Catoosa: Twin Bridges & The Blue Whale

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On the way into Catoosa and Tulsa, Route 66 crosses over the Verdigris River, which is also part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.  If you’re headed westbound on Route 66, you’ll first cross the wide, man-made section of the river that’s used for navigation.  Then moments later…

… you come upon a rusty steel treasure along the old road, the somewhat famous and almost twin steel bridges, that cross the natural channel of the Verdigris, which is now called Bird Creek.  The first of these steel “twins” was built in 1936, the second was added in 1957 to handle the increase in traffic.  The newer of the bridges (which ironically, appeared more rusty at the time of my visit in 2008) is a few feet wider.  So, maybe they’re just brothers, not twins.

By the way, my picture was taken after I crossed the bridge, meaning I was looking eastbound.  Traffic moves quickly through this straight stretch of 4-lane, so use caution if you stop to admire the old structures.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System abruptly ends at the Port of Catoosa, just north of the Route 66 bridges that cross the Verdigris River.  The Port of Catoosa is one of the most inland ocean port in the United States (and as far as I can tell, the most inland ice-freeport).  The McCKARNS runs for 445 miles, connecting Catoosa to the Gulf of Mexico, and the rest of the water-covered world.
Before the first of these two steel bridges were built across the Verdigris River in 1936, Old Route 66 crossed the river just to the north.  A fragment of the old road crosses the new one, just west of the twin bridges.  If you’re fanatical about following every inch of the old alignment, get a good guidebook–but keep in mind, the 4-lane OK 66 was also once designated as an official alignment of Route 66.

The Catoosa Blue Whale

Exactly one mile beyond the twin bridges, you’ll find another famous icon of the old road: the Catoosa Whale.  The giant concrete structure stands in the middle of a small lake.

The Catoosa Whale used to be part of a commercial swimming hole.  Nowadays, you can walk right through the gates without paying…

… and right up to the smiling mouth of the Catoosa Blue Whale.

There are different accounts of how the Blue Whale came into existence, but the one posted on the Oklahoma Route 66 Association’s website appears most reliable.  Back in the early 1970’s, Hugh and Zelta Davis developed a pond on their property into a water park.  When the kids demanded some sort of jumping platform, Hugh came up with the idea of the whale, but kept the plans a secret from his wife.  He spent nearly $2,000 building the Blue Whale, and went through 126 sacks of concrete.  Once it was all done, he presented his creation to Zelta on their wedding anniversary.  Their roadside business closed in 1980; the whale started showing its age and the grounds grew wild.  But the community wouldn’t think of letting their local landmark fade away.  Volunteers (even the governor) have shown up on numerous occasions to restore the whale, keeping it coated with paint, and even sprucing up the area surrounding the lake, making a nice park.

As I walked up to, and inside the whale, I quickly discovered one of the whale’s neatest secrets:

There’s a hidden area inside the whale’s head!  Climb up a ladder, and you can crawl around inside this “attic” space, peering out the tiny windows that surround the whale’s head.  Instantly, I was at least 20 years younger.

And I didn’t just feel like a kid again, I felt like I was back in the 1970’s.  The Catoosa Blue Whale is something that would never be built today.  I’m not saying it’s unsafe, I’m saying it’s 1970’s safe.  Kids in the 70’s survived unharmed, even without bicycle helmets and knee pads, and even though they rode in the front seat of a car with no airbags.  Likewise, some uncovered steel rebar, rickety wood floors, and ladders without railings wouldn’t have killed them, either.  Yes, the whale is plenty safe, thank you very much.

After playing around in the head of the whale for a few minutes, some other people arrived at the park, and I decided I’d better start acting like an adult again.

Once you climb down from the head, you can walk out to the whale’s tail, and climb up onto what once served as a diving platform (swimming is no longer allowed at this swimming hole).

The view from the tail is great, but it is a little dizzying standing here, on a small platform, surrounded by water, with no railings.  Darn it!  I’m back in the 21st century again, worrying about things that could go wrong.

Back on solid ground, there’s a rest area for anyone who’s been enjoying too many beverages in the car (unless you’re visiting in winter, when the rest rooms are locked).  No, the rest rooms don’t provide an answer to whether the whale is a girl or a guy…

… since both genders have their own likeness of the whale.

If you’re seeking out Will Rogers plaques along the old road, you’ll find one here at the Blue Whale.  The sign tells of Fort Spunky, a mail relay station that once stood nearby, serving the Old Star mail route before the Civil War.  The Catoosa Post Office was founded after the war, with an uncle of Will Rogers serving as postmaster.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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