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Front Street, Coalinga, California, 1892.

Located in Fresno County, in the hot, dry, San Juaquin Valley, Coaling Station A was a railroad stop for supplying the local coal mining operations in the area. The name of the station eventually was shortened to Coalinga.

Coal was found in numerous, northwest southeast trending surface ridges that paralleled the nearby San Andreas fault system to the west. Heavy bitumen was first discovered in 1890 in coal shafts dug along the west flanks of these surface ridges near a community called "Oil City," but were not really commercial save for roofing material and axle lubricants.

Much of script for the movie, There Will Be Blood, was based on months and months of research in the West Kern Oil Museum, near Bakersfield, and of this area around Oil City. The famous opening scene in the movie, where there is no dialogue for 10 minutes, was based on the digging of earthen shafts in search for veins of minable coal. These shafts leached heavy oil into them all the time in the area.

Those scenes in the movie, by the way, were actually filmed in abandoned shafts located near Presidio, Texas, west of the entrance to Big Bend National Park.

Actual oil wells started to be drilled on the east side of these surface ridges, in Eocene, Temblor, Vaqueros sands, and in 1997, 16 degree API oil was found that could actually be produced. In 1898 the Home Petroleum, "Blue Goose" well north of Coalinga came in making 1000 BOPD of 16 API heavy oil at 1,400 feet. That well set the pace for numerous wells in the immediate area around Coalinga and eventually off to the east, the great Kettleman Hills Dome Field. An ensuing "boom" occurred in the area.

Then in 1906, some four miles east of Oil City, in what would become the famous, "Section Six" of the Coalinga Field, the Phelps, Silvertip No. 1 well blew out making an estimated 10,000-12,000 BOPD of 24 gravity crude oil. The well blew wild for 19 days into ravines and damned creeks before making a hill of sand 30 feet high around the well and bridging itself off. At the time this was believed to be the largest blowout in California, indeed the United States. Ironically, two weeks later the famous Lakeview blowout occurred down near Taft, California and took its place. Lakeview is thought to be the largest onshore blowout in US history; it was reported to make 85,000 BOPD.

In 1904, before the big Silvertip well came in, Front Street in Coalinga, next to the railroad station, looked like this, below...

Following the Silvertip blowout, in 1910, Coalinga looked like this, below...

Whiskey Row; Coalinga, California, 1910

The town grew from a population of 800 to over 6,000 in a matter of months, most of the new arrivals were oil field workers, con artists, whores, swindlers, promoters, broke gold and silver miners, drunks and gun fighters...not necessarily in that order. Front Street in Coalinga was renamed Whiskey Row. This was, truly, the wild, wild west.

The competition between joints on Whiskey Row led to numerous structure fires, all very problematic given this was a very arid part of the San Juaquin Valley, where it seldom rained. Joints were constantly burning down and new ones being built in their place. There wasn't enough water anywhere to save 'em. I am unclear whether all the horse and mule train wagons in the photo above are pulling water, or whiskey or oil. Probably all the above.

Coalinga, 1907, from the train depot looking west onto Front Street and Whiskey Row

By 1912 the temperance movement was beginning to take hold in Coalinga and good citizens of the community tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Whiskey Row. By the time prohibition rolled around in 1919 most of this street was gone and oilfield hands did their drinking on the down-low, with bootlegged whiskey from San Francisco. By 1930 and the beginning of the Great Depression a big fire burned Whiskey Row down to the ground and that was all she wrote.

Front Street, 1909


Coalinga, California, today. Approximately 93,000,000 barrels of oil have been produced from Coalinga and Kettleman Hills Domes; most of this is thru primary recovery and secondary water flood still in use. Very little oil in this area oil has been subjected to steam EOR, like Kern River or Midway/Sunset Fields to the south.

Coalinga gets rocked constantly whenever the San Andreas fault burps. I don't have a clue how they keep those wells together up there when those sort of earthy movements occur. They do.


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