The "Iron Zoo" of painted pumpjacks near Coalinga, California adds a dash of animal magnetism to the industrial landscape in Fresno County.
You've all seen pumpjacks – reciprocating pumps installed over producing oil wells – and no doubt likened them to nodding donkeys. You're not the only one: that curved metal box at the “bobbing” end of the pump's I-beam backbone is known as a “horse head” or “donkey head”.
Jean Dakessian Jones also noted the zoomorphic appearance of pumpjacks, many of which grazed Coalinga's rolling hills near the struggling motel she and her husband owned. Desperate to find something to lure tourists and travelers, she came up with the idea of painting the pumpjacks to bring out the various creatures they resembled.
Jones wasn't about to do anything that could be construed as trespassing, vandalism or both so in 1971 she sat down with Marshall Newkirk, site manager for Shell Oil in Coalinga, and laid out her vision of an “Iron Zoo”.
Newkirk allowed her to paint a single pumpjack, figuring if things didn't work out then it would be a quick and easy fix. Just to cover his own butt, however, Newkirk let his superiors know what was going down... and their response was a pleasant surprise. “After I painted the first one, he ran it by the head office and they gave me the green light to continue,” explained Jones.
And continue she did – Shell even chipped in to cover the cost of the paint. By mid-1973 she had painted all 23 of Shell's pumpjacks into a veritable zoo featuring a ram, a zebra, a giraffe and more. When Chevron – owners of 34 local pumpjacks – wanted in on the fun, Jones wisely farmed out the makeovers to local artists and the community. “Families came out on the weekends,” according to Jones, “even the mayor and his family painted one.”
Coalinga's main claim to fame isn't the Iron Zoo... in 1983 a devastating earthquake destroyed over 300 homes and caused severe damage to the eight-block downtown commercial district. Some of the painted pumpjacks incurred damage as well. Jean Dakession Jones, along with the local Boy Scout troop, took the opportunity to spruce up some of the Iron Zoo's denizens once it was safe to do so.
All good things must come to an end, and indeed the Iron Zoo's days are numbered. Rust and sun-bleaching aren't the issues (well, not the MAIN issues). The Coalinga Oil Field is gradually running dry and, one by one, the pumpjacks above the drained petroleum deposits are going the way of the dodo – or the dinosaur, if you will. (images via Flickr members Arlette, Britta Gustafson, Bruce Fingerhood, and Wayne Hsieh)