Wildcattin’ Piano Teacher Became Oil Queen

Emma Summers – California’s Oil Queen. Photo courtesy of Petroleum History Resources
Emma Summers – California’s Oil Queen. Photo courtesy of Petroleum History Resources

Tenacity and a keen business mind were traits contributing to the success of one of California’s most prosperous oilmen of the early 1900s – except this particular oilman was a woman.

Kentucky-native Emma A. McCutcheon Summers (1858-1941) was born the same year that the transatlantic cable was laid and Minnesota became a state – just three years prior to the onset of the American Civil War – and lived during a historical time of great change.

In fact, she would be making history herself. Summers was a pioneer in many ways.

She graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music – one of the first conservatories to grant admission to African Americans and to women – during a period when female college enrollment accounted for just 20 percent of university attendance. Years later, Summers eventually settled across the country in Los Angeles, during the “Panic of 1893,” when growing railway towns in the West took in migrating populations.

Once there, Summers saved the money she earned from teaching piano lessons and began to invest in real estate – a strategy that would put her on the path to changing the course of Los Angeles, which was just a sleepy seaside village in the early 1890s.

The way it was in 1905 at the Los Angeles City oil field, facing east from First Street and Belmont Avenue.
The way it was in 1905 at the Los Angeles City oil field, facing east from First Street and Belmont Avenue.
A Leap of Faith

Thanks to the unsuccessful efforts of Charles A. Canfield in gold and silver prospecting, Canfield met Edward Doheny in California. Although unable to pan out a jackpot in minerals, Canfield and Doheny had the observation prowess to notice something that others may have found un-notable: Tar on the wheels of a cart.

Tar from the same seeps that indigenous people utilized to waterproof their canoes. Tar that had trapped animals in the famous La Brea tar pits for thousands of years.

Sparked by that observation, in 1892 Canfield and Doheny discovered the Los Angeles field, drilling 140 meters (460 feet) with the sharpened end of a eucalyptus tree near present day Dodger Stadium.

In comes Emma Summers.

Living near the stirring discovery of Canfield and Doheny, Summers jumped on the preverbal “bandwagon” with her real estate knowledge and invested US $700 (the approximate equivalent of $17,000 today) for half interest in a well just a few blocks from Doheny’s producer.

Unfortunately, the casing collapsed and tools were lost – but her tenacity prevailed, and she borrowed another $1,800 to continue drilling the well, personally monitoring the progress of the well night after night.

Her perseverance paid off and the well finally came in.

Summers pressed on drilling well after well, at one point finding herself $10,000 in debt (a whopping $241,400 in today’s dollars). She hired her own workmen, purchased her own drilling tools and supplies, supervised the daily work and well development, and did her own accounting.

And in order to retain her workers and be able to pay them, Summers also worked nights teaching piano.

Summers’ blind leap of faith paid off, and with the population of Los Angeles doubling in size between 1890 and 1900 her oil business logically flourished. She had seen her way to drilling 14 producing wells – producing 50,000 barrels each month – and earning her the title “Oil Queen of California.”

Initially selling her oil through local brokers, she eventually, bravely, took on the markets herself. In addition to managing her supplies, 40 horses, 10 wagons and a blacksmith shop, Summers sold her crude to large local electric utility companies, commuter railroads, a local trolley system and various other industrial concerns.

When the price of oil peaked around $1.80 a barrel, she controlled about half of the wells on the central portion of the field.

A City ‘Built on Oil’

Emma Summers was a lady to be reckoned with in the rough world of the Los Angeles oil patch, emerging from an unlikely start as a refined southern lady educated in music.

Owing to the insight of early pioneers, including Summers, some argue that “the great city of L.A. was built on oil – not gold or the entertainment industry. The discovery of the oilfields in Los Angeles was the single most important moment in the history of petroleum in California.”

Or, in the words of the San Francisco Call on July 21, 1901, she was:

“A woman with a genius for affairs – it may sound paradoxical, but the fact exists. If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets.”

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