Visitors enjoy beautiful views of Long Beach from Signal Hill's Hilltop Park. Staff photo.

Land in Signal Hill 125 years ago was cheaper than dirt.

A good illustration of this fact came in the form of a dead whale, a corpse from the sea that would live on to enjoy a long career as a tourist attraction as Minnie the Whale.

Two teenage boys found the 63-foot whale’s carcass in the Long Beach surf in 1897 and hauled it ashore, quickly drawing a crowd.

A pair of forward-thinking entrepreneurs offered the boys a choice of rewards: $160 cash or “several acres” in Signal Hill.

“Signal what?” was the boys’ response as they each pocketed $80 and disappeared into history.

It wasn’t a shocking choice at the time, because Signal Hill at the turn of the century, was hardscrabble land a fair distance away from the relative bustle of Long Beach, which fairly fizzled out eight or 10 blocks north of where Minnie washed up.

Land on Signal Hill back then was worked largely by Japanese immigrants, who grew cucumbers and zinnias on the hillside. The Japanese were sufficient in number back then to warrant a Japanese language school and a Buddhist Temple.

Things slowly began to change around 1910. Long Beach’s Balboa Studios leased 11 acres of the hill to film silent westerns. You’ve seen most of them: “Western Musketeer,” “The Dashing Ranger,” “Pawnee Bill,” “Twin Six O’Brien.” Classics.

Additionally, the advent of the automobile allowed for an easy climb up the hill as opposed to the days of the horse-drawn wagon in which ascending the hill required a team of horses and Sherpas. Now, suddenly, wealthy people hankered for a home atop Signal Hill, with its awesome views of the blue Pacific to the south and the snow-capped mountains to the north, with breezes coming from both directions making the location, according to one early promoter, a place where “peace, plenty and prosperity reign undisturbed and nature is always at her best.”

Sold! Moneyed residents fought to be king of the hill. Early wealthy folk built sprawling mansions at or above the 300-foot level of the 365-foot-high hill. Liquor baron Andres Pala put up a 15-room three-story pink mansion; Lewis Denni, who owned the Alamitos Cheese Factory on Signal Hill, moved into a mansion built in 1915. Other estates were bought by Long Beach hardware magnate Horace Green, and head of the of the Pine Avenue Dobyns shoe dynasty, Harvey Dobyns.

For a decade, the status quo held. The wealthy enjoyed their views and breezes and looked down from their expensive perches on Long Beach and the workers who farmed citrus, flowers and vegetables and raised livestock on the hill’s lower elevations.

There had been some talk that there could be oil in the ground below the mansions. A few wildcatters took a few pokes around but came up empty.

The mighty Union Oil Co. took a serious run at finding oil in the area in 1916, drilling a 3,449-foot well at Wardlow Road and Long Beach Boulevard. It came up just shy of what was later discovered to be a massive oil pool, but at the time, the disappointed oil crews abandoned the shaft and half a decade passed.

Shell Oil was a joke of a company. One competing oil executive once loudly boasted to a roomful of cigar-smoke-choked guffaws, that he would drink a gallon of every barrel of oil Shell pulled out of Signal Hill. Soon, he would have to renege on his boast or drown in the payoff, because on June 25, 1921, a crew led by foreman Happy Yowell, tapped into a gusher at 3,114 feet at the Alamitos No. 1 well.

A fountain of crude oil shot more than 100 feet into the skies above Signal Hill, and the shouting and hoopla drew more than 22,000 people from Long Beach, including the 1,800 residents of Signal Hill, to watch the oil spouting and drenching nearby homes. It took two days before workers could cap the well. By then, there was oil everywhere and word spread just like it had 73 years earlier when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill.

The oil rush started with small property owners selling off their land at 100 times its previous value. Common folk in town, your barbers, school teachers, grocers — pretty much everyone except those teenagers who took cash instead of land for Minne the Whale — became wealthy in a matter of days.

The Saturday Evening Post wrote about the oil rush in Long Beach in 1923:

Long Beach was a quaint, staid place, with its large proportion of retired Midwesterners until it struck oil. Now the streets are filled with great throngs of people, the traffic is dense, and groups stand on every street corner discussing oil and real estate.

