The Boom Town That Lived A Brief History of Coalinga by Bill Howell
Coalinga as an incorporated city in Fresno County, is one of the few in California that began as a mining boom town, and survived. The City of Coalinga celebrated its 96th birthday in 2001,
Oil is the mineral that provided the community with over 100 years of relative prosperity, but it was the discovery of coal that inspired the naming of the town when laid out by Southern Pacific Railroad engineers in 1891., Legend has it during those days; there were three coaling stations; Stations "A", "B" and "C", The name Coalinga is derived from mixing "Coaling" with Station "A", to arrive at the naming of the City.
Interest in oil seepage inspired an "oil rush" to the area in 1865 that was described in news accounts as "Not unlike a gold discovery." This early interest was to die down primarily because of shipping problems and the world had not yet discovered the full potential of petroleum.
While Southern Pacific Railroad showed little interest in oil production, it extended the tracks from Huron because of coal discoveries.
In 1889 the Coalinga Post Office was established and in 1891, Southern Pacific Railroad purchased the 160 acres homestead of ML. Curtis and laid out the present town site of Coalinga.
The extension of the railroad coincided with a significant worldwide interest in oil production. As the coal mines proved to be of little value, the second "oil rush" of 1890 was. By 1910, Coalinga was the third largest shipping point for the railroad in all of California, nearly all tonnage connected with oil production. A handful of local citizens began the process of incorporation, which was completed in April of 1906.
In 1909, the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce was organized, and in it's first report dated April 16, 1910, there was plenty to "crow" about. The Coalinga oil field was the largest in California. In September 1909, the Silver Tip well, just one-half mile from the city limits, blew in with the greatest gusher known in California at that time. This discovery caused enough excitement among the financiers of California that the Los Angeles Stock Exchange was closed on a Friday, so that members could come to Coalinga on a special excursion. Coalinga's oil field of that time was to produce men and companies who were to become some of the giants of the industry. Just one of these was R.C. Baker, founder of Baker Oil Tools. The original buildings in Coalinga are now the home of the R.C, Baker Memorial Museum, one of the outstanding small museums in the state, focusing on oil, the geology of the area and all phases of pioneer life.
The biggest test for the existence of the city came on May 2, 1983, when Coalinga experienced the 6.7 earthquake that leveled a significant portion of the business district. Coalinga has a history of meeting challenges and this disaster proved to be just another challenge. In the early days, there was no one to provide natural gas to customers in Coalinga. The city contracted with nearby oil companies to supply natural gas from their wells that was resold to city residents. Coalinga is nearly unique as being one of just a handful of cities to operate this utility. Today natural gas is purchased from major suppliers for residents. Drinking water was in short supply, To meet this challenge, Coalinga's drinking water has always been imported. Until 1972, every Coalinga residence had three water faucets in the kitchen — hot water, cold, and drinking. Until 1960 the major source of drinking water was from artesian water wells in Armona, owned by Southern Pacific, In 1960, Coalinga was a site selected from experimental systems to soften hard water. The first of these was an ionic system that was later replaced by the reverse osmosis method that was eventually to be commonly used throughout the world to convert even sea water to a drinkable state.
The third faucet was not to become an unused conversation piece until 1972, when Coalinga received its first delivery of San Luis Canal water from the State/Federal water system. This April 1972 date came almost 66 years to the day following incorporation.
Before 1972, agriculture was limited to growing cotton, and other salt-water resistant crops. With the coming of canal water, the area has become rich in specialty crops such as lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, garlic, and a variety of nut and fruit trees.
The women of Coalinga promoted a library district in 1913. In 1916, an Andrew Carnegie grant $14,000 building was built. Now Coalinga has a district library system that can challenge many public libraries in the state.
In 1918, Coalinga veterans of the "World War" began organizing a local Great War veteran's organization. This idea spread through the efforts of local organizers until it reached statewide interest When veterans met in 1919 to establish the American Legion, Coalinga was designated Post number 2 in California. Post-number 1 in San Francisco gave their support to later designate Coalinga as "Mother Post" of California.
This patriotic spirit has never faded. From World War I through the latest military involvements, Coalinga men and women have served their- country honorably. In 1933, the Junior Chamber of Commerce became involved in an impromptu racing of various wild "critters" during an official function of that group. This evolved into the Coalinga Horned Toad Derby. In 2001, Coalinga celebrated its 65th Annual running of the "Horned Toads." The only years missed since 1933 were the war years, 1942-1945 & 1983, due to the earthquake.
The Horned Toad was adopted by the High School as its mascot in 1938, the fight song, words and music written by a Coalinga student.
Grammar schools date from the earliest settlers in the area. The first high school was built in 1910 and the first graduation class, all three members graduated in 1912. A junior college was established in 1932. Academically, Coalinga residents have proven themselves in every field. Coalinga High and West Hills College graduates have been involved in world wide impacting work, ranging from the development of one of the first mechanical cotton pickers to significant developments in the landing system of the space shuttle.
In athletics, Coalinga High School and West Hills graduates have scored touchdowns in the Rose Bowl game. Some graduates have gone on to fame in the professional sports ranks, especially in football and baseball. During the heyday of boxing, some young men were to become recognized world class fighters. The five man High School track team won the state championship in 1917. More recently has been National recognition for the championship performance of the West Hills College rodeo teams.
The West Hills College campus is where the WHAMOBASS hot air balloon festival is held each November on the weekend closest to the anniversary of man's first successful balloon flight. In the nearby foothills is the world's only known deposit of Benitoite, adopted as the State Gem.
A first was chalked up for Coalinga when it hired Kay Halloway in 1973 as the first female police chief in the United States. Prior to that, a Coalinga woman, Jeanne Peterson, stirred up the State in 1932 when she successfully ran for the job of constable held by her late husband. She continued to hold this position until she retired some 16 years later. By May 1983, residents realized that the oil was not going to last forever. The earthquake was the catalyst that inspired the City to revitalize.
The City was successful in their efforts to have the State Department of Corrections locate a major prison facility in the Pleasant Valley and a Forensic Hospital adjacent to it. With this as an economic base the City has developed a 40-acre industrial park. In addition there is a brand-new $8 million airport facility. This, along with the mid-way location of the City along the busy 1-5 corridor, is expected to diversify the Coalinga economy as the state growth continues. Coalinga is nearly equidistant from the major Northern, and Southern California metropolitan centers.
In 1998, the residents approved a bond issue for a new $14 million Hospital. Coalinga Regional Medical Center, with the latest in medicine technology on hand, has built new office buildings to accommodate doctors wanting to practice here.
Since 1983, the Coalinga Huron Parks and Recreation District has expanded its facilities, spending over $2 million in construction of a first class youth entertainment and community center, plus a top fitness center and first class senior citizen's center.
Is the Boom Town of 1906 going to last? The roots are deep, just add water and watch us grow!