The day whale meat rained down on the town of Florence
The highway engineer in charge of getting rid of a big stinky dead whale on the beach miscalculated the amount of dynamite he would need. The result was a spectacular event that has become a true Oregon legend.
By Finn J.D. John — August 14, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is an extensive revision and rewriting of a 2008 article on the same topic.
It was a sunny November day on the beach near Florence, and Oregon Highway Department project manager George Thornton was standing near a very large, very dead whale, talking to a TV news crew. He was explaining the department’s plan for getting rid of the big, stinky thing.
“Well, I’m confident that it’ll work,” he said, in the mild, competent drawl of a West Coast engineer. “The only thing is, we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it’ll take to disintegrate this thing so the scavengers, seagulls and crabs and what-not, can clean it up.”
Years later, the reporter, Paul Linnman, remembered this response well.
“As the young producers on our staff today like to say, OH-MY-GOD!” he wrote in his 1996 book. “The engineer in charge of blowing up something that weighs eight tons doesn’t know how much dynamite to use? That should have been my reaction.”
But, perhaps baffled by the very incongruity of the response, Linnman simply rolled with it. “Any chance it could be more than a one-day job?” he asked.
“Uh, if there’s any large chunks left,” said Thornton.
Spoiler alert: There would be many large chunks left.
The morning of Nov. 12, 1970, dawned bright and clear on the Florence beach — clear and stinky. Up on the beach near the town, the rotting carcass of a 45-foot, 16,000-pound whale slumped on the sand. It had lain there for three days, its black surface soaking up the unseasonable winter sunshine, pouring forth putrid gases that oozed out over the beach and the town.
At that time, the beaches in Oregon were under the purview of the Oregon Highway Department, so the chore of disposing of the carcass fell to the highway engineers. They’d spent a little time trying to figure out how to handle the problem. The carcass could be simply buried in the sand, true; but it was winter, and storms often removed large amounts of sand. The fear was that the carcass would resurface in a month or two, even more putrid than ever. Or, worse, it could work its way up to just a few inches below the surface of the sand, and a strolling beachcomber could fall into it and drown in liquefied whale guts.
An alternative might have been to drag it up high on the sand dunes and bury it. But by its third day cooking in the sun, that option was no longer viable. Any attempt to pull the thing would simply pull it apart.
So, after some conversations with the U.S. Navy, the highway department decided to handle it as it would handle a boulder: with dynamite.
There was a difference, though. Boulders are big and crunchy; dead whales are soft and blubbery. A couple sticks of dynamite would probably have sufficed to knock a boulder into the ocean. Thornton would have known exactly how much dynamite to use on a boulder. But a dead whale?
And another thing. A boulder, blasted into the sea, would sink. A whale would float along for a day or two and then be delivered back on shore by prevailing currents, stinkier and more unmanageable than ever. No, the whale would have to be disintegrated — torn into ribbons of blubber and bone.
Now, had the whale not smelled quite so bad, Thornton might have spent a little more time in researching his project. But everyone was eager to get the whale off the beach. Thornton no doubt figured if it wasn’t enough to do the job, he could just set another charge. This would not turn out to be the case. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As Thornton and his crew were packing case after case of DuPont’s finest into a big hole in the sand dug under the shoreward side of the carcass, a crew-cutted military-looking man approached, looking the operation over with a practiced eye. He clearly did not like what he was seeing.
This was Walter Uemenhoefer, a Springfield business executive with the Kingsford Charcoal company who had received extensive training in explosives handling in the military. He later told reporter Ben Raymond Lode of The Springfield News that he’d been in town on an undercover mission to scout a possible location for a Florence plant, and he had no idea how dramatically his cover was about to be blown.
Right now, though, Uemenhoefer was not thinking about his mission. He was trying to explain to Thornton why using 20 cases of dynamite was the wrong decision here. What was really needed, he told Thornton, was a small charge, like 20 sticks, to push the whale off the beach and into the sea; or a much, much bigger one that would totally vaporize it. Twenty cases, he said, was just enough to make a big mess, and maybe hurt some people.
Thornton blew the know-it-all stranger off.
“The guy says, ‘Anyway, I’m gonna have everybody on top of those dunes far away,’” Uemenhoefer told reporter Wayne Freedman of San Francisco TV station KGO in an interview 25 years later. “I says, ‘Yeah, and I’m gonna be the furtherest SOB down that way!’”
And so he would. But if Uemenhoefer thought his involvement in the exploding whale project was over, he was sadly mistaken.
Finally, after moving all the spectators about a quarter-mile down the beach and away from the blast site, Thornton and his crew took cover … and filled the sky with noise, smoke, sand and bits of dead whale.
If you search for “exploding whale” on YouTube, you’ll readily find the KATU-TV story that reporter Paul Linnman and cameraman Doug Brazil filed that night. It does a spectacular job of showing the whole event: the massive explosion (“like a mighty burst of tomato juice,” Linnman recalls in the book); the yells of delight turning to quavering shrieks of fear as the tiny specks visible above the crowd grow larger and it becomes clear that slabs of rotting meat, ranging in size from pinhead-size bits to refrigerator-sized chunks, are now falling out of the sky.
You’ll hear possibly the most unintentionally comic part of the whole clip: A woman’s motherly voice behind the camera saying, “All right, Fred, you can take your hands out of your ears now … here come pieces of … oh my g—”
You’ll also see what happened to Walt Uemenhoefer’s brand-new 1971 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency. A chunk of flying whale meat the size of a coffee-table top had dropped out of the sky directly onto the roof of the big luxury car, blowing glass out in all directions and leaving its top flatter than its owner’s military haircut.
“My insurance company is not gonna believe this,” Uemenhoefer remarked ruefully when he saw what had happened. But he had to chuckle later on, when he remembered the sales promotion that had been going on at Dunham Oldsmobile in Eugene when he’d bought the car just a short time before. It was taglined, “GET A WHALE OF A DEAL ON A NEW OLDSMOBILE.”
“Fortunately, no human was hurt as badly as the car,” Linnman said in his newscast. “However, everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale.”
Uemenhoefer, by the way, is best known today as the titular “Baron” of The Baron’s Den, a gun store and indoor shooting range just south of Eugene in Goshen, visible from Interstate 5 (it usually sports a big blue banner that reads “SHOOT A REAL TOMMY GUN”). He died at the age of 84 in January of this year.
In the aftermath, Thornton was spinning hard — or trying to. “It went just exactly right,” he told Larry Bacon of the Eugene Register-Guard. “Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale” (thereby causing some of the whale chunks to be blown back toward the parking lot, he went on to say; this was his on-the-spot explanation for the whale-meat shower to which he'd accidentally treated all the bystanders).
Decades later, Thornton — who also died recently, in October 2013 — was still defiantly sanguine about the whole affair. Contacted by Linnman in the mid-1990s, he refused to be interviewed on camera, and seemed to feel that news coverage of the event had converted a successful operation into a public-relations disaster. The conversation ended on a sour note when Linnman asked Thornton if he didn't want to tell the public about it — about what had gone wrong that day.
“What do you mean, ‘what went wrong?’” he asked Linnman tersely — apparently by way of implying that nothing had.
(Sources: Linnman, Paul. The Exploding Whale. Portland: West Winds Press, 2003; The Springfield News archives; The Eugene Register-Guard, Nov. 13, 1970.)