In the banks long lines of retired farmers with market baskets on arm, wait their turn to see the officials, who cannot take the time to interview customers in their offices, but only through windows.

But after that initial flurry of quick riches for the common man, the oil boom rapidly reverted to the story about the rich getting richer.

Of course, the richest were the oil barons who quickly shipped crews and drilling equipment to the hill, which was suddenly gushing oil geysers everywhere. But the wealthy folks on the hill got to wet their beaks as well. Pala turned his mansion into a luxury dormitory and rented the rooms out to oil executives, making millions of dollars, while Denni scored a shrewd hardball deal, turning over his mansion in exchange for an unheard-of 50% royalty on oil obtained from his property and made considerably more than he made in the cheese biz.

Thousands of oil derricks on Signal Hill earned it the nickname “Porcupine Hill.” Courtesy Automobile Club of Southern California.

The city of Long Beach grew dollar-sign eyes as well and figured on levying a handsome tax on each barrel of oil extracted from the hill. It was a plan that so alarmed the local residents that they incorporated Signal Hill as a city on April 22, 1924, blocking Long Beach’s ideas of annexation.

With oil continually falling from the sky, along with the industry’s attendant fires, Signal Hill became virtually uninhabitable. More than 3,000 oil derricks were planted in the area, earning the town the nickname Porcupine Hill.

Occasional disasters came with the oil, most notably the Richfield Refinery blast, most likely caused by the Long Beach Earthquake in 1933, which killed a mother and her child, and the more horrific Hancock Refinery fire of 1958. That fire killed two Hancock workers while burning for 72 hours, sending dense black smoke across several cities. It took the combined efforts of the Signal Hill, Long Beach and L.A. County fire departments to finally extinguish the blaze, one of the worst in California history.

And it was more than fires. A different kind of disaster hit the hill on the late afternoon of Jan. 12, 1954, when a Navy F-86 Sabre supersonic jet crashed into the neighborhood at Raymond Avenue and 19th Street. The plane hit a pine tree and cartwheeled through the residential area, breaking gas mains which erupted into flames. The crash killed seven people, including the pilot. The wreckage hit a home, killing a woman and her infant son.

In those days, Signal Hill in the prime of its life as an oil-producing town, was literally covered with oil or its offshoots. It was a noisy, smelly place to live, which resulted in a real-estate boom in nearby California Heights and other neighborhoods north of the hill where homes were built to accommodate both wealthy executives and oil workers seeking a respite from the odors, smoke and chemicals related to their business of supplying billions of barrels of oil to a nation that was increasingly depending on it.

By the late 1960s, though, oil production was slowing down and new drilling technology led to the consolidation of the thousands of wells that covered the landscape. It was time for Signal Hill to clean up and return to a more hospitable place to live. It was a time when city and ocean views were becoming as valuable as oil and developers had their eyes on the hilltop parcels.

But there was a lot of cleanup that needed to be done, and by the early 1970s, the idea of forming a Redevelopment Agency took root, but it would involve the city condemning run-down properties through eminent domain to build new development. That wasn’t a popular idea, so the town’s City Council went ahead and voted to form the Signal Hill Redevelopment Agency, which covered the entire 2.2 square-mile town, under the condition that homes would not be condemned.

Before the state dismantled RDAs in 2011, Signal Hill’s had spent more than $17 million in acquiring properties and $15 million in environmental clean-ups. Several high-dollar condo developments sprang up as the city’s population grew. More people brought in more money, more money brought more development, more development brought more people, etc. That escalation brought in a large amount of retail and auto businesses to serve the area and bring in shoppers from Long Beach.

Bob Autry and his son Ryan were the first to join the Signal Hill Auto Center, bringing in their Mazda dealership from Long Beach and their BMW agency from Lakewood. Signal Hill’s expansion into the new-car business decimated Long Beach’s row of dealerships along Long Beach Boulevard.

Also emerging to serve the town were shopping centers, including Town Center East and the Signal Hill Gateway Center, bringing Home Depot, Mother’s Market, Petco, Costco, Target, Best Buy and other major retailers to town.

In the latest Census, more than 11,000 people were enjoying living in Signal Hill.

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.