The ‘Boom Town’ That Lived
A Brief History of Coalinga by Bill Howell
Located in Fresno County, Coalinga is one of the few cities that began as a mining town, and survived. Oil provided the community with over 100 years of relative prosperity, but it was the discovery of coal that inspired the name, Coalinga, when laid out by Southern Pacific Railroad engineers in 1891. Legend has it during those days; there were three coaling stations: “A”, “B” and “C”. The name Coalinga is derived from mixing “Coaling” with Station “A”, with the “A” meaning to arrive.
In 1889 the Coalinga Post Office was established and in 1891, the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased 160 acres of homestead owned by M.L. Curtis establishing the present site of Coalinga. By 1910, Coalinga was the third largest shipping point for the railroad in California, with nearly all the tonnage connected to oil production.
A handful of local citizens began the process of incorporation, which was completed in April of 1906 and in 1909, the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce was organized. April 16, 1910, there was plenty to “crow” about as the Coalinga oil field was reported as the largest in California because earlier in September 1909, the Silver Tip well, (In photo at left), just one-half mile from the city limits. It blew as the greatest gusher known in California at that time.
This caused enough excitement that the Los Angeles Stock Exchange closed, so that its members could come to Coalinga on a special excursion.
Coalinga’s oil field produced men and companies who were to become some of the giants of the industry, one being R.C. Baker, the founder of Baker Oil Tools. His original buildings are now the home of the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum located at 297 W. Elm. It is one of the outstanding small museums in the state, focusing on oil, the geology of the area and all phases of pioneer life.
Grammar schools came with the earliest settlers in the area and the first high school was built in 1910. The first graduation class, was held in 1912 with three members. In 1913, the women of Coalinga promoted a library district receiving a Carnegie grant valued at $14,000. The building was erected in 1916. In 1918, Coalinga veterans of the “World War” began organizing a local veteran’s organization. This idea spread 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.
Coalinga College was established in 1932. Later renamed West Hills Community College District serving students from Coalinga, Mendota, Firebaugh, Lemoore, Avenal and Huron.
In 1933, the Junior Chamber of Commerce hosted an impromptu racing of various wild reptiles later known as the “annual running of the “Horned Toads”. It later became known as the Annual Horned Toad Derby. The only years missed since 1933 of the racing of the toads: were the war years, 1942-1945 and 1983, due to the Coalinga earthquake.
The Horned Toad was adopted by the High School as its mascot in 1938.
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. Residents realized that the oil was not going to last forever and the earthquake was the catalyst that inspired the City to look for new economic opportunities.
It was successful having the State Department of Corrections locate a major prison facility in the Pleasant Valley in 1991, Coalinga State Hospital in 2006, a 40-acre industrial park adjacent to the city.
In addition, there is an $8 million airport facility and in 1998, the residents approved a bond issue for a new $14 million hospital, the Coalinga Regional Medical Center, with the latest in medical technology.
Since 1983, the Coalinga Huron Parks and Recreation District has expanded its facilities, constructing a community center, fitness center and a senior citizen’s center. Also in cooperation with the City of Coalinga a new skate park has been built, and several parks promoting soccer, basketball, walking trails and even an outdoor amphitheater have emerged. City Streets and sidewalks, and new businesses continue to add to the independent spirit of this, mid-state city along the I-5 corridor.