Fifty years ago, a whale carcass washed ashore near Florence, Ore., and the authorities wrestled with how to get rid of it.
They couldn’t bury it, fearing the eight tonnes of rotting flesh and its smell would quickly be exposed. Cutting and then burying it wasn’t an option because no one wanted to take on that task.
So, state highway officials decided to use a half-tonne of dynamite to blow up the 45-foot sperm whale, hoping its disintegrated matter would be whisked away by gulls.
The explosion instead spewed large chunks of decayed whale on curious bystanders, and even crushed a nearby parked car.
“The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds,” Paul Linnman, a journalist for the television station KATU, reported at the time.
Rather than put the escapade behind them, Florence residents voted to dedicate a park after the 1970 blast, choosing “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” as the name for the recreational area in the city, about 210 kilometres southwest of Portland.
“If you talk to people, it’s not necessarily a proud moment,” said Megan Messmer, Florence’s city project manager.
The blast is a point of contention for some residents, Ms. Messmer said, as the city is often blamed for the decision to blow up the carcass; the state highway division was responsible.
Still, Florence residents voted to commemorate the whale.
After the park opened last May with a temporary name, the city asked residents for suggestions for a permanent title, later narrowing those to a few in an online survey.
More than half of the final tally – 439 out of 856 responses – voted for “Exploding Whale Memorial Park,” Ms. Messmer said. Other ideas were “Bridge View Park” and “Siuslaw River View Park” for nearby landmarks.
The park is the latest example of what the public can come up with when invited to choose the name for sites or vessels.
In 2016, a British research agency’s call for help naming a ship was answered with “Boaty McBoatface.” The ship was instead named for naturalist David Attenborough, though a British submarine was given the whimsical name in an effort to appease disappointed internet users.
In 2018, a community of 5,000 in Estonia received 12,000 votes online to make a cannabis leaf the symbol on its flag.
The naming of the park in Oregon, however, is not an internet-fuelled fluke: Ms. Messmer said most residents are excited about the park’s name.
The park, as well as the 50th anniversary of the blast, was originally set to be celebrated at the city’s “Rhody Days” in May, but the Rhododendron Festival was cancelled because of the coronavirus. This year’s theme was supposed to be “Blast From the Past.”
A sign bearing the park’s new name was installed on June 13, with a rendering of a whale spouting water in the shape of a heart.
“It’s not gory,” Ms. Messmer said. “It’s a cute whale.”
Jo Beaudreau, the owner of an art supply store and the designer of the park’s sign, said the explosion is “still a little bit of a touchy subject” for residents, especially those who were involved in the blast.
She hopes the park can serve as a reminder that “we should celebrate our mistakes” and not be embarrassed.
The 1970 blast was a lesson learned for Oregon: There is now a policy to bury carcasses that can’t be removed easily, Ms. Messmer said.
The episode also found renewed relevance recently as a town in northern England used the blubber-coated bystanders in Oregon as a lesson to its residents about the coronavirus: “Sometimes, it’s better to just sit at home and do nothing than go outside and do something ridiculous,” it said on Twitter.
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