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The Harbor Community’s Own Great Pumpkin

October 31, 2013

By Tara Fansler

Pumpkin00004Adults look on as children pose by a tepee in front of the Union Oil Pumpkin, October 18, 1955. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

The communities of the Los Angeles Harbor have a rich history of pageantry, costumes and festivals.  One much-loved community tradition is the Union Oil Pumpkin, which first presided over the harbor area from the hill-top above Gaffey and Anaheim Street in 1952.

The annual appearance of the Great Pumpkin began 61 years ago when the Union Oil refinery in Wilmington, California, painted Hortensphere No. 304 orange, with a jack-o’-lantern face.  A hortensphere is a squat oval tank used to store natural gasoline.  According to a 1954 Los Angeles Times article, the Union Oil pumpkin was the largest jack-o’-lantern in the world at the time.

The following year the Los Angeles Times reported that it took 21 man hours to paint on the face, which consisted of an 83-foot-long mouth and 18-foot-high nose and eyes.  After Halloween, Hortensphere No. 304 was repainted white, which provides better temperature control for the contents inside.  According to the Times, the entire makeover required 180 gallons of paint.

Pumpkin00010Union Oil contractors paint the jack-o’-lantern face on Hortensphere No. 304, October 22, 1954. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

The Union Oil Pumpkin received national attention in 1956 when Life magazine profiled Darrell Stuart, the contractor hired by Union Oil to paint the pumpkin.

Festivities at the pumpkin grew larger over the years.  The 1954 festivities were fairly small, with just a few costumed children of Union Oil workers invited to the plant to light the pumpkin.  In 1955 Union Oil staged an elaborate photo shoot with a tepee encampment for children.  The community’s sentiment towards the pumpkin’s annual appearance was not lost on the Union Oil Corporation.  A 1968 advertisement for Union 76 oil featured the Great Pumpkin and proclaimed, “Community Relations (like corporate growth) is no small thing to Union Oil.”

Pumpkin00007Union Oil Pumpkin with 76 sign, November 4, 1960. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

Union Oil’s presence in the harbor was making news long before the Great Pumpkin first appeared on the hilltop.  The Harbor Department’s 1912/1913 Annual Report stated, “Oil is becoming more and more the fuel of commerce,” and outlined plans to partner with the US Navy to open an oil fueling station in the harbor.  The report also touted that the Port was perfectly situated to be a fueling station when the Panama Canal opened the following year, especially with “four of the west’s greatest oil companies operating in the harbor.”

Union Oil was named as one of these great oil companies, with a pipeline leading directly to the harbor from its oil fields in Fullerton, storage tanks on the east side of the harbor, and large holdings on the west side of the harbor near present day Cabrillo Beach.

The Harbor Department’s 1915/1916 Annual Report announced that Union Oil Company had recently purchased a 200-acre site “immediately adjacent to tidewater,” and was building a $2 million refinery, the product of which would be exported through the Port of Los Angeles.
0570View of the Union Oil Refinery, November 21, 1924.  Object ID 0570.  Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives

Photographs of the refinery (the future pumpkin patch) first appear in Harbor Department Records in 1924.  The hortensphere is not present in the photographs, but other cylindrical storage tanks can be seen on the hill.  It is unlikely that residents could conceive the amount of oil the massive tanks held, or the amount of oil being exported through the harbor annually.  A 1955 Los Angeles Times article about the Great Pumpkin tried to help readers understand just how much oil was stored in each tank with the following piece of trivia: “If the tank (No. 304) were filled with pumpkin meat instead of oil, you’d have enough for 26,880,000 pies.”

Tara Fansler is the Director of Archives & Collections at the Port of Los Angeles.

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2 Comments
  1. AlamoGuy permalink

    Do they still repaint it white every year? For some reason I don’t recall them repainting it last year. Anyway, great read. I was always curious about this 🙂

  2. Tara Fansler permalink

    Thanks for the comment. I can’t speak on behalf of the refinery, but as a local observer it appears that the hortensphere stays orange year round and the jack o’lantern face is painted on at Halloween each year.

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