If you’ve ever spent any time on the coast of Long Beach California you’ve surely seen them, the four islands not too far off the beach, each one appearing to contain what must be some sort of high priced resort, or even maybe an amusement park. Maybe condos for the rich and famous? Palm trees interspersed with towering blue and white buildings, and if you’re there at the right time, you may even see waterfalls gushing down into the ocean. If you know what I’m talking about, then you’ve been taken in by the mystery and illusion of the Long Beach Oil Islands.
Built in 1965 for an estimated $22 million dollars each, the THUMS Oil Islands have been a magical part of Long Beach for as long as most residents can remember. They were originally named the THUMS Oil Islands after the consortium which operated them; Texaco, Humble Oil, Union Oil, Mobil Oil, and Shell Oil companies. This consortium, THUMS, was later purchased by Occidental Petroleum in 2000.
Over the years, the islands have been known by many names. They were eventually officially named after different fallen astronauts and became known as the Astronaut Islands; Island Freeman for Theodore C. Freeman, Island Grissom for Virgil I. Grissom., Island White for Edward H. White II, and Island Chaffee for Roger B. Chaffee. Their exotic look was designed specifically to serve as camouflage to hide the huge oil drilling rigs that tap into the rich oil beds under the city. The towers also act as a sound wall for the islands closer to shore. Not surprisingly these features were designed by a theme park architect, Joseph Linesch, who also worked for a time on the design of nearby Disneyland Park.
The fancy looks and exotic lore do come with at least one drawback. The islands have a tendency to attract unwanted visitors from time to time. Some attempt to travel to the islands by boat. Occasionally someone will actually attempt to swim to these mysterious locations! Just a word of advice: It’s a felony to trespass on the islands, and the men and women who work there take unwanted guests very seriously.
Yes, people actually still commute to the islands for work on a daily basis. Some come by boat from the Port of Long Beach, and some from the downtown marina areas. With approximately 25,000 barrels of oil still being produced by the islands every day, it takes a full crew working around the clock to keep operations up and running day after day. The pumps on these islands, however, are not what the residents of Long Beach imagine when they think of an oil well. Bobbing oil donkeys are a common sight throughout the city and in Signal Hill (a small independent city completely surrounded by the city of Long Beach). These are electrical submersible pumps (ESPs), which can either take fluid out of the ground or put it back in.
Why put it back into the ground? To fight subsidence. Early in the Long Beach oil industry’s history the removal of so much oil from under the city lead to the ground actually sinking, as much as six feet downtown and 29 feet on adjacent Terminal Island in the Port. It became necessary to replace whatever was taken with ocean water. Thus subsidence became a thing of the past.
It has been a very long time since the public was granted free tours of the islands, but the look of these floating wonderlands is just as magical as ever. The next time you visit the city, be sure to take a moment to look out at them, these floating marvels. These tributes to the human ability to create magic where there may have only been the ugly sight of industrial machinery. These islands are a gift to the people of Long Beach, we shall be grateful for them for many years to come.