SAN MARCOS — Drill, baby, drill was the rallying cry across the nation this summer as oil prices reached unprecedented highs, but the search for black gold is certainly nothing new. More than a century ago, oil speculation in California was all the rage with wells dug up and down the Pacific Coast. Oil fever even hit San Marcos, according to information recently uncovered at the San Marcos Historical Archive. Museum director Maryanne Cioe serendipitously rediscovered records of an old well in what is now the heart of San Marcos while putting the archive’s photographs in plastic protectors.
“I’m going through every single folder and file, so as I’m going through I’m discovering things that I’ve forgotten about or that people don’t ask about so I’ve no reason to look at it,” Cioe explained.
The documents tell the story of an exploratory oil well that operated in the late 1920s at what is now the corner of Grand Avenue and Via Vera Cruz. In 1926, Daniel McAleese, an oil driller from Huntington Beach teamed up with developer Henry W. Davenport and a German geologist to explore for oil, convinced that a rich layer of coal and petroleum lay under the flat, open farmland of Rancho Los Vallecitos de San Marcos. The company leased two lots of land from four local farmers in 1927, promising to split the profits with them should they make a big strike.
For several years, McAleese and Davenport struck nothing but artesian water which, coordinating with the new Vista Irrigation District, they took great pains to keep out of their shaft. Only traces of oil were ever recovered.
The well was a source of frustration for McAleese, but it offered a lot of entertainment for the locals. McAleese’s son, Wilbur, recalled in a 1996 interview how his father’s oil rig would occasionally lose its drill-bit as it cut through the hard layers of rock. Daniel would then have to feed down a line with a big claw fastened to the end. Locals would place bets on how long it took for him to fish out the lost machinery.
Davenport’s funds eventually dried up without producing any return. The hole was filled with rocks from the nearby Bennett Ranch and a home was built on top of the site. The McAleese enterprise marked the end of oil wildcatting in inland North County. Two prior wells built by other companies, one sunk off Nordahl road and the other near what is now Escondido High School, also proved a bust. Happily, Daniel McAleese remained and went on to be a prominent citizen in the small town of San Marcos.
The spot where McAleese’s well was sited is now commercial property owned by the city and awaiting redevelopment. The museum’s discovery bridges a gap between earliest San Marcos and the city yet to be.
“I think it’s a cool piece of information,” Mayor Jim Desmond, a member of the Historical Society, said. “It’s always a great lesson for us to know heritage and what was here before McDonald’s and Taco Bell.”
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