Oleum Stands for Petroleum

November 1989 Bulletin

"There is no industry in the county with a brighter future before it," the Contra Costa News said in 1897, shortly after Union Oil Company located its new refinery at Oleum. Needing a second one, and opposed by Los Angeles because of the fire hazard, the company sought a site near a major market. Its choice was on the Southern Pacific line at Tormey Ranch, where a short wharf could extend to five fathoms depth. The site was called Oleum, because petroleum was refined there. After the Santa Paula refinery was destroyed by fire, cost of shipping crude oil by barge and tanker was so great that Union Oil began developing its own tanker fleet. Today two supertankers and five barges can be accommodated at one time.

Oleum was not just a refinery site, however. It was a growing company town, a stop on the railroad, with its own post office, hotel, and bowling alley. Fortunate were the workers who lived in company housing at low rental costs. There was no company store or school. Children attended Tormey or Pinole elementary schools or John Swett High School in Crockett. Stores in nearby towns supplied most needs. Vallejo could be reached easily by ferry.

For a time, Oleum's major product was the finest asphalt in the country, Diamond-U brand. An entire trainload of solid asphalt was shipped to New York City in 1897. Experiments with asphalt for roofing led directly to an offshoot, Pabco. Other products included distillates, lubricants, and increasingly, gasoline for gas buggies. Impeded briefly by destruction of storage facilities and records in the 1906 earthquake, refinery output changed as new demands for specialized products arose. By the time crude oil was piped to Oleum from the southern San Joaquin and Santa Maria fields in the 1950s, Union Oil company had become a major producer in this major oil-producing state.

There is no company town today. Unocal's administration building is on the hill where Oleum used to be. Former residents live in rodeo and other communities. Some remember Fred Hartley, who retired as CEO, President, and Chairman of the Board of Directors in the late 1980s. This young chemical engineer began his career at Oleum in 1939, where he earned $.75 an hour hoeing weeds and cleaning out tank cars and bottoms of furnace stacks while standing in 120 degree water. A few eucalyptus trees remain where a road led to company dormitories, fine tennis courts - neighbors were delighted to be invited to play on them - and a circle of cottages for superintendents and section heads. Beyond, past imposing gates, was the two-story mission style manager's home, a large, comfortable house with redwood paneling and painted beamed ceilings in the living and dining rooms. In its garden were a fishpond, pergola, greenhouse - and chicken house. Because of fire danger, no natural gas was piped into any homes. Only electricity was used.

Although the town of Oleum has disappeared, Unocal strives to be a good neighbor. Generating its own electricity, it sells the excess to P.G.& E. Emphasizing safety - all refinery workers must wear fire-retardant jumpsuits - it has acquired more land as a buffer zone between the refinery and nearby residences. All water from the facility, including rainwater, is tested at a state-of-the-art laboratory at the treatment plant. Fish, regularly examined for their health, swim in special tanks through which treated water then flows into the bay. In September of this year Unocal held an open house and refinery tour for residents of nearby communities. I think the pastel-colored tanks look nice, says one. Whether the refinery's location is called Oleum, Rodeo, or, officially San Francisco, Unocal knows it helps to be good neighbors. It is a tradition.

An historical service of the Contra Costa County Historical Society.

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