There was a burst of excitement in San Diego when oil was discovered in 1934 — or so they thought. There had been rumors of oil deposits in the South Bay since 1908, and wells had been drilled in 1924 near Palm City and in the Telegraph Canyon. Rube Harrison drilled two wells on his Otay Ranch in 1925 and someone even sank a well in the new Glen Abbey cemetery. Everyone was sure that there was oil to be found somewhere.
In 1934 a new group of local investors formed the San Diego Gas and Petroleum Corporation and brought in the drilling crew that had found oil at Kettleman Hills in 1928. They leased the farm of Skiffington Holderness whose father was one of the valley pioneers in 1886. They brought in 76 tons of equipment and built a 138-foot derrick, the tallest yet built in the county.
The dedication of the well on Sunday, March 11, 1934, was widely-publicized and attracted hundreds of visitors. Minna Gombell, the motion picture actress, broke a bottle of champagne on the bit to christen the well. Also present was Minna’s husband, Joseph W. Sefton, son of the founder of the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank. Their one-year-old marriage was frequently the source of rumors in the press, with Minna working in Hollywood and Sefton staying in San Diego.
Prominent men of the community gave speeches, amplified by a loudspeaker mounted on the sound truck proved by W. B. Phillips. State Assemblyman Charles Stream, whose home was nearby in Palm City, spoke proudly of the prosperity the oil well would bring to the local economy that had been suffering since the tourist traffic going to Tijuana had dried up following the end of prohibition.
John Forward, mayor of San Diego, and T. LeRoy Richards, county supervisor, praised the courage of the investors. The drilling went on for a year without hitting any oil. Other wildcatters came to the river valley and began drilling, one rig on the Nestor ranch of George Downs, another rig on the San Ysidro property of Blanche Beyer, widow of Frank Beyer, the Border Baron who had died in 1931.
After drilling for three years, to a depth of 6333 feet, the deepest well ever drilled in the county up to that time, the Holderness well came up dry. On Jan. 3, 1938, the derrick was dismantled and the search was abandoned. As if to punctuate this failure, five months later the Shell Oil gasoline storage tanks in Palm City caught fire, the worst petroleum blaze in county history.
Twenty years later, Robert Egger tried again to drill for oil in the valley, but, again, no oil was to be found.
About the Author: Steve Schoenherr is Professor Emeritus of SDSU and Co-Founder of the South Bay Historical Society. His is author and co-author of several books, including Bonita and Chula Vista Centennial.
As an aside, check out photos of the Robert Egger Farm from the 1930s to 1960s.