out on the point of the ridge. Nearer, I recall the sights of a freshly burned building, but straight below lay an interesting looking green painted, tin building with a belt hall leading to a small geared eccentric - a jack-plant! Behind the building, nearly ready to topple into the canyon, was a tall metal water tank filled with tulies. Well now! I had been around the oilfields enough to know that this conspicuous tank usually meant a gas engine. I eagerly climbed down a ladder descending through the derrick floor, to the ground 15 feet below. My heart pounded with excitement as I located the engine house door, opened it and peered in. In the dark gloom I could see the magnificent outline of a beautiful little gas engine. I walked completely around it and I admiringly brushed my hand over its dull dusty metal. I had never seen one like it before and it intrigued me. Cast into the base was: Western Gas Engine Corp'n -Los Angeles. It was beautiful, and it was sad. Once proud, it now sat neglected and rusting. Its exhaust stack shot straight up collecting any rain that fell. I tugged at the flywheels, and they were stubborn and did not yield. I jumped on the spokes and still the little engine could not move - it was dead. Its time had run out, and no one cared for it.
For years I remembered that little engine and thought of it setting still. I often wondered if it still existed, but I had forgotten just where it lived.
I had been quite busy with business for a number of years and thought little of engines and the oilfields, when it came to pass that my business was sold and with some time on my hands, I felt the desire to go visit some of the memories I once knew. To my disappointment, I found that much had changed and the engines I knew as a lad and in my formative years, were now gone. I drove to all the old places I had known, but none of the things I loved were there. It is at this point in my life that several things happened to change my direction and in the process I decided that I should like to have with me in my remaining journey a sampling of material that made up my heritage. Part of this was to locate several engines, a representation of the mechanical friends I had known. Curiously, my search led me to Al Morey, a man I shall always appreciate, as it was through Al that I eventually came to rescue the dusty little Western on the top of the hill.
The alarm clock screamed relentlessly as I fumbled through the dark to relieve its anquished cries. It was 5 o'clock and only the dimmest of light filtered through the open window. The time had come! The time to rescue the dusty little Western on the top of the hill.
Last night I had tossed and turned until exhaustion had taken me into sleep. I had been thinking for several days of the fun and excitement we would have today. Little did I know what the day would bring.
Having spent the night in the home of Don and Lisa Barr, Lisa prepared a picnic lunch and after a hasty snack of a breakfast, Noel, a fellow that works for me, joined the party at precisely 6 o'clock. We finished loading Don's Dodge van and the four of us began our journey. Later that day we were to be joined by my brother-in-law, Don Weber, Don's one-ton truck and a helper. I later discovered that the helper was to be my other brother-in-law, Pat Park. In all, there were to be five men to snatch the little Western off the mountain, piecemeal.
The sacred site of the Western was a safe distance past a locked gate, so we drove expeditiously to meet Al, the man in charge, by the appointed time. The Fillmore Area is beautifully scenic and the rugged landscape is dotted with lush green orange groves, so our trip through the early sunrise hour was quite beautiful. Even though Fillmore and the surrounding region is known for being dry and very hot during the summer months, the deep canyons and the mountains behind are a refuge for lush foilage and beautiful oak trees. And, to our pleasure, the Sespe Forks area still heard the musical trickle of a few lingering mountain springs. An early morning chill still persisted in the air, and we were filled with energy and expectations as we marched up the twisting trail leading to the little engine.
We strode into the large engine house-workshop, with tools in hand, and in a moment of silence we all stared at the little 20HP marvel. There it set, silent, waiting. Eagerly we encircled the prey. To carry it out we must disassemble it and carry it out piece by piece. Off came the dirt-caked lubricator, the crank-oil guard and a host of small parts. The flywheel bolts were loosened and then a wedge driven to split the hubs. By using a chain around a couple of the spokes, a handy section of 6 by 6 timber, and an automotive jack between the timber and the end of the crankshaft, the wheels easily slid off into the soft dirt floor. It was at this very moment we began to suspect there was going to be trouble in paradise. It was also about this same time the sun had sufficiently warmed our mountain retreat to awaken hoards of small, almost invisible, stinging little insects. They swarmed about us in great shimmering grey clouds, and swatting at them was useless. They were virile and hungry, so they dove at us relentlessly like miniature dive bombers.
Cast iron isn't very helpful. No cooperation from it at all! As long as we kept the flywheels vertical three of us could manage to roll them, but it was a frantic fight for every inch. First, the soft dirt of the engine house. Next, the trail outside where every pebble was like a rock, and every rock might as well have been a boulder. We got the first wheel out of the shed, down the path and up against a post. A ten minute struggle to go but 25 feet. The second wheel was more resistant than the first. We did not get it as far as the other when it began to lean to one side. Our most heroic efforts failed to win over gravity, and there it lay in a pool of dust, at our feet; and there it would stay until our afternoon help arrived.
