“From the beginning, among West Coast refineries, it was the colossus,” historian Gerald White wrote, describing Chevron’s Richmond Refinery.
Built on a peninsula of low hills rising from San Francisco Bay, the refinery became the West Coast’s largest and most advanced plant upon its completion in July 1902. A complex of red brick buildings, the new plant contained 19 stills that could process 10,000 barrels of crude a day and had a tankage capacity of 185,000 barrels in its first year of operation.
This “colossus” fueled the growth of Chevron’s earliest predecessor, the Pacific Coast Oil Company (PCO), which needed a refinery large enough to develop its fuel oil business and capable of processing light as well as heavy crudes from Southern California fields. PCO’s main facility, the 600-barrel Alameda Refinery, was an impractical candidate for expansion, particularly since the adjacent bay waters were too shallow for sizable oceangoing vessels.
Instead, manufacturing supervisor William Rheem scouted the Bay Area for a location that would accommodate a new refinery and pipeline terminal. He found the ideal site along a dusty country road that terminated near a tiny railroad settlement called East Yards. At a tract of land just north of the village stretched 600 acres of rolling, stubble-covered abandoned farmland. At Rheem’s urging, PCO acquired the property on September 14, 1901. The village of East Yards, later named Point Richmond, would soon become the center of the Pacific Coast refining industry. An abandoned farmhouse served as the original headquarters for the Richmond Refinery staff during the plant’s early construction phase beginning in October 1901. Refinery superintendent William S. Rheem is third from the left.
An abandoned farmhouse served as the original headquarters for the Richmond Refinery staff during the plant’s early construction phase beginning in October 1901. Refinery superintendent William S. Rheem is third from the left.
By October 28, Rheem had returned in a surrey with the company’s chief engineer, J.C. Black, and mason foreman Ed Garrard. Before sundown, they had hired a man who began cleaning up the abandoned farmhouse that would serve as the refinery’s construction headquarters. The company quickly began moving equipment from Alameda and building the offices, pump houses, tank farms and other buildings that would make up the new plant. With the exception of the carpenters, the heads of all the building trade crafts were brought out from the U.S. East Coast to supervise the work.
The first permanent building erected was the Brick Storehouse, later the location of a mechanics’ locker room. Because no surveying equipment was available, the building was constructed by simply laying the first brick 12' 8" from the center of the railroad tracks and aligning it with the village’s main street. In fact, the first two and a half years of construction was carried on without a blueprint or specification, and all of the building was done from hand sketches.
In June 1902, weeks before the refinery’s formal opening, PCO’s S.S. George Loomis steamed into San Francisco Bay to deliver its cargo of crude oil to the Richmond wharf. The first steel oil tanker built and operated on the Pacific Coast, the 641-deadweight-ton Loomis would become a major supplier of crude oil for the newly constructed refinery. It was soon joined by the Asuncion, a converted collier used to transport crude from Southern California to Richmond and fuel oil from Richmond to stations up and down the coast. This ability to employ marine transportation became a significant factor in the refinery’s growth.
On July 3, 1902, the refinery came to life as the first oil flowed into the new stills and the fires were fully lit. Although the refinery was fully operational, growing pains remained. Many early employees slept in tents until permanent bunkhouses were constructed. And as long-time employee William Herbert recalled, “Mud was everywhere.” But under superintendent Rheem, the refinery soon became a smoothly functioning operation. (As Herbert described him, Rheem “could be suave and dignified when occasion demanded, and as tough as a mule skinner when necessary.”)
By 1903, an electric trolley line, the first in Contra Costa County, began to run between the refinery and the wharf. That same year, an eight-inch pipeline was laid from the high-volume Kern River and Coalinga fields in San Joaquin Valley to the San Pablo tank farm, just five miles from the refinery.
From the outset, the Richmond plant (commonly called the “oil works”) was a leader in the production of highly refined products, including a variety of heavily treated oils. In its first year of operation alone, the refinery processed 3,317,000 barrels of crude oil.
The refinery had an original staff of 80 employees, including engineers, mechanics, technicians, inspectors and managers who had come together from within California and across the nation to operate this “colossus” of a refinery. Their presence transformed the small town of Richmond, which had just 200 occupants at that time. By 1905, when Richmond was incorporated, its population had grown to 2,150 residents and by 19xx, inhabitants numbered more than 7,500. The town’s population mirrored that of the refinery work force, which grew to 1,615 employees in 1914 and doubled in the next five years, exceeding 3,300 in 1919.
The refinery’s early years were rich in milestones. They included PCO’s first shipment to Asia in 1904, when the tanker Housatonic transported 31,000 barrels of Petrolite kerosene from the Richmond Refinery to Shanghai, China. To package and store cased goods for Asian markets, PCO established the Point Orient facility two miles from Richmond and began shipments of kerosene, relabeled Victory and Cock, to Japan, the Philippines and India. Originally an unmarked spot on an isolated beach at the time Rheem identified the refinery property, the Port Orient wharf handled so much kerosene for China that sailors all over the Pacific knew of it and gave it its name.
Another kind of milestone occurred in 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake brought havoc to much of the Bay Area. The refinery incurred relatively limited damage, which included the collapse of several brick chimneys, the shattering of a fire wall, the springing of some tank seams, and the snapping of a wharf line.
In 1907, the refinery made a particularly important contribution to Standard Oil Co. (California), which had taken over PCO’s operations a year earlier, when it developed Zerolene motor oil. Howard French, an early refinery employee, recalled his part in the original formulation of Zerolene, saying: “I’d watch a batch of it the way a chef watches soup, and somehow I’d know when it was just right. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do this or that with California crude.’ But whatever it was you couldn’t do, we did it. That was great oil!” Also known as Polarine, Zerolene oil soon achieved market success from the United States to China and other parts of the Far East where it was marketed.
The refinery’s early years yielded steady growth. One important contributor to its growth was the ready availability of crude oil from the Southern California fields. The refinery’s access to plentiful crude grew during the 1910s with the development of the Midway field and others in the San Joaquin Valley.
By 1906, Richmond was one of the largest refineries in the world, as crude runs rose to an average of about 25,000 barrels a day. By 1914, as the world was on the brink of war, the output had reached 65,000 barrels a day.