Route 66 & The Great Blue Whale

After leaving the world's largest totem pole, we found a Comfort Inn in Claremore on S. Lynn Riggs Blvd. for $80.99. Not a bad place - basic room, cheap carpet and furniture, cheap rough toilet paper, and not as clean as you would want it to be, but the wi-fi worked ok and the a/c got the room down to a nice sleeping temperature. It was late and we were tired so it was good enough. The pissy thing is I was charged an extra $1.50 because the room evidently had a safe in it. I didn't even know it did, but the extra $1.50 was for the "safe w/ltd Warranty." I've never seen that one before. I would have argued against the charge, but I had already paid and was in the truck before I noticed it on the receipt so I let it go. If it had been $2.00 though...

The famous Blue Whale on Route 66
It was just a short drive from Claremore through Verdigris to Catoosa and the famous Route 66 Blue Whale (N36 11 36.3 W095 43 58.4). There wasn't a big sign or even a little sign announcing "Here it is!" so you need to look for it, but it's big so if you are paying attention, it's hard to miss.

It began as a special gift for a special lady, but it became one of the most famous icons you will see on Route 66. This land-locked blue whale has greeted travelers since 1972 and offers a welcome break for road trippers and is a perfect place for taking some fun and unique family photos.

The Blue Whale is a concrete structure fashioned with a lot of hard work and creative imagination. In 1970, Hugh Davis began building a structure as an anniversary present to his wife, Zelta. He kept secret from her what it was going to be for several months. She knew it was something for the kids and that it was something big, but thought at first it was an airplane. A few weeks after he started building the actual structure, she caught on.

 Since he was a kid, Hugh had loved animals. As a young man, he traveled through Africa with wildlife experts Martin and Osa Johnson. After returning from Africa, Hugh traveled the lecture circuit giving presentations about wild animals. Zelta shared his passion for animals and accompanied him on the circuit, wrapping snakes around her waist as he proclaimed the beauty of wild beasts. Later, he and Zelta settled down and Hugh made his living as Director of Tulsa's Mohawk Zoo. At his wife's urging, he built an alligator farm on their property which fronted Route 66 and it proved to be a moderate success. Hugh eventually left his position at the zoo, retiring after 38 years on the job, closed down the alligator farm and shaped the pond into a water park.

I'm not exactly a little guy, but there was still
plenty of room for me to walk and climb around.
It's bigger than you might think!
Their children kept saying they wanted something big to jump off of into the pond and Hugh knew Zelta had always liked whales and there’s nothing much bigger than a whale so 2 years after he started building it, Zelta got herself an 80-foot concrete and steel whale for an anniversary present and the kids got something big to play on and jump off of into the pond. It had cost Hugh all of $1,910.24, including the $5.75 worth of nails to tack down the wooden flooring inside the whale.

It took two years to build because he did almost all of the work by himself.  The only construction assistance he needed was the welding work required to form the whale’s steel under-structure because he didn’t have a welding machine or the skills for that part. He would bend the rods, tie them together, and position everything where he wanted it and then get his friend, expert welder Harold Thomas, to come by once a week and weld all the pieces together. They repeated this procedure until the entire under-structure was built. From then on it was concrete work done by hand, all 126 sacks of it.

On the property before the Whale was completed, there were three places to dive off into the swimming pond, but they were low and not much above water level. The swimming  pond started out rather small, but grew larger when road work on Route 66 took place between 1955 and 1959. The road crew took out a few of the sharp curves from the existing roadway and widened it into four-lanes. During that project they were in need of a lot of fill dirt so Hugh arranged for them to come in and take all the dirt they needed right out of the pond. Hugh and his family got a bigger pond, the road crew got their fill dirt and traveler’s got a safer, straighter road.

As Route 66’s traffic flow grew, people would see the kids and a few locals swimming out there and would stop and ask if they could swim there, too. When it first opened, the cost to get in was just 50 cents and soon, the little swimming pond took off in popularity. People came back home, sent postcards out and told everyone they knew about this great swimming place out there in Catoosa, Oklahoma.

The top of the tail where the braver kids used to
 dive off is pretty high. Look real close and you
can see Youngest-daughter sitting there.
When completed, the whale had three diving boards on it, two were at a little lower elevation from the big one that was positioned off the tail.Of course the depth of the pond fluctuated according to how wet or dry it was, but it averaged about 12 feet to the surface of the pond from the main diving board. The kids that jumped off it would often claim they had been all the way to the bottom, but to prove that fact, the other swimmers insisted they come up with a handful of mud. The center of the swimming pond had a deep trench where the earth scrapers had gone in and cut out all the fill dirt needed for the road work so it was  a good challenge to come up with a handful of mud from the 18 to 23 feet depths.
The Blue Whale pond was open for swimming until 1988. Hugh decided to close it down after interest waned. Not many people traveled on Route 66 anymore, folks were getting their own swimming pools in their backyards and kids just started going elsewhere. He had raised the price of entrance to $1.50, but with the cost of maintenance and insurance, it was beginning to lose revenue. Hugh and Zelta were getting elderly and it became harder and harder to keep it up so the time came to close it down.

The children grew up, left home and began their own lives. After Hugh and Zelta passed away, the Blue Whale began to deteriorate as neither of the kids had any interest in keeping up the  property. Eventually, several preservation groups repaired and repainted the whale. In 2002, the Hampton/Hilton Hotels Corp’s “Explore the Highway with Hampton, Save A Landmark” program chose the whale as their 12th project. They repainted the whale, erected a new fence around the grounds, repainted the old snack bar and installed a new septic system.

When Youngest-daughter and I visited, it was early in the morning and nobody was there. The gate was open though so we parked in the little gravel lot next to it and walked in. The picnic facilities were there and were in good shape. The whale itself was also in good shape and seemed to be well maintained. The pond will definitely need to be dredged out though before anyone could think of swimming in it. Part of it was crowded with Lilly pads and the water by the whale was thick with weeds. The piers were broken and falling into the water. We did see a few fish in the pond and spent a few minutes feeding them crumbled bits of crackers we had in the truck. The rest of our time was spent climbing in and around the whale, taking pictures, talking together, and just sitting next to each other, relaxing and listening very carefully in the silence for the splashing and laughter of days gone by.
Go to the first Route 66 entry here.
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