Image by “Caveman Chuck” Coker
The Blue Whale of Catoosa
By Thomas Repp
Many people never quite get his story straight, but the Blue Whale of Catoosa never seems to mind. Lounging in landlocked Oklahoma — a salty anomaly, a shutterbug’s watery dream, he suits every sailor slipping down Route 66 with the same sloppy smile.
"I just saw another news article," says current whale co-owner, Dee Dee Davis Belt. "And it said my dad built the whale for my mom as a wedding present. I see this written in newspapers; I see this written in books. And it’s just not right!"
The true tale of Catoosa’s favorite whale does begin with one whopping romance. Hugh S. Davis was a man who adored animals. In his youth, Hugh inched his way through Africa with wildlife wunderkinds Martin and Osa Johnson. In his prime, Hugh stood front-and-ferocious-center as director of Tulsa’s Mohawk Zoo.
Hugh’s bride, Zelta, shared her husband’s love of things untamed. She joined Hugh on the Chautauqua lecture circuit — wrapping reptiles around her waist while he espoused the beauty of beasts. Eventually, Zelta talked Hugh into installing an alligator farm near their home — on property that fronted Route 66. When Hugh left the Mohawk Zoo — and began spending more time around the house — he opted to drop the gators and shape a pond on the property into a pretty waterpark.
"The kids kept saying, ‘We need something to jump off of,’" Zelta recalled in 1997. "Then Hugh had Harold Thomas over there — a friend of ours who was a welder. Hugh knew exactly what he was going to build, but he wouldn’t tell me. It looked to like it was going to be an airplane."
Jumbo jet, no; leviathan, yes: Hugh presented the whale to Zelta on their anniversary. It was a lavish gift. Hugh’s notes show the whale was built for a whopping 1970s cost of 1,910 dollars and 24 cents. He exhausted 126 sacks of dry Portland Concrete in completing his task — and .75 in nails to tack down the original redwood decking.
Hugh calculated the painted surface of the whale at 2,520 square feet. That number has earned the respect of preservationists who’ve stepped forward since 1980 — the year Hugh’s waterpark closed. One company spent six thousand dollars in whale refurbishing. Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating once appeared on site with a paintbrush — ready to swab.
On August 15, 2002, the latest group of whale boosters arrived. They came armed with a new Roadside Attraction sign, and they came from Hampton/Hilton Hotels Corp which had chosen the whale as the 12th project in its "Explore the Highway with Hampton, Save A Landmark" Program. With Hampton’s help, a new fence was erected on the whale’s grounds. The old snack bar was repainted, and a new septic system was installed to serve sailors too long in their cars.
And the whale’s sloppy smile?
"Hampton took care of that, too," says Dee Dee. "They brought out this big mop, and they brushed his teeth."
Repp, Thomas. "The Blue Whale of Catoosa." Oklahoma Route 66 Association. Undated. <http://www.oklahomaroute66.com/articles/catoosa.html>