Iron Zoo – Coalinga, California - Atlas Obscura
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Coalinga, California

Iron Zoo

A dwindling menagerie of anthropomorphic oil derrick animals still dot the barren California landscape. 

Once numbering in the dozens, the painted pumping units collectively known as the Iron Zoo have slowly been disappearing with the downturn of the California oil industry, but a few remain to remind passersby of a more whimsical and prosperous time. 

The brainchild of Jean Dakessian Jones, a motor lodge operator in the nearby town of Coalinga, the painted giants were originally meant to attract people to her motel. The project began in 1971 when the road to Coalinga was dotted with a steady trail of pumping units bobbing their “heads” up and down, dragging sweet Texas Tea from the California grounds. With the permission of the local Shell Oil manager, Jones painted one of the pumps and the manager liked it so much that they got the go ahead to paint a bunch more of them, in fact the company even began providing the paint! Jones painted 23 more pumps by herself before outsourcing the design ideas and labor to the area locals who would come out and paint the pumps as a community. Designs ranged from animals like goats and butterflies to more whimsical figures such as a sailor and a cowboy, and while it began with just paint jobs, new flourishes began to be made adding horns, hats, and even wings to the pumps.

For a time the fields leading to Coalinga were fairly densely populated by the creatures but as the oil industry began to be outsourced more and more to foreign interests, the number of pumping units began to dwindle. The once ubiquitous machines began being dismantled and put into storage, no matter their paint job.

Today only a few of the creatures of the Iron Zoo remain, but their giant forms still hold some of that plucky spirit that helped turn the otherwise lifeless machines into something a bit more.