Its nickname wasn’t due to an over abundance of spiny rodent inhabitants. And for a relatively small city it was rich with colorful history. But one well-known fact of the city’s historic past was the discovery of oil in the 1920s.
The top of Signal Hill is 365 feet above the surrounding area of Long Beach. Local residence lovingly called Signal Hill “An island in the middle of Long Beach”.
According to history the local Native American Indians would light signal fires at the top of the hill, which could be seen as far away as Catalina Island. Later Spanish explorers would use the hill as a lookout point to survey the surrounding land. Eventually becoming part of the first large rancho grant to be allotted under Spanish rule by King Carlos III of Spain to the first recorded owner, Don Manuel Nieto in 1784.
At the turn of the 20th century large estates graced the hill to take advantage of the magnificent 360-degree views and its cool ocean breezes. While agricultural farmlands occupied the lower elevations.
Another historic fact about Signal Hill was its part in the movie industry. Between 1913 and 1923 during the silent motion picture era, 11 acres of Signal Hill was used for an outdoor movie location by Balboa Studios located in nearby Long Beach. Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle were two well-known Balboa Studio actors that utilized Signal Hill for filming.
But it wasn’t until after World War I, when Royal Dutch Shell bought 240 acres in the southeast end of Signal Hill and started drilling. On June 23, 1921, came the first big gusher. This started the “Black Gold Rush”, making Signal Hill one of the most productive oil fields in the world.
It didn’t take long for the oil companies to erect a multitude of wooden derricks, some so close to each other that one can practically jump from one derrick to another without touching the ground. From a distance the hill looked as if it were covered with spiny quills. Thus the nickname “Porcupine Hill”.
Over a span of 50 years the oil started to decline, and some of the land left by the oil companies underwent a redevelopment. Today, the City of Signal Hill is a thriving community of residential homes, shopping centers, auto malls, condominiums, and schools.
Oil derricks no longer stick out at the top of the hill. In its place are gated communities of million dollar homes, a hilltop park, a recreational area and walking nature trails with its breathtaking 360-degree views of the Southland, coastal cities, mountains and the cool ocean breezes.
There are still a few wells that are in operation today, but now they are hidden within the community; in shopping centers, in small sections of a residential neighborhood, condo complex, parks, and parking lots. A simple reminder of Signal Hill’s historic past.
Acknowledgements: Ken Davis and the Signal Hill Historical Society, Sculptor Cindy Jackson