Historians say the Spanish explorer Cabrillo first named the Long Beach harbor area "Bahia de Los Fumos" or "Bay of Smokes" during his 1541 exploration of the California coast. That smoke may have come from signal fires atop what the Spaniards called "Los Cerritos" or "Little Hills," and is now known as Signal Hill. It was prized then, as now, for the commanding view it gave of the surrounding area.
By the early 1900s, the Long Beach Harbor area began to realize its commercial and residential potential. Wealthy businessmen and landowners built mansions on the crest of the hill. With a 360 degree panoramic view of the mountains to the north and east, the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island to the south and Palos Verdes Peninsula and Pacific Ocean on the west, it was easy to realize the lure for potential homeowners.
As the new century began, the demand for petroleum grew. The Long Beach oil field was attracting large numbers of oil companies and oil prospectors. Several wells were drilled on or near Signal Hill, but showed no promise until the Shell Oil Company struck oil on June 23, 1921. During the first 24 hours, the well produced 590 barrels of oil. Soon, production increased to 1,200 barrels daily.
With the success of Shell's Alamitos No. 1, the oil boom was on and Signal Hill citizens formulated plans to incorporate the city. The first City election was held in 1924, and saw Mrs. Jessie E. Nelson become mayor, the first female mayor in the State of California. By 1929, oil was king, with over 1,200 wooden derricks on the hill. As the oil boom expanded, oil interests superceded the real estate interest on the hill, and many of the mansions were on the verge of disrepair and were razed.
World War II accelerated the demand for petroleum, and production in Signal Hill increased to meet that demand. By 1945, 20,000 wells were pumping night and day on the Long Beach/Signal Hill oil field. The post-war years saw oil production continue. Residential development began in the northern and southeast portion of the city and signaled the start of the shift from "oil town" to "town with oil."
With the release of land by the oil companies to accommodate business, residential and condominium development during the 1970s and 1980s, the landscape began to change. The landmarks of yesteryear faded into history, and new developments, including the Auto Mall and Town Center, were constructed. As Signal Hill continues to transform itself into the 21st Century, the citizens and city leaders look to hold a vision of the future worthy of the City's unique heritage.
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