The great Kern River flood of 1868 had left hundreds of acres of fertile, alluvial soil on the north side of Kern River adjacent to Bakersfield. A settlement called ‘Northside’ was founded there in 1875. The Beardsley Canal was built through this area in 1877 by E.M. Roberts, owner of the land along the north side of Kern River. Ditches from this canal afforded irrigation water for these small ranches.
No bridge spanned the Kern River back then and crossing the stream between Bakersfield and the community of Northside was either by fording during summer low water periods or paying to ride a ferry barge. The Southern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Kern River was completed November 9, 1874 and was often used by foot traffic but horses or wagons couldn’t cross on it. The farmers living in Northside threatened to travel north to buy their food and hardware from a store at Lerdo if a bridge wasn’t built to replace the undependable ferry boat system. Finally in 1877 the County Council approved funding for the first local public bridge over the Kern River. It was built at the north end of, still existing, Jewett Lane and after crossing the River it opened into Northside settlement.
The new Bridge and roadway were well traveled by traffic between Los Angeles and Stockton. Northside settlement continued to gain new farmers because of the rich soil and easily available, alkali free drinking water from shallow wells. Also being situated at the Jewett bridge crossing, mail and supplies were only two miles away in Bakersfield. The peaceful little farming settlement never imagined what was to happen a few years later, in 1899.
As a kid, in the ’30s, I remember thick, black oil seeping from the sandy banks of the Kern River and the same seeps were evident in the mid 1800s but demand for gasoline for autos and oil for steam locomotives was just beginning at the turn of the century. In 1899, when James and Jon Elwood sunk that first well below the Bluffs and tapped a 3.8 billion barrel reservoir of crude oil, it was the right time and the right place for fortunes to be reaped.
The land within the arid, hot foothill location of that 10-square-mile Kern River oil field immediately rose from two dollars an acre to two thousand and higher as oil fever spread. Within a year, 2,000 men were working and 160 wells had been drilled in the discovery area. As thousands of barrels of oil accumulated in the earthen reservoirs from the increasing production, delivering the crude to the rail head was by mule-drawn tank wagons.
Plans to build pipelines and railroads to the booming oil discovery immediately began and the Southern Pacific Railroad bought a one-mile strip of land from real estate broker Hiram L. Waits. This land gave the railroad right of way from their main line siding at Norris Road, which they named “Oil Junction,” to the terminal seven miles East which they named “Oil City.” A depot was constructed at Oil City in 1900 and a lively community grew up around it. Within two years the population had increased to 7,000. Before pipelines could be built to transport the crude to Richmond refineries, the S.P. Railroad did a land-office business on shipping the tank car loads over the tracks through Oil Junction. During the month of July, 1901, the Standard Oil Company shipped 118,023 carloads of oil from the the loading site at Oil City. The most from any field in America at that time. To illustrate the prosperity of the booming area, the Wells Fargo Company ran a special monthly shipment of $100,000 in gold coin from the San Francisco mint, into Oil Center to support their local payrolls.
Most employees of the dozens of oil companies throughout the oilfields were furnished a house if one was available or tent houses were available until a house was built or moved onto that lease. Transportation, at that time, was by foot or horse so living on the lease, near the job, was essential. As automobile transportation became more common, living in the oilfields became less essential. The large community of Oil Center had all the things any other city possessed. A church, four schools, community recreation center, merchandise stores, swimming pool, eight rooming houses and scores of offices and homes. The Oil Center Post Office was established in 1901.
In 1912, the Southern Pacific Railroad decided the shipping point at Oil City Station was inconvenient now that the newly discovered wells were in the northwestern portion of the field and the bulk of crude oil was now being pipelined to refineries and storage tanks. The depot and freight house at Oil City was moved five miles west on Norris Road, to near what is now North Chester Avenue and was named “Waits Station.”
