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Date: 1900 to 1935
Location: Santa Maria Valley, Californiamap
Surname/tag: one_place_studies
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The history of the ghost town.

Ramon F. Careaga, a handsome and splendidly preserved gentleman, who could look back to many stirring events in which he had participated, or of which his father, in the good old days when the Spanish Dons gathered their children about them, had told him as a part of the cherished family tradition. There were personal anecdotes about Governor Portola, and the expeditionto Monterey; there were recollections of Pio Pico, Echeandia, Micheltorena, Castro, Flores, Juan Bandini, Abel Stearns and finally of Fremont and Stockton, with all of whom and their contemporaries the Careagas had had much to do, first in fighting for Spain and then for Mexico, and ultimately in helping to build up young America on the Coast.

Bicknell was nestled in the hills behind the Careaga Residence[1]

With a brother, Juan B. Careaga, also born in Monterey county, and Capt. Daniel Harris, Ramon bought about eighteen thousand acres of the old ranch belonging to the De la Guerras (early Spaniards who, with their wide territory, figured prominently in the state history); and later, in the division, Harris took some seven thousand five hundred acres, while the Careaga brothers held more than ten thousand. In the final subdivision, Ramon received six thousand nine hundred seventy acres, and this property has become the center of the Santa Maria oil fields, a good part of which is leased out to the Western Union Oil Co. More than that, it was on Ramon Careaga’s historic land that oil was first' discovered in the Santa Maria valley; and the details of that story alone form a chapter in the development of California industries, of throbbing interest[2]

John Conway may be called the pioneer. He had faith enough to secure the opinion of some experts and began securing oil leases on lands supposed to be in the oil belt. These leases had time limits and he only secured the co-operation of one company, the Casmalia Oil Co. This company operated near Casmalia and succeeded in finding a grade of oil too heavy to be valuable. Conway had the lease of the Careaga ranch, but failing to interest capital. gave up the lease. A. H. McKay then secured the lease and succeeded in forming the Western Union Oil Co., of which he was manager. The company began drilling a well on the south part of the lease, with William P. Logan as drilling superintendent. Oil was struck in this well in August, 1901, at a depth of nearly two thousand feet. A slight earthquake a few days after this well came in, broke and disarranged the pipe and the well for a time was useless.[3]

The first development work in northern Santa Barbara county was done by the Western Union Oil Co., the pioneer oil company of that field. The company was organized by A. H. McKay, now a prominent capitalist of Santa Barbara and a heavy holder of oil stocks in many of the companies operating in Santa Maria. Previous to Mr. McKay becoming interested in the Santa Maria field he had been operating in San Luis Obispo county, where he met with very little success. His attention was first called to the Santa Maria field by parties whom he met in San Luis Obispo, who claimed that excellent indications of oil were to be found on the Careaga rancho. Upon visiting the property Mr. McKay became convinced that the territory was excellent oil land, but wishing expert opinion in the matter he engaged William Mulholland of Los Angeles, one of the leading geologists and oil experts of the West, to make a study of the field. Mr. Mulholland was much pleased with the prospects and made a lengthy report upon the field that was so flattering that the Western Union Oil Co. was organized, being backed by unlimited capital, some of the original stock- holders being among the foremost capitalists of the State. To use Mr. McKay's own words the early history of the Western Union property was most interesting. He says :

"In August, 1898, I became interested with two Los Angeles drillers, who had a drilling rig but no money. They had looked over the field in San Luis Obispo county and came to me with the request that I join them in an enterprise to put down a hole on the Hasbrouck rancho, under an arrangement, the terms of which I was to se- cure the necessary capital to move the rig from Whittier and meet the current expense of drilling the well. The deal was satisfactorily arranged and drilling had been progressing for some time, when, one day, I met Juan B. Careaga upon the street in San Luis Obispo. Mr. Careaga informed me that he had a large piece of property on hand near Los Alamos upon which there were very fine indications of oil. He gave me an option for thirty days in which to examine the property, with the understanding that if I were satisfied, he would execute a lease for his entire holdings for a period of twenty years. I looked over the property within a few days after the option was given and being satisfied as to the value of the land for oil purposes, I left for Los Angeles to lay the matter before Judge John D. Bicknell, to whom I stated that I thought there was a very good oil field in the chain of hills which divides the Santa Maria and Los Alamos valleys. I requested him to get the best oil expert possible to go with me and make a thorough examination of the field. William Mulholland, superintendent of the Los Angeles City water works, was selected for this purpose. His examination at once convinced him that the territory was a good one and his written report to Judge Bicknell, upon his return fully verified the statements that I had previously made. The Western Union Oil Company was then formed to develop this large tract of land, the original stockholders and promoters being John D. Bicknell, W. H. Perry, J. S. Slauson, H. W. Hellman, H. J. Woolacott, H. Jevne, John D. Hooker and myself. When these gentlemen had organized themselves into the Western Union Oil Company, I assigned to them the option which Mr. Careaga had given to me for a lease upon his property. About thirty days after the organization of the company, Thomas Hughes, an oil man of recognized standing in Los Angeles, was taken into the company because of his experience in the business, thereby increasing the number of members of the corporation to nine.[4]

