History of Orella Ranch El Capitan Oil Field
By JUSTIN M. RUHGE
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-PRESS
California’s is a land of plenty whose many natural treasures are supplemented by vast deposits of oil and asphaltum.
From Los Angeles to San Ardo and Coelinga, there are vast deposits and reserves located for the most part on the west side of the San Andreas Fault.
Oil has been an economic benefit to the state and Santa Barbara County for more than 100 years.
In 1943, during the middle of the World War II, the California Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mines published a landmark report on these oil resources entitled “Geologic Formations and Economic Development of the Oil and Gas Fields of California,” in three volumes.
Volume Three covers the fields in the Central Coast and Santa Barbara County. Maps of each field and their geology are displayed for most of these fields.
Santa Barbara County is well represented by many of the most productive fields found so far. These run along Highway 101 from Carpinteria to Santa Maria. The Ellwood field has been covered well in other volumes.
Our focus here is the Orella Ranch El Capitan Oil Field about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara but five miles from Ellwood.
It is one of the largest oil finds in California.
It was named El Capitan in honor of Jose Francisco de Ortega, pathfinder for the Spanish Portola Expedition in 1769 and grantee of the Refugio Rancho Spanish land grant.
The Orella Ranch was originally part of Rancho Cañada del Corral. It was near the site of the Chumash village of Qasil at Refugio. While owned by Ortega descendants, it was a frequent center of social events and played host to numerous travelers, including John C. Frémont in 1847. Ownership passed to Bruno Orella and his wife Mercedes Gonzalez y Guevara in 1866.
Oil was found on the land in October 1929, with the drilling of the first successful well by General Petroleum Corporation. The El Capitan oil field that included the Orella Ranch became one of the richest in the state; production at the field peaked in 1946.
By that time a number of structures had been built on the coastal portion of the ranch. There were a couple of homes, a motor court, a store, a gas station and several other storage facilities.
General Petroleum had a fleet of oil tankers to ship this oil by pipe offshore, as was done at the Ellwood Oil Field.
In 2021, an original tin building still stands along northbound Highway 101.
SANTA BARBARA-VENTURA BASIN, CAPITAN OIL FIELD
The subsurface structure of the Capitan Oil Field is an anticlinal dome closed by drag against the north-dipping Erburu fault.
This structure is not apparent on the surface, as the Erburu fault, which in part limits production on the north, crops out through the southern portion of the field and is paralleled on the north by a syncline in Monterey shale. Since its discovery in 1929, the Capitan field has produced more than 11,000,000 barrels of 16° to 43° gravity oil from an area of 296 acres.
Oil is produced from the Vaqueros sandstone at a depth of from 1,000 to 1,400 feet below sea level, and also from two zones in the upper Sespe: the Erburu 8 and Erburu 10 zones.
The upper Sespe also contains a gas zone. Deeper drilling since 1945 has resulted in the discovery of large flowing wells, from the Covarrubias zone of the lower Sespe, and the Eocene zone at the top of the Gaviota-Sacate (“Cold- water”) formation, which have greatly augmented the reserves of this field.
The Ortega-Orella Adobes at Canada del Corral on the Gaviota Coast about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara are Santa Barbara County landmarks. The adobes may trace back to the late 18th century, as a tile was found during a remodel in the 1930s with the year “1798” on it.
Bruno Orella, was born in the Basque country in Spain in 1830, and came to California at the time of the Gold Rush. He married Mercedes Gonzalez y Ladron de Guevara, who was born in the mayordomo’s adobe at Mission Santa Barbara. The couple established a prosperous farming/mercantile family with extensive holdings throughout the Santa Barbara/Ventura region.
The site of Orella’s town-home (known as the “Janssens-Orella-Birk Building”) on the State street, main street of Santa Barbara, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Orellas were patrons of the local Catholic churches and religious orders. All sons of the family attended Santa Clara College and to this day there is an Orella Prize given at that university to the student with highest grades in the sciences.
When the Orellas purchased the adobes, they became their country residence. One of the buildings served as a schoolhouse to their children, and a tutor was hired to live on the ranch.
Bruno’s daughter, Elena Orella Covarrubias, inherited the adobes and remodeled them in the 1930s in Spanish Revival style.
Oil was found on her land in August 1929, with the drilling of the “Erburu No. 1” well by General Petroleum Corp., in the Vaqueros Formation at a depth of 1446 feet.
The “El Capitan Oil Field” became one of the richest in the state; production at the field peaked in 1946.
There were three oil fields. These were named after the Orella family siblings, one brother and two sisters. On the west, Orella was for Fermin Orella, next the Covarrubias was for Elena Orella Covarrubias and on the east was for Juana Orella Erburu. It was part of Bruno’s large landholdings in the region (which also included the eastern portions of the Ortega grant, Rancho Nuestra Senora Del Refugio, purchased from the Ortega family). Two of those holdings remain in his descendant’s ownership in 2021. Fermin Orella’s ranch on the west is owned by Orella descendants, the Tautrim family, and the Erburu ranch on the east is owned by Orella descendants, the Erburu family.
The middle section, where the historic adobes stand on the former Covarrubias ranch was sold to Exxon Mobil Corp. n 1971. Canada del Corral and its tributary, Las Floras Canyon, were developed as a processing facility for oil and gas from three off-shore oil platforms. Then on Aug. 17, 1993, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors declared County Landmark status for the Orella Adobes.
The two adobes have been used as offices by ExxonMobil.
In 2021, the historic Covarrubias barn across the creek from the adobes were destroyed by the Alisal Fire.
The families, ranches and life around the oil facilities, are described in depth in Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll’s book Mi Refugio.
1. ^ “Portraits of Basques in the New World”, Edited by Richard W. Etulain and Jeronima Echevarria, University of Nevada Press 1999, Chapter 13: “Robert Erburu and Becoming a Postmodern Basque”, by William A. Douglass.
2. ^ “College of Arts and Sciences Awards”. scu.edu.
3. ^ Kribbs, George (1943). Capitan Oil Field, in Geologic Formations and economic development of the Oil and Gas Fields of California. San Francisco: State of California Dept. of Natural Resources Division of Mines, Bulletin 118. pp. 374–376.
4. ^ California Oil and Gas Fields. California Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. p. 69.
5. ^ “Resolution no. 93-436.”, Board of Supervisors of the County of Santa Barbara, California, 1993-08-17.
6. Mi Refugio, Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll, 2010, La Paloma Ranch LLC.
7. Research from Wikipedia
8. E-Mails from Eric P. Hvolboll
Justin Rughe is retired from 40 years in the California aerospace business where he was an engineering and program manager. He holds degrees in physics and engineering.
Over the past 35 years he has published 17 books on local, county and state history specializing in military and maritime history, as well as hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. He was the founder and editor of the Historical Notes at the Goleta Valley Historical Society. He has researched and published many new aspects of history and politics in his books and articles. These articles and books are the result of those historical explorations.
His books vary from “The Historic Cannon of Goleta: In Search Of A Pedigree” to “The Western Front: The War Years in Santa Barbara County, 1937 to 1946.”