Tales From the Brea Oil Field: What Are They Doing Up There?

Night drivers motoring past the affluent housing tracts and well-kept strip malls of north Brea, not paying attention to the road in front of them, will notice an odd site: a solitary, house-shaped structure perched above the city, surrounded by pitch-black rolling hills and illuminated like a bug zapper. Likely one of the northernmost buildings in all of Orange County, this property doesn't fall within the boundaries of any township.

Tales From the Brea Oil Field: What Are They Doing Up There?
Brandon Ferguson

It's located on what is known as the Olinda lease, a sprawling, undeveloped, oil-rich preserve atop thousands of acres that have been carved up and claimed over the past century by various oil operations: Shell, Aera Energy, Linn Energy, Cooper & Brain, and BreitBurn. Rusting oil derricks along Brea Canyon Road offer silent testimony to the early ventures of OC's first oil barons. 

But these hills, which conceal a network of dusty roads flanked by the occasional grove of oak trees and herds of cattle, were also once home to a U.S. Army missile installation. A single cog in a wheel of fire known as the Los Angeles Defense Area, Nike base LA-29 was armed with several nuclear projectiles designed to wipe out squadrons of Russian bombers intent on annihilating coastal cities. The crumbling remains of the base, deactivated in the '70s, have served as a mecca for urban adventurers, shortwave-radio enthusiasts, taggers, horny teenagers and people looking for secluded spots to get drunk.

Drawn by pristine, unobstructed views high above LA and OC, intrepid and foolhardy trespassers have braved steer attacks, possible arrest and an array of thorny vegetation to climb graffiti-scrawled concrete radar towers and spelunk in underground magazines that once housed nuclear warheads. Along with these hazards, rumors have swirled for years of angry ranchers armed with shotguns loaded with rock salt and a penchant for shooting first and asking questions later.

Is there anything to this suburban legend? Well, though no building permit exists in the county registrar's archives, vintage aerial photos show the structure existed as far back as 1953. Records show the land is owned by a small, independent oil company called Cooper & Brain, which acquired the property in 1970. Which brings us to Jeff Cooper, son of company owner Joel Cooper, who deftly buffed the luster of the legend to a dull reality.

"That's our office building," he says with a chuckle.

He adds trespassers crossing his property aren't typically met with shotguns. "I've instructed my employees to remind trespassers they're on private property," he says.

So, no renegade ranchers or eccentric millionaires whose silence regarding the government's missile program was bought by CIA operatives. Just another office building--albeit one on a particularly history-rich chunk of OC real estate.

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