Oil and Water


Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Miramax, 2007

From Orion Magazine:

The first oilmen of Kern County were not oil workers in any modern sense. Like Cooper, they were miners. Cooper said this well was probably dug in the 1860s or 1870s. “They’d attach a guy to a rope and go down in shifts. And they’d haul the tar up in buckets. When that guy was overcome with gas, they’d pull him up and send down another.”

Aside from scenes from the movie There Will Be Blood, which is based on the area’s early days, Cooper’s descriptions evoke images I’d encountered earlier in Black Gold in the Joaquin, a book by local oil historian Frank Latta: “The miners would work stark naked, covered with the liquid asphaltum,” Latta wrote. “At the end of tour they were scraped with a case knife, or the wooden scrapers used on race horses, and washed in distillate.” The tar, often filled with sand, rocks, and bones, was loaded into barrels and hauled down the road to the town of McKittrick—then known as Asphalto—where a primitive still was used to separate the gas and oil from the solid material.

I ask Cooper why they went to such lengths. “Because most of our oil is too thick to come up in pipes,” he replies gravely. “It was before they had the steam.”

“The Colonization of Kern County”, Jeremy Miller, Orion Magazine