The Pioneer Oil Refinery


The Pioneer Oil Refinery

The history of the Newhall Oil District would not be complete without including the Pioneer Oil Refinery. The Pioneer Oil Refinery is the oldest surviving oil refinery in the world and one of the first commercially successful refineries in California.

It is located about mile off of, and east of, Pine Street (south of Newhall Avenue) in Newhall on a dirt road. It is totally surrounded by a fence. You cannot enter the site and only during business hours can you even walk completely around the fence. There is also a pump house on the property that was built to provide water to Pico Canyon.

In May of 1989, the refinery was vandalized by gang members. At that time, Chevron considered moving the refinery elsewhere. In a June meeting between Chevron and the city, Chevron suggested that the refinery and land around it be donated to the City of Santa Clarita. The city apparently liked the idea, but the donation process went into limbo. It wasn't until 1998 that the city council finally accepted Chevron's donation of the refinery and 4.5 acres of land.

The proposed Gate-King Industrial Park project will have a major impact on the refinery. The north corner of the project surrounds the refinery (see map at the bottom of this page). The final Environmental Impact Report was published in June of 2003, but no construction has started due to legal issues. The developer has agreed to contribute cash for the preservation of the Pioneer Oil refinery. The EIR for the project states that (in Table ES-1):
CR-2(a) As provided in the Development Agreement, the applicant shall make a payment to the City which the City, at its discretion, may apply towards the construction of a new fence that will be effective in preventing unauthorized individuals from entering the Pioneer Oil Refinery site.

CR-2(b) Construction contractors shall take precautions to either avoid using heavy equipment in the vicinity of the acid tank on the Refinery property or stablilize the acid tank to prevent its collapse and potential destruction.

CR-2(c) The drainage system for the areas surrounding the Refinery shall be designed to prevent any further deposition of materials onto the Refinery site.

Hopefully, the future of the refinery will be one of preservation and protection. However, so far that has not happened. Many big rigs still drive right next to the site every day causing the ground to vibrate and the air to be filled with dust. This can not be a good thing for the refinery.

From the Newhall Signal webpage of 8/27/2010 comes this article "City hopes to renovate Newhall oil refinery" Is this the start of better days for the refinery? $40K does sound like a lot of money for a study. More recent is this article titled "Oil-refinery tour reveals potential for the property" from the Signal of 4/1/2011. Now the $40,000 comes from the developer fees.

On July 12, 2011 the City Council approved a park and restoration project that could cost up to $1 million dollars (see below for the plans). However, there are is no start date and the city does not have all the money. Wasn't the developer supposed help pay for the restoration or was paying for the study enough? See here for more information. I think that they went way overboard on this. A park and amphitheater? They should have just restored the existing structures and fixed the fence. Now it looks like anybody will have access whenever the gates are open. In fact, who will be responsible for unlocking and locking the gates? Who will make sure that nobody gets too close to the stills and tanks? Will there be a guard on duty when the gates are open? If they were willing to spend $1 million dollars, wouldn't it have been better to restore the site to the way it was in 1930 after the first restoration by adding the missing two stills and boiler (see the historical photos)?

In 1961, Still #1, Still #2, and the boiler from the Pioneer Refinery were removed by Standard Oil for their new oil museum in Richmond, California. Over the years, they disappeared to us. In 2016, Chevron notified Leon Warden that they were still at the long-closed museum site. See here for that story with photos.

Pioneer Oil Refinery Pages:

Refinery History

Historic Photos

Pioneer Refinery 1989 Vandalism

Recent Photos

The Refining Process


California State Historical Landmark markers for the Pioneer Oil Refinery and the Oak of the Golden Dream on Lyons Avenue just east of the 5 freeway in front of Burger King

California State Historical Landmark #172 - Pioneer Oil Refinery. The marker says that it is the first commercial oil refinery but that statement is probably incorrect. George Gilbert built a small refinery near Ventura in 1860. He produced about 300 - 400 gallons of refined oil for 3 - 4 years with three stills. He shipped it all to San Francisco. But a fire destroyed the refinery. The refinery was never rebuilt and Gilbert changed occupations. The Buena Vista Refinery in McKittrick, California, shipped about 4000 gallons of illuminating oil to San Francisco between 1864 and 1867 before it went out of business. See here for more information on that refinery.

There is also a marker on the west side of Sierra Highway as you go south just before the right-hand turn to Newhall Avenue

Photo of finished N scale (about 1/6" = 1 foot) model kit of the Pioneer Oil Refinery that was designed and engineered by Tom Knapp. A link to the kit is here.

Model of the refinery site in the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society at the old train station in Newhall. It was built by Michelle Watson and her father Walter as a school project in 1997.

Closer view of the stills. The model is covered by a glass or plastic cover, so it was hard to get a good picture. But you can always go down to the train station and see it for yourself. There is a slight error in the labeling. Stills 1 and 2 are actually part of the same brick base and there was a steam boiler next to them. The model incorrectly labels the boiler as still # 1, but does have the two stills in the same base, so the model is right, but the label is wrong.

There is also a watercolor painting by local artist Jeanne Anderson above the model. On November 26, 1982, this painting was donated by the Newhall Woman's Club to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. There is a label on top that says "California's First Oil Refinery, 1876 in Newhall, Presented by, Newhall Women's Club, C.F.W.C.". However, this was not California's first refinery and it was built in 1877.

Map of Gate-King Industrial Park. The gray "PR" marks the Pioneer Oil Refinery property in the north section of the project.

On July 12, 2011, the Santa Clarita City Council approved this plan for the refinery site

The plan was revised to this on June 11, 2013. Parking lot and bus turnout improvements proposed by the master plan for the refinery were on the gas company easement, where they are not allowed.