Discovery of oil in 1921 scrapped plans for an ambitious park in Signal Hill

Money changes everything. For instance, let’s say you’re the boss of a rapidly growing city. You’re doing OK in the tourism business, your town is just a couple of years out of a pandemic that closed most public gatherings for a few months, the Great War is over and it’s time to get things rolling again.

One of your commissioners has tossed the plans for a gorgeous 200-acre park on your desk and is pushing and prodding you to hurry up and break ground for this thing. The townsfolk will love it.

Then some geologists and wildcatter oilmen tell you that the park’s proposed site is sitting on top of a few million barrels of oil. Millions and millions of dollars worth of oil. Your city will be rich beyond its wildest dreams, they tell you.

Or, whatever, you can go ahead and build a park. There’s more to life than money, right? Your call, boss.

And so, in 1921, a plan for this ambitious and sprawling park idea was scrapped. Elysian green swapped for black gold. Within months, Signal Hill would become better known as Porcupine Hill for all the derricks and wells that quilled over the entire hill.

The park died nameless. Its chief proponents, Public Affairs Commissioner Eugene E. Tincher and Mayor William T. Lisenby, perhaps sensing that the land would soon be plundered for other purposes, pushed for a quick startup and getting the park going.

It was somewhat telling and a bit of a spoiler that in the March 2, 1921 Daily Telegram, side-by-side headlines read “Tincher prods mayor in letter regarding park on Signal Hill,” next to another that read “Drilling for oil on Signal Hill; huge activities looming.”

The plans for the park were laid out by landscape architect Charles Deusner and his wife Helen Dupuy Van Pelt, a nationally famous landscape architect in her own right.

The plans were found in 2017 by Larry Rich, the city’s sustainability coordinator who has been doing work at Willow Springs Park, which is on a part of the land considered for the 1921 park that would stretch from Cherry Avenue west to American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard) and from Wardlow to Arabella Street (now 27th Street).

Rich is in the process of cleaning up and restoring a copy of the park’s plans which will soon be posted at Willow Springs.

The planned park was to have included two or three lakes, a boathouse for craft rentals, baseball and athletic fields, two miles of roads and three miles of walking paths, an amphitheater, a picnic ground that could accommodate 6,000 people, with further plans to later include golf links, tennis courts, a bowling green, sunken gardens and an automobile camp, with shady areas and stands of native willow trees.

It was touted by enthusiastic supporters as Long Beach’s counterpart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Mayor Lisenby, perhaps in a move to get the park going without begging the citizenry for money to pay for all of the proposed amenities, advanced a bit more of a conservative plan, with some of the more expensive recreational bells and whistles to be added “as the community feels able to afford such luxuries.”

The scaled down plans were heartily endorsed by the editorial board of the Daily Telegram in a front-page opinion that urged support for the mayor’s plan, “which is not as ambitious as some would like, but has the great merit of being feasible.” The people of Long Beach, the piece declared, “will not reject a tangible good just because it is not the best which can be imagined. They will prefer substantial results to blowing bubbles and chasing rainbows.”

It all became moot as the bubbles burst and a gusher of oil blotted out the rainbows when Alamitos No. 1 spewed a towering fountain of oil at Hill Street and Temple Avenue on the morning of June 23, 1921, and shortly after that, petroleum experts declared that the area for the proposed park could accommodate 40 wells, each capable of producing 1,000 barrels of oil per day—and the plans for the park were never mentioned again.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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