Thursday, May. 23, 2019

Busted Dreams of Oil Wealth in Bolinas

By Richard Nielsen · December 22, 2016

Looking north at the oil drilling operation at the RCA in early 1949.  The barn of the former Mary Ann Strain Ranch is in the middle distance.  The white building is the original Marconi Powerhouse, now Building 1. <span>&copy; Richard Nielsen </span>

Looking north at the oil drilling operation at the RCA in early 1949. The barn of the former Mary Ann Strain Ranch is in the middle distance. The white building is the original Marconi Powerhouse, now Building 1.


Well driller Joe Lewis at the oil well drilled in 1900 near Double Point on South Ranch.  After the operation shut down, Joe went to work for John Foster on the nearby Ingermann Ranch, located on the grounds of the Marconi radio station. <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

In 1865, the first two oil wells were drilled at Bolinas.  One well was sunk on the beach near the landing at The Point, where downtown Bolinas would be established.  The other was located on the property of Thomas Joyce on the Mesa.  Oil seeps which had appeared along the edge of the Mesa had given a promise of oil riches. 

Newspapers of the day reported oil seeps at Duxbury Reef. Local fisherman would sometimes ignite them for warmth or to cook a meal.  These oil seeps continued at least into the early 1900s and would provide impetus for further drilling along the West Marin coast.

In September of 1947, the National Exploration Company leased 2750 acres along the elevated marine shelf that extends northward from Duxbury Reef.  By 1948, they began drilling on the southern edge of the former Mary Ann Strain Ranch on the grounds of RCA's transmitting station in Bolinas.  By the spring of 1949, less than a barrel of oil had been recovered from a well that plunged nearly 8,000 feet deep before the drill bit broke.  Operations ceased, despite protests from workers who insisted that they would return and continue drilling with more powerful equipment.  Nearby property owners held out hope that oil would be discovered right up until the 1960s.

In 1952, a well was drilled on the northern edge of Palomarin above the Arroyo Honda creek, next to the Tevis Ranch at Double Point, probably close to the site of a well which had been drilled there around 1900.  This well wasn’t nearly as deep as the one drilled on the RCA grounds and operations ceased after two oil workers nearly lost their lives in an accident.  That same year an option for further drilling was made with RCA.  However, no further exploration was pursued. By the early 1970s, Bolinas environmentalists would undoubtedly have stopped any further attempts to drill for oil, particularly after the spill resulting from the oil tanker collision at the Golden Gate in 1973. 

A fossil discovery in the mid-1990s would write a final chapter for oil exploration at Bolinas.  A graduate student in paleontology at UC Berkeley discovered a fossil of the mammalian order Sirenia on Duxbury reef at Bolinas Point. This fossil discovery dated the rock of Bolinas to the late Miocene era which meant that significant amounts of oil would never be found at Bolinas. 

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