ODT Employee Newspaper article

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This article first appeared in the July 1994 issue of TranScript, the Oregon Department of Transportation employee newspaper. It is reproduced here to help answer the many questions still being asked today by enterprising reporters and internet surfers nationwide.

Son of Blubber

“My insurance company is never going to believe this,” said Springfield, Ore., businessman Walter Umenhofer as he surveyed the crushed remains of his big Buick.

A 3-foot by 5-foot piece of foul-smelling, rotting whale blubber had moments before soared a quarter-mile through the air, arching gracefully over a crowd of spectators perched on the sand dunes overlooking the Pacific Ocean, only to totally crush the top of Umenhofer’s car.

That was the scene on the central Oregon coast nearly 25 years ago — Thursday Nov. 12, 1970 — a day that still lives in America’s collective memory. That’s the day the state Highway Division tried to blow up a beached whale south of Florence, Ore. But the plan went awry, creating one of the most interesting stories ever reported in newspapers, on radio and TV. It was even voted Oregon’s best news wire service story of the year. And thanks to a pirated video and electronic bulletin boards, the story not only won’t die — it’s taken on a life of its own.

The flying blubber incident survives today as an Oregon legend, kept alive by a film-video of the event that has found its way to an east coast think-tank. Last spring, a vivid description of the whale blowup, titled The Farside Comes To Life In Oregon, appeared on subscriber electronic bulletin boards nationwide. Its author describes in detail his video copy of a TV film news report of the day by (Portland, Ore.) Channel 2’s Paul Linnman. But the electronic bulletin board story left out one important detail — the fact that the blubber blowup happened a quarter- century ago. To top it off, a columnist for the Daily News in Moscow-Pullman, (Idaho-Wash.), reprinted the electronic bulletin board article word-for-word, oblivious to the age of the story.

“We started getting calls from curious reporters across the country right after the electronic bulletin board story appeared,” said Ed Schoaps, public affairs coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “They thought the whale had washed ashore recently, and were hot on the trail of a governmental blubber flub-up. They were disappointed that the story has 25 years of dust on it.”

Schoaps has fielded calls from reporters and the just-plain- curious in Oregon, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal called, and Washington, D.C.-based Governing magazine covered the immortal legend of the beached whale in its June issue. And the phone keeps ringing. “I get regular calls about this story,” Schoaps said. His phone has become the blubber hotline for ODOT, he added. “It’s amazes me that people are still calling about this story after nearly 25 years.”

Here’s what really happened in November 1970. Remember, we are not making this up.

An 8-ton, 45-foot-long sperm whale, dead for some time, washed up on the Pacific Ocean beach south of Florence, Ore. At first it was a curiosity for local residents and visiting beachcombers. But the beached behemoth became a stinking mess as the foul smell of rotting whale wafted through the dunes.

The state Highway Division was given the task of cleaning up the mess. But how? If buried, the carcass would soon be uncovered by the ocean tides. Officials at the Department of the Navy were consulted, and a plan was hatched to blast the blubber to smithereens using a half-ton of dynamite. What little was left would be eaten by seagulls. (Remember, we are not making this up.)

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. The blast pulverized only part of the whale, sending pieces soaring — not toward the ocean, as planned, but toward people watching from the dunes. Luckily, although a car was crushed by a large piece of flying blubber, no onlookers were hurt, unless you count being covered by a rain of smaller particles of the foul-smelling flesh. That’s when most onlookers left and the Highway Division crew buried the balance of the beached whale.

“I can remember it vividly,” said George Thornton, then assistant district engineer, who got the whale cleanup task by default. “I got designated because district engineer Dale Allen (now ODOT Region 4 manager in Bend, Ore.) and others took off hunting when this thing broke — conveniently, I think,” Thornton said, laughing. “To be fair, they had [already] planned on going [hunting], but this thing made them all the more anxious to go.”

“I said to my supervisors, usually when something happens like this, the person ends up getting promoted,” Thornton added. “Sure enough, about six months later, I got promoted to Medford.” Thornton retired from ODOT in 1990.

Epilogue: When a pod of 41 sperm whales washed ashore in nearly the same location in 1979, State Parks officials burned and buried them.

© 1994 Oregon Department of Transportation