How Oil Built a California City Named For Coal

2 min
Model Ts arrive in Coalinga in 1914, marking the city's first carload of automobiles. C. R. Vanderlip was the dealer. (Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Coalinga, a city in Fresno County. Know an unusual place name in California? Tell us about it in the comments below, or send a note to calreport@kqed.org.

Bill Morris has lived in Coalinga for 65 years. It's a city of only 16,000 people, but he says he likes it that way. "You don't have to worry about traffic... Coalinga grows on you, that's for sure."

He spends his days as a volunteer docent at the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum in downtown Coalinga, so he knows quite a bit about the history of his adopted hometown.

"Oil definitely made Coalinga," he says.

An idle oil well in the eastern portion of the Coalinga Field.
An idle oil well in the eastern portion of the Coalinga Field. (Antandrus at English Wikipedia)

But before cars came on the scene, coal-powered trains rumbled through Coalinga. In fact, even though oil "made" Coalinga, it's coal that gave the city its name.

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Between 1870 and 1880, coal was discovered in Coalinga, and mines to extract the resource were built into the hills. In 1888, miners built a railroad that connected the mines to coaling stations on the flat land. There were three of these loading stops: Coaling Station A, B, and C.

Eventually, a little town sprouted around the first stop. Bill explains that Coaling Station A became the name of the town, and then they shortened it. "They just called it Coaling-A, instead of calling it Coaling Station A."

The "Silver Tip" oil well gusher in 1909.
The "Silver Tip" oil well gusher in 1909. (Photo Courtesy of R. C. Baker Memorial Museum, Inc.)

But by that time, the automobile had been invented, and the country was hungry for oil. Coalinga also used to be on an oil field, so the small town grew into a city as people flocked to extract this precious resource, and industry grew.

"If it wasn't for oil, Coalinga probably wouldn't even be here," Bill says. "It would just be a grassland for the cattle to feed on."

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