About a quarter mile off of the sandy shores of Long Beach sit four rather alluring islands, some of which feature futuristic looking curved walls and tall towers. Upon first glance they appear to be condos or part of a resort, but the truth is much, much less glamorous, as they in fact are oil derricks.
Oil was first discovered in Long Beach in 1921, but it wasn’t until 1939 that drilling began under tidelands. Of course big oil had its eyes on Long Beach, and Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobil, and Shell won the bid to lease the oil field off the shore of Long Beach, but there was a catch. In 1962 voters decided that future oil rigs must not look like oil rigs. The solution? Four man-made islands, each ten to twelve acres with careful architecture and landscaping to hide the unsightly derricks.
In 1965 these islands rose out of the ocean using over half of a million tons of boulders from Catalina Island, and over three million cubic yards of sand dredged from the ocean. Architecture firm Linesch and Reynolds, who had previously worked on projects at Disneyland, already had deceptive oil derrick architecture under their belt when they were tasked with making the islands aesthetically pleasing to Long Beach residents and beach visiting tourists. They teamed up with sculptor Herbert J. Goldman and and horticulturalist Morgan “Bill’ Evans, who had also done work for Disneyland, landscaping the theme park. In fact Evans’ impact on Disneyland is so prolific that in 1990 he received a Main Street window. Together this group created towers that looked like cartoon condos to cover up the derricks themselves, and then futuristic walls that were intermixed with lush vegetation along the edge, and even waterfalls, all to hide both the sight and sound of the oil machinery. Although, I was sad to see that the waterfalls were not running during our daytime visit.
Part of the reason for such dedication was not just to shield beachgoers from the unsightly oil equipment, but also because the islands were planned to become parks of some sort once the islands ceased oil production, which was thought to be within a couple of decades. The initial estimate was that the oil would dry up after 35 years, and yet here we are, over 50 years later and they are still going. But Long Beach plans to end all production and abandon the oil fields by 2035. Long Beach’s plan is a little ahead of the state, which plans to end petroleum production by 2045, so maybe the plans of them becoming parks will finally come to fruition. However, much will need to be done to the interior portion of the islands to make them a suitable tourist destination, as the areas beyond the walls are “gridlocked with pipelines and storage vats…men and women in hard hats [who] scoot around on forklifts or lug heavy pipes.” You can catch a glimpse inside by watching this episode of California’s Gold with Huell Howser.
With the companies of Texaco, Humble, Union, Mobile, and Shell, the islands are properly known as the T.H.U.M.S. Islands, but they have another name. In 1967 each of the islands were named after the first astronauts killed in the line of duty, Edward White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger Chaffee, who were killed aboard Apollo 1, and Theodore Freeman, a pilot who died during testing. This resulted in the islands getting the nickname “The Astronaut Islands.”
Not all of the islands feature the midcentury modern design work, for the most part only Grissom and White were given the ultra glamorous treatment. However others do feature palm trees along their shores. The thoughtfulness given to the design on Grissom and White continues after the sun goes down, as at night those two islands transform into a colorful futuristic watercolor painting, lit with different colored lights, some of which change color.
While you cannot step foot onto the islands themselves, you can look at them from several locations, or aboard a boat if you’re lucky enough to have one or know someone. Below you will see yellow stars where we went to take photos, as well as red car icons to mark parking locations. I recommend parking at either Shoreline Village or Alamitos Beach and walking to both the Long Beach Shoreline Marina and Riviera Point at Alamitos Beach. You can also visit the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier for other views. Click the image below to see larger.