| July/August 1976

  • Caterpillar High 10 PT4150 model
    Courtesy of Floyd Perleberg, Rt. 3, Box 154, Willmar, Minnesota 56201.
    Floyd Perleberg
  • 1916-17 Fairbanks Morse Oil Engine

  • Vintage engines

    Frank Stephens

  • Caterpillar High 10 PT4150 model
  • 1916-17 Fairbanks Morse Oil Engine
  • Vintage engines


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.


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