By now the time was roughly 11 o'clock, and we were worrying about being ready to load the engine right after lunch - when our 'auxiliary' help and the truck were to arrive. The cylinder was still buttoned up tight, and the piston was stuck. To remove the remainder it had to be dismantled completely. After exercising with a long thin chisel, we were finally able to remove the stuck valve cage from the cylinder side, but we were absolutely unable to budge the cylinder head. Earlier, before we removed the flywheels, I had tried to bump the piston forward in the hopes of knocking the cylinder head off. Before I started 'bumping,' the piston was stuck, but now it was securely wedged an inch further into the cylinder. In desperation I chained the connecting rod to the band-wheel shaft of the jack-plant - some 20 feet away. The band-wheel was wooden and the supporting bearings rested on rotting wooden sills. The whole ensemble was a large bulky intertwined pile of 12 by 12 timber, and we prayed it would stand still long enough to pluck the piston.
We had three chain binders and I used one of them to take up the slack in the loose chain. With the binder still in place, I used another binder around the first to still further tighten the chain. Nothing happened except the chain drooped less. After tightening it several times it appeared to me that the chain could not be much tighter unless something happened, so throwing caution to the wind, and using a 6 foot length of 2 inch pipe as a snipe, I tugged fearlessly until the binder snapped into the locked position. Still nothing seemed to be moving, although the wooden band-wheel seemed to be inclined at a slightly greater angle. Further tugging produced little result except to change the position of the band-wheel and its associated timber structure. Finally, in what was to have been a last desperate try, the piston popped loose with a terrifying thud as the jack-plant dropped several inches with a loud splintering crunch.
With the piston out the head knocked off easily by bumping it with a piece of timber. Next we unbolted the cylinder from the base. With some lumber through the cylinder we managed to lift the cylinder off, but we knew we would not be able to just carry it off the hill! The base posed a still worse threat as we could barely manage to pry it off the concrete foundation. By now the parts were strewn everywhere, and this is where my two brothers-in-law, Don and Pat, enter the crusade. They just looked about as if 'well what is taking you so long?'
Tempers were beginning to boil inside us. The hot noonday sun had enraged the swirling torrents of savage flies, and the air was sticky and hot. No breeze swept up from the canyon floor today, the air was dead still, except for the constant moaning of buzzing insects. We cursed loudly as we stumbled down the rock strewn path laden with our precious cargo of small cast iron parts. At the bottom we nestled our load against the hillside in a neat pile close to the truck. Only a few of the light pieces were down now and the summer heat was becoming intense.
Caterpillar High 10 PT4150 model. Owned by Rev. Arthur J. Johnson and Floyd Perleberg, both of Willmar, Minnesota. H.P.-14, weight 4,480 tons.
Pictured above is a 1916-17 Fairbanks Morse Oil Engine displayed at the 1974 Cookstown Steam Show in Ontario, Canada. Don McVittie is shown at left making adjustments to some of his display engines.
Shown to the left are 1915 to 1922 Vintage engines.
Dripping in our own sweat, we struggled to pull other parts from the building. I was struggling over the piston and connecting rod with someone else, I've forgotten who, and no sooner had I reached the beginning of the down hill path when I collapsed to my knees with stomach cramps. Only after a shady rest of several minutes could I regain standing, and they only for a short while. I had become virtually useless. Don and Pat, who were fresh on the job, were already beginning to show symptoms of weariness so we broke for lunch, but even lunch was a miserable experience. There was no haven from the clouds of gnats and flies or the broiling sun. Lisa spent most of her time sitting in the hot van, since it offered some refuge from the grey clouds of insects. The rest of us suffered, and swore that never again shall we ever do this!
Imagination and ingenuity were in order to finish, so after lunch we scoured the lease to discover any means of assistance in removing the remaining heavy parts. After a futile search at the base of the canyon, I followed the tramway up to the wooden derrick and rig (number 8) standing majestically on the hill just above the jack-plant. A nice spot to survey our plight! There I found an old homemade wagon with large cast-iron wheels and a bed quite satisfactory for carrying the engine. Naturally, the wagon was heavy and it was also high above where we needed it. So I tied a rope to it, catheaded the rope around a steel pipe, and pushed the wagon over the edge. Below a waiting team grappled with the husky bulk leading it over to the flywheel leaning against the post. It was easy loading this wheel as we simply let it fall onto the wagon. Unfortunately, the trail down was winding and super steep. We didn't want to lose control of the wagon, so we tied ropes to its rear and dallied them around trees, or anything else sturdy enough to keep the wagon from careening out of control into the rugged canyon below. Losing control was the least of our problems, it turned out. The wagon wheels sunk into the hard dry earth. While one person controlled the ropes, just in case, the rest of us performed like slaves just to budge the little cart. Even on the steepest part of the trail the wagon would not roll on its own. We fought to steer it over the rocky path, and we fought even harder to get it to move. Worse yet, once we were down we had to get the wagon back up. We used the rope as a sling and with five of us straining at the empty wagon it was all we could manage to get it up the slope.
