Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Doheny Hacienda, Ferndale Ranch, Santa Paula

Daniel Day-Lewis won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of a ruthless and driven California oilman. The movie was There Will Be Blood, and the character was based on the main player in Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, which was loosely based on the life of Edward Doheny.
The Doheny Hacienda at Thomas Aquinas

Here's another of my local history lessons. If you've ever walked up Santa Paula Canyon past Thomas Aquinas College toward the Punch Bowls, then you have also passed right by the summer home of one Edward Doheny. This is the same Doheny of Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the Doheny Mansion on the campus of Mt St Mary College in Los Angeles, and Doheny Beach at Dana Point. So clearly he was an import man in his day. How important? Think Rockefeller, or Hearst. Or any of the other rail barons, land barons, or captains of turn of the century industry. Doheny was the oil tycoon in that crowd.

Margaret Leslie Davis in her biography of Doheny, The Dark Side of Fortune, wrote "Doheny's story is one of enigmatic fate, poverty and wealth, renown and disgrace, fortune and tragedy. A tale of the skeleton, ever present at the banquet table, a reminder that fortune has a dark, hidden side.".

Doheny was born in 1856 to poor Irish laborers. At a young age he demonstrated the drive and intellect that would later propel him to wealth and power. He graduated from his Wisconsin high school as valedictorian at the age of 15. His father died shortly after he graduated, and Edward took a job with the US Geological Survey, surveying and sub-dividing the Kiowa-Comanche lands in Kansas. From there he moved on to prospecting in the Black Hills of North Dakota, in Arizona, and eventually in New Mexico. He was never successful as a prospector but while working for the famed Iron King mine in New Mexico he met two individuals who would play important roles in his life. One of these men was Albert Fall, who would become the Secretary of the Interior. The other, Charles Canfield would become his business partner.

Canfield had had some success developing and leasing mining interests in New Mexico and had taken $110,000 in profits with him to purchase and develop property in Los Angeles. During this period Doheny was broke, and reduced to working odd jobs just to feed himself. Doheny left New Mexico in 1891, attracted by Canfield's success in the Los Angeles real estate market. By the time Doheny had arrived in LA he was deeply in debt, and Canfield's fortunes had turned. Real estate in los Angeles had become an unsustainable bubble, and the main issue with speculative values failed to take into account the lack of water that Los Angeles would need to sustain growth (this is before William Mulholland really took over LA's water future). The bubble busted and almost overnight Canfield had gone broke.

The two became business partners in prospecting venture near San Diego. This effort was a complete failure and by 1892 Doheny was not only broke, he was so destitute as to be unable to even afford room or board.

Doheny returned to Los Angeles and with a $400 investment from Canfield he sunk the first oil producing well in LA, at what is now the corner of Patton and West State streets. This 225 foot deep well produced 40 barrels per day for three years, during which Doheny reinvested every cent in the creation of more drilling wells, 300 new wells in that three years to be precise. He made a fortune. His wealth further increased when in the early 1900s he persuaded the rail industry to switch from coal to oil fueled engines. Meanwhile the car industry in California exploded. Doheny expanded his oil empire into Tampico, Mexico and later developed interests in Venezuela and Honduras.

The Doheny oil fields on Signal Hill, at the border between Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Doheney and his granddaughter, Lucy Estelle, in 1928.
Doheny's reputation took a hit in the early 1920s. His old associate, Albert Fall, was by now the Secretary of the Interior. Fall had been indicted by Congress for taking bribes in what became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal, which started as a $100,000 "gift" to facilitate oil production in Wyoming. During the investigation it was revealed that Fall had taken a similar bribe from Doheny in reference to the Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve near Taft, California. This bribe of $110,000 was apparently handed over "in a little black bag" to Fall by Doheny's son Ned, and Ned's secretary Theodor Hugh Plunkett. As the scandal exploded the Dohenys lawyered up, but Plunkett was thrown under the proverbial bus. Plunkett became increasingly embittered and unstable and is believed to have returned to Greystone Mansion and shot and killed Ned in an apparent murder-suicide which has never been 100% resolved as fact. There were some mysterious rumors of a cover-up, as is often the case when the super-rich don't want their laundry aired in the press. 

Doheny and his wife, Estelle were devout Catholics. They, especially Estelle, became noted for her philanthropy in their later years. Most of their gifts and endowments went to Catholic learning institutions and churches. The land on which Thomas Aquinas College sits, between Santa paula and Ojai, was owned by the Dohenys. In 1970 the property was purchased for the creation of the college for greater than two million dollars, paid for by Larry Barker of San Francisco. Included with the property was a small hacienda which the Dohenys had built in the 1920s.

The Hacienda is a beautiful Spanish adobe, built in a horseshoe around a central lawn. The structure was designed by Wallace Neff, a prominent architect to the wealthy during that era. The house was constructed in just 90 days. The home has a comfortable living room and large dining area, several up and downstairs bedrooms, a laundry, and a chapel. The chapel is attached the last room on one wing of the house and features an odd mix of old world and deco era statuary and lighting. It was cosecrated as holy ground by the Archbishop of Los Angeles at the Doheny's request.

The ground are lush and feature old oaks, maples, sycamore, and redwoods. Off the back of the horseshoe home is a long fairway of open grass. Three ponds descend toward highway 150, following the driveway. These are quiet and beautiful water features which draw from the adjacent Santa Paula Creek. On the small hill west of the house the college has placed and ascending walkway with the stations of the cross. This walk is very quiet, shaded by oaks, and the placards at the stations were rescued from an old Catholic chapel in Ojai before it was torn down and replaced. On the north side of the property is a man-made grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary. This grotto is a replica of one that can be found on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. In all, this is the kind of place I would love to borrow for a summer so I could write the book I'll never get around to. The Dean of Thomas Aquinas resides in the Hacienda today.

I want to thank David G. for the opportunity to see the Hacienda and the new basilica on the campus. It was certainly a treat.

An art deco rendition of Mary with laser god-rays. In the chapel at the Hacienda.

The Hacienda living room.

The Hacienda dining room.

The outside of the chapel at the Hacienda.

The grotto.

An outdoor kneeler below an icon of the crucifixion.

The start of the walk with the stations of the cross.
The driveway and the middle of three ponds.


  1. I could be comfortable in that hacienda! I'm sure the massive amount of upkeep that it must require, would change my mind for me.

    I lived in signal hill (which was actually a Long Beach neighborhood back then) for a while as a kid. I wonder how toxic the dirt was that we used to play in. These days, most of the actual hill is covered with expensive houses. Once again, nice photos!

  2. Hey Pat,
    My mom grew up on Signal Hill. My great-grandfather worked for Doheny on Signal, and later up in Taft before working for Shell in the field through which Ventura Avenue and Hwy 33 runs. -DS

  3. I spent most of my working life at a place right at the base of Signal Hill on Redondo Ave.

  4. Landscaping and maintenance upkeep is managed by college students working on service scholarship. The Hacienda is the residence of the College President (not the Dean) and his wife. Thank you for this wonderful and informative article!

  5. I was one of those students who worked at maintenance and upkeep at the hacienda. What a wonderful privilege it was!

  6. In my youth, I spent my summers on the Ferndale Ranch riding horses and hunting rattlers. Terrific memories. I think my first crush, Patty, was part of the family that lived in that house... back before the college was there.

  7. I always make a stop at TA College for a walkabout when on my way to Ojai for a day trip (to get out of LA and get some peace and quite). I love this house. I love all the great history of of So Cal. Thanks for a great blog!