The community that grew up around the station was called “Waits” and had its beginning when, in 1910, Andrew Ferguson subdivided his farmland into lots of 100 by 50 feet, on Ferguson Avenue. Businessman John M. Hughes also owned business frontage in that area. The businesses fronted on “The Valley Road,” which was the road from Bakersfield, across the Kern River Bridge, and north to Stockton. It is now North Chester. In 1910 it was named “Hughes Avenue.”
Hughes, the self-appointed ‘mayor’ of the settlement, built a business frontage consisting of a popular tavern, general store, blacksmith, butcher shop and a bakery that turned out 2,000 loves of bread daily to satisfy the demand of the sprawling oilfield community of 7,000 inhabitants. He used two delivery trucks in this booming business, delivering food, ice and merchandise to the homes on the oilfield leases. This trading center was the beginning of Oildale and was located between Ferguson Avenue and Cooper Avenue on the east side of North Chester Avenue. Combined with the Hughes’ business center, Andrew Ferguson had a feed, seed and firewood business as well as his lively real estate sales and house building in the Waits area. The first 30 houses in Waits were built by Ferguson, Hughes and Cooper. Three streets named in their honor still intersect North Chester near Standard School. Hughes developed a domestic water system as well as an electric generating plant to serve the new community he helped develop. He also graded and oiled the streets.
In 1913, Mary Elizabeth Crane moved to Bakersfield from the East and bought half interest in the general store in Waits. The store was the place people received their mail so it was established as a US post office on March, 15, 1916. Mrs. Crane named the post office “Oildale,” considering the railroad siding name of Waits inappropriate for the new city. For a few years, Waits and Oildale were both used as the town’s name, but eventually “Oildale” was accepted. In 1925, the Oildale Southern Pacific freight depot changed its name from “Waits Station” to “Seguro Station.” The structure of Seguro Station still stands as a private residence on Norris Road one quarter of a mile east of North Chester Avenue.
During the 1920s and ’30s, Kern County began taxing the oil companies for the houses and other structures they owned on their leases which prompted the companies to begin moving those houses off their oilfield property and selling them to employees. Originally, more than 150 houses were located in the Oil Center area. Multiple scores of oil field houses were moved into Oildale and many can still be seen on Decadur or Belle Streets and all through that general area. This was the demise of Oil Center and of free rent for families living on the oil leases. Many generations of those original hard working, self sufficient oil field workers continue to live in or around Oildale. Essentially, over those years, the communities of Oil Center and Oil City were moved from their sites in the Kern River Oil Field leases into the city of Oildale.
As years passed, many other real estate developers subdivided tracts in old oildale. In May 1916, the first, modern, planned housing tract was opened by real estate developer, T. W. McManus. The community was called Highland Tract and the streets were named for past U.S. Presidents. Washington Avenue was the street upon which the first homes were constructed. The new tract featured;water piped to each lot as well as natural gas and commercial electricity. The streets were oiled and trees and shrubs were planted throughout the area. Arp addition and Riverview along the river were built prior to Highland but they lacked any utilities or paved streets. Arp Tract suffered from flooding each time the Kern River got high, which in mid-1929 resulted in new, higher levees being constructed by Kern County to protect Oildale.
Annexation to the City of Bakersfield was feared and fought against by the citizens of Oildale for years. The people of this city were determined to stay “Oildale” because Oildale is more than a community, it’s a personality and way of life. They won the long fight and became an unincorporated suburb to Bakersfield. Oildale’s mailing address was changed to ‘Bakersfield’ after the Oildale Post office was closed October 1, 1954.
About midnight, April 16, 1938, flickering red colors completely lighted the skies north of Bakersfield prompting hundreds of concerned citizens to telephone their friends and start driving north fearing the whole Kern River oilfield was afire. To everyone’s amazement it was only a massive display of the Aurora Borealis, commonly called “Northern Lights.” Never before had we seen the beautiful display of moving colors that normally are not seen this far south of the Arctic.
Although Oildale is today generally lumped into the group termed “North Of The River,” which includes Rosedale, Fruitvale, Greenacres and others. But to its residents it is still the old city of Oildale bordering the greatest oilfield in the nation.
(C) By George Gilbert Lynch 12-10-06