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.”

Comments (0)


Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights - Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore is a geologist with Chevron in Bakersfield, Calif., who has worked basins around the world, including offshore Angola, Sumatra, across Utah, Argentina, Italy, Wyoming, the Central Caspian and San Joaquin Valley. She also is co-chair of the AAPG Professional Women in Earth Sciences Committee (PROWESS) and a member of the Executive Committee for the American Geosciences Institute.

Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights - Hans Krause

Hans Krause is an AAPG Honorary Member, Distinguished Service Award winner and former chair of the AAPG History of Petroleum Geology Committee.

Historical Highlights

A History-Based Series, Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the "eureka" moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn't? – and you'd like to share it with your fellow AAPG members, contact the editor.

View column archives

See Also: Book

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/book-m95-Lacustrine-Sandstone-Reservoirs-and-Hydrocarbon-Systems.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 3991 Book

See Also: DL Abstract

Production from self-sourced reservoirs relies on natural and induced fracturing to enhance permeability and produce connected pathways for hydrocarbons to flow back to producing wellbores; thus, natural or induced fracturing is key to the success of unconventional reservoir plays. In addition to enhancing production, large or well-connected fractures or faults may cause undesirable complications for production. 

Natural and induced fractures are influenced by: (i) mechanical stratigraphy, (ii) preexisting natural deformation such as faults, fractures, and folds, and (iii) in situ stress conditions, which includes both natural stresses and stresses modified by stimulation and pressure depletion (Ferrill et al. 2014b). Understanding the occurrence and controls on natural and induced faulting and fracturing in self-sourced reservoirs is a key component for developing effective approaches for exploiting hydrocarbons within self-sourced reservoirs.

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/dl-Mechanical-Stratigraphic-Controls-on-Fracturing-Jointing-hero.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 22901 DL Abstract

In overcoming the technical challenges of oil production in the Arctic, are we making the most of a strategic resource or heading for an environmental and political minefield? The vast Arctic region is probably the last remaining unexplored source of hydrocarbons on the planet. Ultimate resources are estimated at 114 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 2000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This great prize, in a world of diminishing resources, has stimulated both governmental and industry interest. Harnessing the considerable resources of the ‘Final Frontier’ is going to be fraught with many technical, political and environmental challenges that will engage many minds, both scientific and political over the next half century.

Desktop /Portals/0/images/_site/AAPG-newlogo-vertical-morepadding.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 838 DL Abstract

See Also: Field Seminar

The modern carbonate-evaporite depositional environments along the Abu Dhabi shoreline and offshore Abu Dhabi belong to the few areas of the world where the geoscientist can observe the interplay between carbonate and evaporite sedimentation.
Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/fs-field-trip-to-the-modern-sabkha-environment-abu-dhabi-11nov-2015-hero.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 20582 Field Seminar

See Also: Online e Symposium

This e-symposium will focus on how surface geochemical surveys and Downhole Geochemical Imaging technologies can be utilized jointly to directly characterize the composition of hydrocarbons vertically through the prospect section.

Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/oc-es-3-dimensional-approach-t-hydrocarbon-mapping.jpg?width=50&h=50&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=90amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 1492 Online e-Symposium