The Power of Oil is more than the title of Nancy Quam-Wickham's new book from the University of California Press. It is a literary genre, the dream of working men and women and the reality of an era when cities like Santa Fe Springs, Whittier and Signal Hill were "the Saudi Arabia of the West."
An associate professor of history at Cal State Long Beach, Quam-Wickham is a labor/environmental/political historian and a recent Fellow of the Huntington Museum. Her new book, due out in the year 2000, looks at different aspects of how oil affected working people in the West, reviewing the oil field culture, the growth of technology and how more sophisticated systems were needed to exploit oil.
Quam-Wickham points out how 70 years ago what we now know as quiet suburban communities shipped more oil out of the Los Angeles basin than any place else in the country. At least a quarter of the entire world's oil in the 1920s came from California.
"You can't imagine the level of pollution," she noted. Oil tanks sat filled to the top because prices were so low, it couldn't be sold. When that happened, the tank owners would open valves. She cites any number of accounts of oil running down the streets of Los Angeles in the 1900s.
"Local companies used Huntington Beach Park as an oil sump in the 1920s," Quam-Wickham said. "The Los Angeles harbor was four inches deep in oil and even longshoremen went without cigarettes. A Congressional investigating committee studied the entire coastline from Santa Barbara south to San Diego County and didn't find one oil-free beach."
The oil workers who pumped the black gold also fought its pollution. "Certain activists tried to slow down production, partly to keep down non-union workers in a wildly exploited market and partly because oil workers lived in the community," she pointed out. "They didn't want their kids drowning in oil sumps or gushers spurting all over laundry on the clothesline."
Quam-Wickham tracked the history through local newspapers, the Brea oil history project at Cal State Fullerton, labor union records, the National Archives, the University of Wyoming and the University of Colorado. There are horror stories of a century gone mad for oil backed up by a long tradition in American literature of novels including Upton Sinclair's Oil. There are mysteries set in the industry by oil executive Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and oil worker Jim Thompson.
Quam-Wickham points to a long tradition of Hollywood and oil from Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in "Boomtown" to Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces" and the 1998 hit "Armageddon" in which oil drillers save the earth. Even the first Western film with an all African-American cast filmed in 1916 was based in the oil industry.
Quam-Wickham received her bachelor's degree from San Francisco State, her master's and her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley with the latter coming in 1994. The Long Beach resident joined the faculty at CSULB in 1994.
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