Local history: The oil islands and how they got their names
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Sometimes lipstick on a pig actually works, causing people to remark about how pretty the pig looks. In the best cases, you can’t even tell it’s a pig.
Landscape artist Joseph Linesch was chosen to gussy up the four oil islands off the shores of Long Beach in the mid-1960s when the petroleum consortium of Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil and Shell—collectively known as THUMS—won the bid to lease a large part of the massive East Wilmington Oil Field, the third largest field in the contiguous United States.
THUMS wouldn’t be allowed to simply set up offshore drilling platforms because while the city had agreed to allow drilling off its coast, it had included a beautification clause that would enable THUMS to drill, so long as it looked pretty while doing it, rather than creating an eyesore in the process.
Executives at THUMS came up with the idea of making the islands attractive to the point that they would add to the beauty of the coast rather than detract from it, and it fell to Linesch of the Los Angeles firm of Linesch and Reynolds, to bring beauty and glamor to the four islands.
There was plenty to work with. The islands are between 10 and 12 acres each, all built with 640,000 tons of boulders barged in from Catalina as well as more than 3 million cubic yards of sand dredged locally.
Original plans were to dress up the island in a South Pacific tropical theme which would give the offshore structures a decidedly tiki look, but that idea was scotched in favor of a design that would look more urban to tie in with the city’s developing skyline.
The result was somewhat of a combination of city and tropics, with the towering colorful structures hiding the derricks surrounded by full-grown palm trees and fronted by illuminated waterfalls for a stunning look that made visitors wonder if they were offshore resorts. Pleasure boaters frequently anchored near the islands to throw parties or simply to enjoy the view.
The naming of the islands was a process that involved plenty of input from city leaders as well as private citizens.
Originally simply termed Islands A, B, C and D, and a bit later, using the NATO phonetic alphabet designation of Islands Alfa (rather than Alpha), Bravo, Charlie and Delta, a fancier nomenclature was sought, and there were plenty of suggestions.
Councilman William Graham didn’t see much use in coming up with names, saying, “No matter what we call these things, they are going to be called Island A, B, C and D,” though he nevertheless suggested going with the local references Alamitos, Cerritos, Brea and Bolsa. Similarly, Councilman Robert Crow suggested Alamitos, Cerritos, Cabrillo and Willmore. Citizen suggestions included fish (with one marine mammal)—Albacore, Barracuda, Cod and Dolphin. Other ideas called for names of precious stones or Disney characters accompanied by giant, illuminated cutouts, and another still hoping for the tropical theme, suggested the already-taken island names of Oahu, Hawaii, Kauai and Maui.
Councilman Bert Bond suggested calling the islands, collectively, “The Astronaut Islands,” naming them in honor of the three Apollo astronauts who died 56 years ago this week on Jan. 27, 1967, when fire swept through their spacecraft during a testing session, with the fourth island named in honor of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
In short order, in keeping with the all-astronaut idea, it was decided that the fourth island would be named for astronaut Ted Freeman, the first fatality in NASA’s Astronaut Corps, who died on Oct. 31, 1964, when his T-38 supersonic jet trainer crashed near Houston.
There was further discussion in the council before the names became official on March 21, 1967 by a vote of 7-2, with Graham and Thomas Clark dissenting, though expressing sympathy for the deceased astronauts’ families but declining to name the islands in their honor.
Island Grissom is the westernmost island and the closest to shore, followed to the east by Island White then Island Chaffee at the east. Island Freeman is the farthest from shore, south of the other three.
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