ROUTE 66 SERIES: The Blue Whale of Catoosa
What’s the coolest anniversary present you’ve ever received? My husband and I do anniversaries a little bit different. We don’t really buy each other gifts. Instead, we pick out something nice for the two of us to enjoy, usually a trip of some kind. Of course, he always sends the obligatory (and gorgeous) flowers. He has also slipped in some very unique trinkets along the way, because he spoils me way more than he should (shhhh – don’t tell him).
Anniversaries can certainly see spouses outdoing each other for gifts, and here is a whale of an anniversary tale (Yow! Pun alert) that I discovered last summer on the Historic Route 66. That road trip was packed to the gills (zing!) with so many quirky stops, one being the Catoosa Blue Whale. It’s exactly like it sounds. In a tiny lake by the side of the road in Catoosa, Oklahoma, there resides a gigantic blue whale. You don’t have to go out of your way to find it either. It sits right off the 66, and that neon blue gentle giant is pretty hard to miss.
But where did it come from? Who decided to plop this big old whale on the side of a lake in the isolated countryside of Oklahoma? And why? I couldn’t let those questions go unanswered. Because even though my specialty on this blog is military history, sometimes it’s fun to escape the battlefield and dig up a smile instead of a trench. We must remember the personal stories that have a whale-sized impact on their communities. Stories that remind us how wonderfully human we all are.
This particular story starts with Catoosa in the mid-1900s, and a charming resident named Hugh S. Davis. He worked at the Tulsa zoo, and he became a central figure in the town. He had friends all over the place and he always kept busy. His many hobbies included photography, zoology, writing, lecturing, and being a devoted husband and father of two. He also provided a second father to many kids in the neighborhood, who loved to come and play in the lake on his property. All day in the summer, Hugh’s lake hosted fishing, canoeing, rafting, swimming, and the very healing laughter of children. Even when Hugh’s own children grew up, the lake remained busy with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
After Hugh retired from the Tulsa Zoo, he devoted his time to his many crafts and hobbies. He built extravagant and artful displays to educate the local children about nature. He built his own wooden ark, complete with carved animals smiling down on the children who played there. He also put together an alligator ranch that included live alligators, a snake pit, and yapping prairie dogs. Yes, Hugh loved his little nature projects, but something even bigger soon crossed his mind.
The 1960s had dawned when Hugh began doodling sketches of a giant fish he wanted to build on the lake. Napkins and scrap paper showed rough blue prints of a whale. Mountains of metal lathe, pipes, rods, concrete, and sand, among many other building supplies, soon appeared on the property. Hugh’s family wasn’t exactly sure what would come of all that stuff, but they knew from all his other projects that it wouldn’t disappoint.
First Hugh fashioned the whale’s framework – an iron skeleton about twenty feet tall and eighty feet long. It needed a lot of welding, so Hugh brought on his friend and neighbor Harold, a professional welder, to assist him. Although Harold worked over 100 hours on the whale, he didn’t charge Hugh a single cent.
After the iron work came the concrete mix for the whale’s skin. The most meticulous part of the process, Hugh applied every bit of it by hand. He wanted it done right rather than fast, so he only put on one five-gallon bucket at a time. It took two years (or 2,920 hours – according to Hugh’s notes) to complete the concrete and outer layers of the whale.
A project germinated in the late 1960s didn’t see completion until 1972. That summer, Hugh brought his wife to the lake and gave her the whale as an anniversary gift. She had collected whale figurines for years, and now she had her very own giant whale. Arguably one of the most labor-intensive gifts ever given to a spouse.
Since tourists could plainly see the whale off the busy Route 66, it soon attracted adults and children from all over the place. It especially tempted passers by on hot summer days. People used the whale’s tail as a diving board into the water. The whale’s slick fins made excellent water slides. Children could enter the belly of the whale through its mouth. They delighted climbing around inside and poking their heads through the holes at the top. Soon enough, Hugh’s giant whale had become an iconic stop on Route 66.
The 1980s saw the slow decline of Hugh’s amazing anniversary gift. Hugh developed terrible arthritis and couldn’t keep up with repairs any longer. Out of concern for the safety of the travelers, he officially closed the whale exhibit in 1988, just before he passed away in 1990. His widow could only watch as her anniversary whale fell into terrible disrepair. Like much of the old Route 66, the blue whale slipped from people’s memories, and it began to fade away.
Until 1997. The Catoosa Chamber of Commerce decided they missed the charms of the amazing hand-built whale, and restoration efforts began. Dick and Dee Dee Belt (Hugh’s daughter and her husband) took over management of the whale and the lake. Repair groups comprised of volunteers, private business owners, and family members donated time and money to rebuild the whale. It also got a dashing new paint job, in which the Governor of Oklahoma actually helped with. His own hand painted the sparkling blue pupil of the whale’s eye. With a little bit of elbow grease and lots and lots of love, the exhibit got re-commissioned as the Catoosa Blue Whale, and re-opened to the public.
Hugh’s wife passed away in 2001, but the Catoosa Blue Whale lives on. Today, the entire community pitches in to keep it happy and healthy. Even the local Hampton Inn has donated money to the ongoing restoration efforts. Thanks to them and many others, the whale has replanted himself on the Route 66 map. Arguably one of the most iconic stops on the mother road, summer days find the whale loaded with children and travelers. He pops up in the background of countless selfies. Even my husband and I were quite taken with the whale’s charms. We spent a great deal of time there taking pictures and climbing around inside.
The Catoosa Blue Whale probably hasn’t made much of a difference to the world at large. Most people haven’t even heard of it. But to that little community in Oklahoma, and to a wife who got one hell of an anniversary gift, the whale provides so much more than concrete and iron. It’s a reminder and memorial to one of their most well-loved citizens. It gives playtime and smiles to countless children. Most importantly, the whale cemented a place for little Catoosa on the national maps (again with the puns). It’s a tremendous example of the happiness and power that can come from art and creativity. It doesn’t matter if it starts small or if it grows into a whale. If art can touch one community, someday, it will move the whole world.
Blue Whale of Catoosa Visit
“The History of the Blue Whale” – Dee Dee (Davis) Belt
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor