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Tracing Tracy Territory

Last of the oil pipelines that helped shape Tracy is still pumping away

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Shell Oil pumping plant

The original Shell Oil Co. pumping plant in Tracy was built in 1914 at the junction of Lammers and Valpico roads southwest of town and remained in operation until 1968. It was one of three major oil-pumping stations in the Tracy area during that era.

At the same time that Shell Oil Co. is in the process of selling its Martinez refinery, a Shell pipeline running along the foothills of the Tracy area and connecting the refinery with oil fields in the southern San Joaquin Valley is also changing hands.

Shell officials announced earlier this month that the California Public Utilities Commission had approved the sale of Shell’s crude-oil pipeline systems to Crimson Midstream LLC, a Southern California pipeline firm.

That means that the last remaining oil pipeline facility of what was once a major industry for the Tracy area will continue, only under new ownership.

The pipeline, originally operated by Associated Oil Co. and then Getty Oil Co., still has a pumping plant tucked into the hills west of town off Patterson Pass Road.

I drove out to the pumping plant Wednesday and talked to a handful of employees gathered there. No one would say anything for the record. Although sale of the oil pipeline operations by Shell hasn’t been completed yet, operations are expected to remain mostly the same.

The number of employees at the pumping plant is relatively small compared to the 150 to 200 workers employed in three oil pumping stations in the Tracy area beginning at the turn of the 20th century and continuing into the 1960s.

An original Shell pipeline was operated at a lower elevation through the area south and west of Tracy and for most of the 20th century. Shell came to the Tracy area in 1914 with a pipeline connecting Martinez to Coalinga — and later as far south as Bakersfield.

Called the Corral Station because of its proximity to Corral Hollow Canyon, Shell’s Tracy pumping station was built by a Shell subsidiary, Valley Pipeline Co.

To provide a connection from Tracy to the pumping plant at what later became the southern end of Lammers Road, the Valley Pipeline Co. built an east-west road, calling it Valpico Road — a contraction of the pipeline company’s name. Now you know how what is now a major thoroughfare in south Tracy got its name.

What was unique about the original Shell facility, compared with the numerous oil pipeline pumping stations on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, was that it was the headquarters for the pipeline as far south as Coalinga. There was the pumping plant, where the crude oil was heated and pumped, along with an office, a machine shop, maintenance facilities and a cluster of homes for key employees.

Through social contacts and their children attending Tracy schools, the Shell pumping plant and its employees became well known throughout the community.

Mary Pribyl recalls that, as a student at USC, she visited her family at the Shell complex in the 1950s while her father, F.B. Jensen, was manager.

Shell closed its Tracy pumping station in 1968.

The Standard Oil pumping plant, the first to be built here in 1905, was located on Banta Road where the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific tracks crossed. J.B. Stocking and W.K. “Ken” Lowes were longtime Standard (Chevron) Oil Co. managers. Lowes, historian Onalee Koster’s dad, became one of Tracy’s most active citizens before and after retiring.

When Standard stopped pumping crude oil from Coalinga to Richmond in 1934, the flow of oil was reversed in a pipeline section northwest of town, where what is now Grant Line Road turns west off Byron Road. Its flow of oil was reversed to carry low-grade residue from the petroleum-distilling process, known as bunker oil, from the Martinez area to the Associated Oil plant in Tracy. There it was loaded into Southern Pacific tank cars for use as fuel by SP steam locomotives throughout the West.

The bunker fuel was stored in two giant reservoirs with concrete sides, wooden roofs and tall lightning deflection towers.

Some Tracyites might have wondered why the bare ground on the west side of Tracy Boulevard just south of the SP main line remains undeveloped today. The reason: Bunker oil spilled during the tank car loading operations, and Texaco, which acquired the property in a merger, has been in no hurry to clean up what remains in the soil.

The Associated Oil line was laid along the SP right of way in 1908, from oil fields at Kern River near Bakersfield to Port Costa and Avon.

Like the Shell pumping plant that followed it by six years, the Associated Pipe Line plant was headquarters for the northern part of the line. During World War II, when railroad traffic was heavy, as many as 140 rail cars a day were loaded, reported APL workers. The operation ended in 1956, when SP switched from steam and diesel locomotives.

Oil pipelines have had a long history in the Tracy area. They were originally important, highly visible elements in the Tracy job scene. Now, the last remaining station keeps pumping away off the beaten track in the hills west of town. Soon there will be new ownership, and the last vestige of the Shell Oil Co. name in our area will be gone.

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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