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
Cute article. Whales don’t have gills-they have lungs like we do. It is a huge anniversary present . Bet he was glad he did not need to be wrapped.
I know that about whales but I still couldn’t resist the pun. 🙂 And yes can you imagine trying to wrap that up hahaha!
Wow! I have never heard of this and Oklahoma is a neighbor. These slightly of the beaten path finds are so cool.
I highly recommend a little jaunt on the 66 if you have the time. There are some absolute gems!
I love this. I’m saving all your 66 posts for when I get to do this.
Oooooh yay!! Yes you let me know when you do the 66, I will have loads of tips for you. And honestly there’s a lot of stuff that we just didn’t have time for. So many things so little time! 🙂 Glad you liked the post.
I love the dedication it took Hugh to make something like that. People like me struggle to maintain focus for even short-term projects! Great story.
I can’t imagine the patience – it’s never been a virtue of mine! 🙂 So glad you liked the post, hope you are doing well and had a great start to 2020!
A delightful story, MB. Peggy and I just love the buildings and sculptures found along Route 66 and other backroads of America from Paul Bunyan to the Corn Palace. We haven’t seen the Whale but if we get near there we will be sure to visit. Americana at its best! –Curt
Ah yes the 66 is full of gems like this! We sure had a wonderful time on that road. Sometimes it’s sure worth it to take the path less traveled. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Curt! Hope you are well
What a cool post!
Many thanks! Glad you liked it!
A whale of a tale for sure – fun story!
Thank you! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it
Loved this story! Must put on my bucket list!
Yes – add to bucket list! The whole 66 is pretty darn amazing. We got plenty of kicks for sure. So glad you liked the post!
What an interesting tale!
So glad you liked it!
I have been thrilled to hear that more and more of the old Route 66 is being restored, but I sure never heard of this attraction. I suppose there are quite a few I never heard of!! Thanks for giving us this bit of nostalgia.
So glad you enjoyed it! The Blue Whale is a bit of a latecomer to the 66, so that might be why it’s not as heard of as some attractions. But yes – my husband and I did the whole route this past summer, and we were amazed at the work they are doing to bring that old highway back to life. We were even more amazed at some of the wonderful things we saw and experienced. Can’t wait to share more about it in future posts. So glad you enjoyed the nostalgia!
Looking forward to more!
A wonderful story. You probably know that we have been married twice – 50 years apart. Our dilemma is which one to celebrate – so we do both 🙂
That sounds like the smart way to do it! Double celebrations are always best 🙂 So glad you liked the post
I have been on Route 66 all through Oklahoma for decades and never seen the blue whale. Such an interesting story – thanks for sharing this. Hugh would be happy his whale still floats in his pond.
How cool you’ve done the 66 through Oklahoma! My husband and I found that part of the highway to be a bit of a struggle to navigate at times, but we still had a great time. Have you been to the Pops soda place? That was one of our favorite stops in Oklahoma. As for the whale, it was closed for a good while – and I don’t think they were maintaining the trees back there so it might have been a bit hidden. Now it’s out in the open for all to see! Hope you get a chance to swing by sometime 🙂
Yes, I have been to Pops soda place. Was traveling 66 when it was 66 and not I-40. That should tell you how old I am. Traveled all across the country on 66 many, many times. Loved it when I was a kid.
Yes that’s what my husband and I did! This past summer we took the 66 the whole way from Chicago to LA. We were surprised how much of it is left – at some points the road was broken up so we had to go on the 40 for small stretches here and there. But for the most part we were on the 66 the whole way. We absolutely loved it! <3
I love this line: “It’s a tremendous example of the happiness and power that can come from art and creativity.” Building the whale was a lot of work, but it was probably a lot of fun, too.
So glad you liked that – I do think art can be a very powerful thing. Look how many smiles, to this day, that whale has spawned! 🙂 And yes, from the reading I’ve done, sounds like he had a good time with his projects, and the welder neighbor didn’t charge anything because he enjoyed it too. So glad you liked the post – thanks for sharing your thoughts
A great story! Thanks.
Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
I love that sculpture! Thanks for telling us the story behind it. A great roadside attraction. 😁
Definitely! One of the many cool things along that old highway. So glad you liked it 🙂
Not so surprisingly, this is the first I’ve heard of the Blue Whale of Catoosa. ;>) It would make a great book title, btw. And, yes, experiences are way better than gifts. Travel on, MB!
It would make an EXCELLENT book title, you are right! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the article, and don’t you worry we will absolutely travel on. We’ve got some big plans for this year 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts
Excellent story MB. When I saw the title I just had to dive in 😀
We have a player in the pun game! 🙂 Well done, sir! So glad you liked the post.
Thanks MB 🙂 Also specialises in Dad Jokes 😀 😀
Ha! Gotta love a good dad joke!
anyway you started it 🙂
Lovely story beautifully told!
So glad you liked it! 🙂
What a fun gift! That’s so nice to hear it was restored.
I’m very glad too that they decided to bring the whale back to life 🙂 So glad you liked the post.
What a charming story! Did Mrs. Hugh know about the project at all during the two years he worked on it? That would be a hard surprise to pull off, I’d think.
Thank you! 🙂 The material I got from the exhibit wasn’t totally clear on that, but I’m sure she had to have been aware of it at least, the whole lake is quite visible from the road. But I bet she didn’t know he was going to bequeath it to her!
Well, who would expect that? 😊
So glad they spent time (and money) on the restoration. It’s been awhile since we’ve traveled Route 66, but we will definitely look for it on a future trip! Thanks for posting!
Yay! I’m sure the whale will be happy to have some new visitors. Hope you get to take the 66 again soon, we had a great time on that road.
What a cool story and great way to celebrate anniversaries. Memories are the best and time spent together is the best gift one can receive. Loved this ❤️
Thanks so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been thinking of you and hope you are well <3
Thank you love, always a treat to read you and thank you for your kind thoughts. I am doing alright and some days are still tough, but all we can do is to keep going forward.
Brilliant M.B, top story about a top guy, thanks !
So glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Thanks so much
I run between Houston and Kansas City fairly regularly, but I always cruise by Tulsa and environs to the east: Indian Nation turnpike to 69, and then north. That means I’ve been darned close to Catoosa, but only close. I’ll be making that trip again this spring, so this time I’ll make time to stop by and see the whale. I do love this sort of ‘monument’ — the big peach in Georgia, the world’s biggest pecan in Seguin, Texas, and so on.
I’ve been waiting for another Route 66 post to tell you about this. Someone I follow on Twitter was moaning about not being able to find the recipe for a vegetable soup that was served at The Trails, a legendary Western-themed Route 66 roadhouse that operated in Duarte, California from 1952-2001. Another of his followers helped him out, telling him that The Trails recipe for Range Barley Soup is in The Route 66 Cookbook by Marian Clark. It not only has the recipes, it has stories from the cooks, waitresses, and other staff who served up the food. I thought you might be interested in looking at it.
How cool that there’s a place to get those recipes! And I bet the stories are just as interesting. I just may have to look into that, thanks so much for sharing about it here! I’m sure the whale will be very happy to see you when you stop by! 🙂 Happy 66ing!
A beautiful story, and what an amazing project! Hugh Davis sounds like a remarkable man, one who believed in making his community a better place.
Indeed – we need more like him! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post
This is a beautiful story about a beautiful landmark. I hope to see the Catoosa Whale someday. This was so enjoyable to read!
Glad you liked it
You are right, M.B.: all the husbands who will be compared to Hugh Davis will be found wanting. 🙂
Thank you for sharing your whale of a tale (or should that be tail?). Another reason to travel the legendary highway!
Good call with the tail! Why didn’t I think of that hahaha. So glad you enjoyed the post – thanks for stopping by!
I guess you had reached your pun limit, M.B. Thank you for leaving one for your readers. 🙂
My pleasure 😃
M.B., I am so delighted by this story and by these pictures! This is amazing. Perhaps I am even more delighted because I have been thinking about whale watercolor paintings recently and am currently working on one. Thank you for this wonderful story. This is one of my favorite of your posts–although I feel like I write this on every post :).
