Signal Hill + Oil Derricks

Sometimes as a traveler, you need to plan your next trip or even, y’know, save to make it a possibility. In that case, the chronic rambler can start to feel a little stuck. That’s where the backyard safari comes in.

A backyard safari can take you to a street you’ve never walked down. It can bring you into a new store or restaurant (if you’re broke you can window shop, or walk in just to view a menu and smell the scents). The point is to take a momentary vacation and travel nearby to a new experience. You ever know what you’ll find yourself interested in.

Today, for example, I was feeling a bit cooped up in my mind. I needed to escape but didn’t want to indulge in my “usual” walk. For years I’ve driven through the area of Signal Hill not too far from where I live and I’ve been pleased to spy bobbing oil derricks while passing through.

There’s a primitive-looking hill with a bunch of tail grasses and a derrick sprinkled here or there that has always appealed to me. I’ve figured it was a very far walk to this place I’ve been curious to explore.

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The City of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles peek from beyond the dry golden grasses on small bluff at Cherry Avenue and East Burnett Street in Signal Hill, Calif. | Marisa Zocco, The Ramble

Turns out it’s only a couple of miles, and my standard walk is about triple that distance round trip. So, I ventured up to the small city completely surrounded by Long Beach, onto that golden bluff, and even further up to the grassy Hilltop Park overlooking the city and what remains of its oil-drilling operation. And it got me wondering.

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A pair look out over the Port of Los Angeles from Hilltop Park in Signal Hill, Calif. | Marisa Zocco, The Ramble

I’ve always been mesmerized by oil derricks. They remind me of Parasaurolophuses—those dinosaurs with that weird backward extension on their heads—grazing or drinking continuously. I find the motion quite calming and could stare at them for hours. I have dreamed of a man taking me for a romantic picnic overlooking a field of oil derricks in operation, bobbing up and down at sunset.

These days, Signal Hill might not be the perfect place for that because not so many have remained operational. There are no dense patches filled with the bobbing machines. But back in 1930, just about a decade after oil was discovered in the area, the Signal Hill oil field looked like this:

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Aerial view of Signal Hill’s oilfield, from Reservoir Hill. A sea of oil wells almost cover the entire City of Signal Hill. | WaterandPower.org

Even then, it still wouldn’t have been what I was fantasizing about. If you look up oil derricks, usually the tower type come up most prominently.  But I’m talking about the puppies below:

What makes the economy go 'boom'

Oil derrick in South East Saskatchewan. | Waferboard, Flickr

So it turns out that this type of oil derrick is called a sucker rod pump and it’s used to save energy while pumping oil. It’s basically like a plunger and a straw mixed together. Blah blah blah… lots of other stuff about the machinery that you can read here. I figured there had to be some sort of part named after the juiced dead dinosaur it was sucking up (just kidding. . . oil actually isn’t made of dinos).

Working from the ground up of the machine, there’s a base, there are counterweights, support beams. Then you get to the dinosaur’s neck; that’s called the walking beam. And attached to the walking beam, and essentially sipping from the plunger-straw? Yea, that’s called the horse head!

So maybe in the end, if a man just takes me to picnic in a pasture of grazing horses that’ll do.

*Fades into a daydream*

Well, what’re you waiting for? Get out there into your backyards and adventure. Safari into worlds where machines are prehistoric animals. Name some if you’d like. Bottom line? Suck all you can from the area around you—just like oil derricks. I promise you’ll have fun!

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