Pacific Oil Reporter Sept 27 1901

On March 14, 1900, the new promoters began to build the great rig for well No. 1, and soon struck oil; but some insurmountable difficulty was soon encountered, and the well had to be abandoned. A similar experience was met in the attempt to sink well No. 2; but nothing daunted, the riggers and drillers moved farther up the canyon and soon had, in well No. 3, such a flow of oil that at last the precious liquid was obtained in paying quantities. The long waited-for event was duly celebrated by a big barbecue, for which the hospitable Careagas furnished four of their choicest beeves, the meat being partaken of by hundreds of enthusiastic visitors.

By 1902 there were about 200 oil field workers on the site and 20 families.[5]

Jay U Stair in his first year at Western Union Oil, About 1903

Jay Stair, a young man from Wisconsin, in need of a job after the death of his father, was recommended to Judge Bicknell of the Western Union Oil Company. He was 19 years of age and though he did not realize it at that time, he was on the threshold of a major industry. His first job was office boy, as the picture shows, he came on horseback to work in the office. He worked his way up through the ranks to become the superintendent by 1909. He continued in this role, moving into the former field office and re-modeling it into his home, marrying in 1912, having four children living there in the oil town, the oldest two (Urban and Jane) attended the one-room Careaga shoolhouse. Jane recalled her early life in her book Where Pioneers Dwell:

Pacific Oil Reporter Aug 15 1904 Description of Bicknell camp

"The area bore a resemblance to early American mining fields. Bicknell itself was a rough oil fields town of perhaps several dozen families during those first years of 1900. It was booming with activity and had a hurriedly thrown together town with grocery store, post office, and a combination one room school house and church which substituted for a hospital during the heavy “flu” epidemic of 1919, and not much else other than oil wells, derricks, sump holes, storage tanks, and warehouses for storage. Daddy had a small office which always seemed to be seething with people – all with problems related to the oil business.

I remember the boiler house on the top of which was located a piercing whistle that sounded out at noon each day as well as at 5:00 P.M. – quitting time for the oil field workers. This steam whistle created instant terror in me nearly every time it sounded off because it also blew whenever there was a fire and the workers were needed on the fire line. Oil well fires were numerous – and very frightening. Many a time I ran to mama to see what time it was when the whistle blew – just to make certain it couldn’t be an oil well fire. I was constantly in need of her reassurance on this score. Any fire at all was the biggest fear in my young life.

Across the road from our house there was a service station – which didn’t have any service – but there was a hand pumped gasoline dispenser and probably oil and water available. Much later a swimming pool was added to the lease facilities (about the equivalent of a block away from our house) which added pleasure to those very hot summer days.

There were no side walks, or streets – just dirt paths and roads full of ruts and oil spills – cut out for one lane of travel. They wound through the hills to the fields where the oil wells were located.

The cattle in the area roamed at will – even right into our yard until daddy had a fence put up around our place. This was probably more for keeping his redheads in than for keeping anything else out! Finally some lawn was planted in the front, and there was a sidewalk from the gate up to the front porch. But out back there was just a dirt hill, and a few trees for shade. One large tree stood on the west side of the house, and in the early years our dog, Jamie, was tied to that tree. Later on a one car garage was added to the east side of the house."[6]

By the 1920 US Census the Careaga Precinct count was 925 people. [7]

By the 1930 US Census the Careaga Precinct count was 462 people. [8]

By the 1940 US Census the Bicknell/Careaga Precinct had been absorbed into a combined precinct with Orcutt and Casmalia, so an accurate count was not available.

Today there's nothing to mark the former existence of the town except for the concrete pool and the faint outlines of some of the foundations. Many of the homes and other buildings were moved off the site. The school bell resides at the museum in Bakersfield. One small map fragment exists online

Oil well crew with Jay Stair
Harper's Weekly V48 P1 1904 AH McKay


  1. History of Santa Barbara county, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers by Mason, Jesse D; Thompson & West. 1883
  2. • History of San Luis Obispo County and Environs, California: With Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men and Women of the County and Environs who Have Been Identified with the Growth and Development of the Section from the Early Days to the Present Annie L. Stringfellow Morrison, John H. Haydon 1917 pg 217-218
  3. Pg 188
  4. • Pacific Oil Reporter Aug 15 1904
  5. Morning Tribune, Volume XXV, Number 91, 5 March 1902 — A New Town.
  6. "Where Pioneers Dwell" Family History by Jane Harris Sahyun Library Catalog - Santa Barbara Genealogical Society
  7. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Original data: Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2076 rolls).
  8. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.Original data: Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.

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