Sam McManis

Discoveries: Searching for memories of the Coalinga quake

Catastrophic events can unjustly define a small town, obliterate all cultural quirks and achievements, turn it into the civic equivalent of gawking at a grisly roadside accident even after all the rebuilding has been completed.

Take Coalinga, the pleasant Fresno County town, erstwhile oil haven, set amid the backdrop of the Sierra Madre Mountain foothills.

If the word “earthquake” does not leap to mind, then you either are (a) a lifelong Coalingan of a certain age whose memories are of the good ol’ days; or (b) some self-absorbed millennial for whom history began with your birth.

People don’t mean to play word association with the town, but the earthquake of May 2, 1983, magnitude 6.7 and centered 5 miles to the east, pretty much leveled the town that came to being in an 1865 “black rush” of oil discovery and thrived for decades after local entrepreneur R.C. Baker patented casing shoes for oil wells and other tools of the trade.

Just like Valdez, Alaska (oil slick), Joplin, Mo. (tornado), Fukushima prefecture, Japan (tsunami/nuclear power leak), and New Orleans’ Ninth Ward (flooding), Coalinga has became synonymous with disaster. Little matter that downtown has been rebuilt and boasts more businesses than before – McDonald’s and Kmart came to town, as did the first stoplight – to certain Californians who motor on by the exit so blithely on the interstate, never bother stopping. Coalinga is that place that was leveled in that really bad quake a couple of years before Loma Prieta.

Morbid curiosity, and an abundance of free time, led me to town, where I figured its main drag, West Elm Street, would feature some heartfelt memorial, a statue or something, remembering such a natural disaster. No such luck, though I must admit I might have been exceeding the speed limit and not checking every corner.

What I did find was the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum, which takes up almost a full square block of West Elm, quite a chunk of real estate for a town of 16,000. Surely, inside I would discover displays, maybe even a whole wing, dedicated to the earthquake, its aftermath and the heroic rebuilding in the decades since.

All I found, however, was a laminated section of The Fresno Bee commemorating the quake’s 20th anniversary, the front page of the Los Angeles Times on the morning after (“Quake Devastates Town”) and a single photo album featuring townsfolks’ personal Polaroid snapshots of the devastation, which damaged nearly all of Coalinga’s 2,000 homes, many beyond repair, and flattened 100 buildings, sending fire plumes skyward.

This, in a museum with six rooms, three backyard sites for vintage large machinery, a re-created train depot that explained the city’s name (originally “Coaling Station” but somehow morphed into Coalinga) and a restored 1930s Richfield service station that somehow survived the earthquake.

What’s up with that?

“It’s a little bit (downplayed) because there’s more to this town than that,” said Stephanie McHenry, museum curator. “A lot more. We just kinda say, ‘OK, whatever,’ when people bring up the earthquake. We know it made big news, and people still think that about us.”

It’s not something to celebrate, or even dwell upon, in town. It was a disaster, after all. And even though, miraculously, no one died and only 52 people were injured, Coalinga apparently has moved on. Yet, if nearly all its historic brick structures are gone, replaced by bland, boxy 1980s-era buildings, most assuredly seismically retrofitted, the memories live on.

Mostly, they live in the museum that once was Baker’s corporate headquarters. It’s now packed with artifacts that document Coalinga’s prehistoric dwelling place for mastodons and other giants trodding the earth, its remnants from the Yokut Tachi tribes, its oil boom with derricks standing like sentinels throughout town, and the Baker-inspired boom days. There also are personal effects from various generations of Coalingans, report cards from the 1930s, old railroad ties, oil rigs, turn-of-the-century firetrucks, antique Victrola record players, gloves from the town’s 1933 baseball team and a handsome collection of large belt buckles representing the different oil companies that once sucked oil from the soil.

I spent an hour rummaging around and didn’t cover it all. I missed, for example, the collection of celebrity shoes that local schoolkids collected in the 1960s, meant to inspire youngsters to “walk in the footsteps of greatness.” I was told that Leonard Bernstein’s loafers were in great shape, shined and gleaming, and that Chief Justice Earl Warren had big feet.

Fascinating, but I kept waiting for the earthquake stuff.

Strange, because other notable local disasters were accounted for. There was an informative display case noting the 1948 plane crash outside of town, in Los Gatos Canyon, (Headline: “Fresno County’s Biggest Air Disaster Happened Here”) that claimed the lives of 28 Mexican nationals being flown back south of the border after picking crops. You may know of the crash from Woody Guthrie’s protest song “Deportee.” Also duly noted was the 1930 fire that destroyed all but two buildings and killed two men in a rooming house on “Whiskey Row” in the downtown area. That was the second of two Whiskey Row fires, by the way; the first was in 1912.

Maybe after 30 years, the wounds from the earthquake are still so fresh that no artifacts are needed to jog memories.

Or maybe it’s just that Coalingans would rather just remember the good times, those small, personal moments that make up lives of ordinary citizens. Stuff like the collection of miniatures that local resident Evelyn M. Mead donated, or the flock of Shirley Temple dolls another resident bequeathed to the museum, or the artifacts from the annual Horned Toad Derby Day (go to the museum to find out more), or the photo collage of local oil wells decorated like zoo animals, or the portrait of sports hero Tommy Burns, world heavyweight boxing champion in 1906 until Jack Johnson knocked him for a loop, and he married a Coalinga lass, Nellie Vanderlip, and settled down in town to lick his wounds.

Eventually, I found the earthquake notebooks, actually near the front entrance. They were disguised so well I walked right past them. Yes, the photos are stark and certainly a reminder to any Californian to have an earthquake-preparedness kit at hand.

But I was most affected – heartened, really – by a framed Fresno Bee story published on the 20th anniversary of the quake. The story makes the case that the earthquake, in the long run, helped Coalinga – kind of like that old joke about a natural disaster causing “millions of dollars of improvements” to an already-blighted area. The story says population soared by 42 percent, school enrollment doubled, millions of dollars in federal and state disaster relief money was used wisely. I was particularly struck by a quote from Allen Jacobsen, the town’s public services director: “An earthquake is the best urban renewal project that any town in California could have.”

See, maybe Coalingans should celebrate the quake, after all.