You know shelly I actually thought you in particular would really enjoy this post, based on all of your charming watercolors and drawings 😃 I thought of you when I saw it for sure! Can’t wait to see your new works when they are done, you will post them on insta I hope? I’m in Europe this week so won’t be on WordPress as much!
Fantastic story, MB. My goodness, what an excellent writer and storyteller you are. I got goosebumps reading it! What a great whale, too. I liked the sweetness, kindness, devotion from his original anniversary idea to his welder friend’s generosity to his daughter’s refurbishing. His creativity and tenacity brought much joy to many people, and it still keeps giving us thrills. I had never heard of or seen the Blue Whale of Catoosa, thanks so much for opening my vision and heart to it.
I’m so very glad you enjoyed it and thanks much for the very nice compliments, they made my day! 😃
I love this story M.B.!! Hugh and Harold are now my heroes for life. What a wonderful project for a community to resurrect – makes my heart happy. 🙂
Right? I do love sharing these charming little stories because they’re just so nice in a world full of trouble. So glad you enjoyed it!
I love stories like this. We had a similar giant whale in Indianapolis, only ours was named Willie. He started in a zoo and has been restored in a park in another city.
They are definitely moving stories. I will have to visit Willie next time I’m in Indianapolis. I have seen the giant dinosaurs at the kids museum there too! So glad you liked the post
Looks like you had a whale of a time! Great story and trip. And happy belated anniversary!
So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂
That’s a hell of an amazing story, M.B. I love it.It’s so upbeat – and romantic.
So glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
What a creative project!
Right? So much dedication! I’m glad Catoosa restored it so everyone can enjoy it again!
It really is a unique piece!
delightful story and what a great attraction!
Sorry must correct you … the most time consuming and expensive gift to a spouse has to be the Taj Mahal 🙂 But this whale comes a close second 🙂
Hahahahaha okay you’re right – I will definitely give you that one! 🙂
😎 It is The Most Amazing tourist attraction, exceeds all expectations!
I’d love to see it someday!
I’ve seen it numerous times and would gladly go again 🙂 By moonlight is the best!
I love visiting places like that – and what a lovely story behind it. Teddy and I usually go on trips on our anniversary which always gives us great memories. Year 10 was Copenhagen, Denmark and I still have the pewter pendant that he bought me.
Copenhagen, nice! I have yet to visit there. I’ve been to the airport nearby though! 🙂 Got stranded there for HOURS one time.
Oh dear! It’s a cute city.
It wonderful that the whale has been restored. I love “off-the-beaten path” things like this. Somehow the whale and its story just makes me feel happy.
I agree with you – I have found some real gems on the roads less traveled! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post and that it made you happy – I love hearing that! <3
Loved this, MB! You always find the story behind things via your meticulous research, and then tell the story engagingly.
Thanks Dave! 🙂 I do enjoy telling the stories – no matter how big or small!
A wonderful story well told, MB.
Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
I saw this on a British T.V. show some time ago and now don’t remember what show it was.
Oh wow! I’d be very interested to know what that show was. If you think of it, let me know! 🙂
I’ve been thinking about it since I posted the comment. It could have been an episode of An Idiot Abroad as I think one episode was driving Route 66. I’m guessing season two as the first season was mainly wonders of the world.
Cool! 🙂 Sounds like a really neat show!
Thanks for the lovely story! Route 66 has many adventures, I hope one day I can drive all the way through it. Love the idea of the anniversary present, you are making and keeping memories. Happy Anniversary!
That whale has nice shiny teeth!
He must use whitening 🙂
We stopped at the blue whale once. On our way to New Mexico. Love Route 66!
We sure had a great time on that old highway! 🙂
Well now I have seen everything! We love finding cool things like this. Fun post!
There are lots of neat things to be found on that old 66. You would love it! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for stopping by!
That’s really cool, thank you. I’ll need to step across the border and check it out with my kids sometime.
I’m sure all of you would love it! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post
Thank you! 🙂
Thanks for the cute story.
You’re most welcome – thanks for reading!