Coalinga and the Remains of the Iron Zoo
Our New Book
Nearly 190 miles south of San Jose, this is a good place to take a break from the tedious drive. Meander onto Route 33 South, near the famed Harris Ranch cattleyards, toward Coalinga, a small agricultural community with a population around 15,000, including two prisons.
This area is hot and dry, and the surroundings are yellow and brown. As you drive along Route 33, you spot a lone oil drill (actually called a pumping unit) on a low hillside, and you rub your eyes and take a second look. Could the sun be playing tricks? Is that a zebra over there? By golly, it is! And a little farther are a gigantic butterfly, a beagle, and a giraffe.
Painted whimsically on the pumps, the creatures make no sounds. Some bob their heads up and down, up and down, up and down, endlessly. Others stare into space, not moving. These delightful stippled entities adorn the otherwise dull oil pumps that are sprinkled along this road for a few miles. The colorful painted beasts reside peacefully with a variety of living creatures that inhabit this territory, among them cattle, rabbits, birds, and dragonflies.
At one time, many more painted pumps were here, but times change and these oil fields are not as productive as in the past. It is cheaper to purchase oil from the Middle East than to operate here. Some of the derricks have been removed, sitting somewhere in storage. Gone are the grasshopper, the cowboy, and the sailor, among others.
How did these strange, bizarre, and wondrous creatures come to inhabit this stretch of road? The idea came to local artist Jean Dakessian Jones in 1971 as a way to market the motel she and her husband—newcomers to Coalinga—had just bought. Interstate 5 had recently opened, and Jean needed a way to pull motorists off the freeway and into their motel. The oil derricks provided just the inspiration she needed. "I had never seen oil pumps like those, and my imagination saw them as all kinds of creatures. I thought that if people came off the freeway they would see a painted pump...go a little farther...to see the next one...and on and on until they made it to Coalinga and saw our wonderful and inviting motor lodge. It worked!"
Jean had approached Marshall Newkirk, then the manager for Shell Oil in Coalinga. "After I painted the first one, he ran it by the head office and they gave me the green light to continue." The company donated the paint, and in 1973, Jean single-handedly painted 23 pumps.
Jean ran a contest for designs for Chevron's 34 derricks. Winners could paint a pump if they wanted or Jean would paint it for them. It turned into a community effort and was a lot of fun. "Families came out on the weekends, even the mayor and his family painted one. The response to the project was overwhelming. I never thought of ever getting any publicity for such a thing. I just wanted people to come down the road to our place of business," Jean says, amazed that people are still interested in the Iron Zoo. "It was such a great time," she reminisces. "The people looked forward to seeing a new pump being created. Teachers took the students on field trips. People would gather there ('meet me at the zebra after the game tonight')."
After the 1983 earthquake, Jean and some Boy Scouts spruced up the denizens of the Iron Zoo. Now, alas, the picturesque derricks are disappearing, little by little, but a move is afoot to refurbish and return them to their rightful places along the road.
Once upon a time, this area was home to three coaling stations, aptly named Coaling A, Coaling B, and Coaling C. Within them was stockpiled coal for the trains so vital to the region. Coaling Station A was located right in the city. Soon COALING-A became COALINGA.
Today, Coalinga is a quiet town and you wouldn't expect to find a large, well-stocked history museum here. Be prepared to be surprised. The R. C. Baker Museum, named for an inventive oilman, is at the corner of 7th and Elm Streets. Helen Cowan, the Grande Dame of the Museum, has lived in the town for all but two of her 81 years. Her family has been there since the late 1870s. Coalinga means home to her, in every sense of the word. "It is more than a place; it is a feeling, too. I like the people," she says in a strong voice. "They are very friendly and helpful."
Helen's father was a machinist who worked in Baker's machine shop—the very building that now houses the museum. Once bustling with activity, and machines clattering and whirring, the building is now chock full of antiques, dioramas, and artifacts that reveal the area's past.
And what a past. Three mastodons have been unearthed in this region, and the Baker museum has two mastodon jaws. One has been dated between six and eight million years old and is so heavy that it takes six men to lift it. This inland area, about 100 miles from the ocean, has been under the ocean five times over the eons, and the museum displays shells, shark's teeth, and clams that have been found here. Beadwork and baskets made by the Tachi Indians of the Yokut tribe that once inhabited this area, are exhibited.
Two RCA Nipper dogs, two Shirley Temple dolls with original clothes, photographs, woodworking tools, musical instruments, guns, clothes, ancient typewriters, and much more, adorn the cases and walls of the museum.
Through a door in the back is an outdoor set with shops, fur pants, saddles, high top shoes, 180 types of barbed wire, and more. A 1939 Oldsmobile coupe, a 1924 American LaFrance fire truck (it cost $13,000 new), and an old Motte's grocery truck are here.
Mr. Baker invented a host of tools for the oil industry, such as casing shoe pumps, float collar, and vise, and some of his original equipment is exhibited. The museum's huge 55-ton line pump, that had operated from 1908 to 1950, moved 19" during the 1983 earthquake. A model oil derrick at 10:1 or 12:1 scale is here but, sadly, none of the actual capricious roadside derricks has been given to the museum.
Filled with new knowledge of the past and memories of those strange, whimsical creatures lurking along the road, you can head on back to Route 5, that long, straight, flat, never-ending highway. The rest of the journey won't seem so bad, now that you've been to the Coalinga Iron Zoo.