We considered rolling the other flywheel down the hill, but if we lost it I could see it splashing into the middle of an oil tank farm and a gooey black wall of oil cascading down the canyon, or having it crash into the boulders below breaking the wheel into a thousand fragments. Because of the mean task of returning the wagon to the site again, we tried another method. Better, we hoped! Using a length of galvanized iron from the building, we improvised a 'stone boat' and loaded it with the other flywheel. To the front of the 'boat' we made a rope sling. To the rear was another rope to help guide and control the 'boat.' Four of us became the forward motive power; and the new 'stone boat' moved just as easily as the wagon. It wouldn't even roll over the small round rocks on the steepest part of the path. So once again, we took up our role as slaves. At least once at the bottom, the 'stone boat' didn't have to be taken back to the top. A good thing too, since the 'stone boat' idea had proved a major disaster. The 'boat' had destroyed itself on the smooth round rocks. Large chunks of metal were curled back as if attacked by a gigantic can opener and the thing was crumpled and misshapen.
The last major load was the engine base, and the wagon was reserved for this. In a near state of exhaustion, three of us titled up one end of the engine base while another backed the cart under it, and this was no easy job in the soft dirt of the engine house floor. Once loaded, two men stood at the rear and pried on the wagon with timber while the others pulled on the tongue. We nearly jerked our guts out getting that thing out of the house and over the door sill; and once outside life wasn't any easier either. The small 'pebbles' lining our way blocked every move of the heavily laden cart, and we jacked the wagon along inch by inch for what seemed an interminable time just to reach the twisted path down. By now the wagon was tiring as much as we were. Its frame, loosened from the incessant twisting and brutal bunting, spread sideways under the stress, and the rear wheels fell off. Rocks, scraps of lumber, tree limb parts, anything, was used to shore up the broken wagon so we could shove the wheels back in place. Using some timber as a battering ram, we fought to keep the wheels from sliding off their shaft, but every few feet we paused to elevate the cart again and push the wheels back into place. This time the end of the trail was greeted with shouts of joy as the wagon jolted to a stop in front of a make-shift loading ramp. Made from three planks of a nearby abandoned 3 by 12 rig flooring, the shaky ramp was the last step in loading our cargo on the truck.
Loading the truck was not fun. At best it was interesting. The narrow plank loading ramp swayed under foot, and fast juggling was needed to stay balanced. We shoved, pulled and heaved the heavy engine base up the steep incline first. The tormented timber cracked in pain. To keep it from folding up we used broken segments of scrap lumber to prop up its middle. The flywheels we tried rolling, but the five of us could not manage the steep grade. We dragged them up using rope slings, while one lucky person pried against the lower edge. The cylinder we stabbed with a length of 2 inch pipe, and two hustlers on either end trampled each other as they balanced themselves up the shaking ramp. I helped carry the greasy piston and connecting rod assembly. The grease lubricated my gloves and several times the heavy piston slipped from my grip. The other smaller parts were easy. We were tired, so the trips up the ramp left us dragging.
Sparingly, the sun had decided that the day had been long and hot enough, and that we had suffered enough, so it dipped behind a distant ridge. The canyon was filling with deep dark shadows; and the longer the shadows became the more Don's truck seemed to sink under the gathering load. The tires appeared to spread a little more widely and I remember Don worrying that his poor truck might fall under the tremendous burden. Finally, when we thought everything was loaded, and only a faint glimmer of light invaded the valley, I remembered I had forgotten the engine's exhaust fitting. Still screwed to the exhaust stack, removal would require two pipe wrenches, and there were only two available of large enough size. 48 inch Rigids! Now, I have seen several of these and usually they are in very good condition. Many times with the original paint bright and new looking. The reason is simply that they are heavy enough that no one likes to work with them. So, with this in mind, Pat and myself hauled two of these back up the hill. I remember pondering part way up whether or not to go through this, but rather than come back another time we marched forward dragging the wrenches and resting every few feet. The engine house was virtually pitch black now, but fortunately the rusty exhaust pipe broke free without much effort. The only thing that had gone right all day! Still I wondered, as we dragged the wrenches and the single pipe fitting down the hill, if it was all worth it.
I remember we rejoiced in the pure ecstasy of being finished and snuggled in our vehicles. The purring of their engines was a refreshing new sound as we lurched forward out of the deep abyss that sheltered us. Overhead, diamond like pin-points of light pierced the black canopy of sky, while below headlights searched the darkness to find the narrow road ahead. We were set free and we reveled at the passing silhouettes. Then we came to the gate. It was locked, Al was gone, and we were alone.