The Enduring Mammoths

The Enduring Mammoths

The fiberglass mammoths at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits have been entertaining and educating visitors for nearly 50 years. First installed in 1967, the large composite mammals have endured rain, flood, heat wave and even the occasional earthquake.

So I went to visit them today.

The tar pits are a natural petroleum ooze. The area surrounding them was dotted with oil derricks in the early 20th century. The pits were first excavated as an asphalt mine. They yielded thousands of fossils of animals – dating back to the last ice age in LA – that got trapped in the tar. Since water floats on top of it, a tar pit can look like an innocent enough pond. Prey animals got trapped taking a drink. Predators got trapped trying to eat the captive prey. 10,000-40,000 years later, when many of those species – including Columbia mammoths, woolly mammoths, dire wolves, and sabertooth cats – had become extinct, their bones were dug up for us to marvel at.  The George Page Museum has been erected there to study, and display, the finds, and the site still includes active excavation pits.

The first of the fiberglass mammoths, the large male, was installed in 1967. He is a Columbia Mammoth, the non-woolly kind. He’s 13 feet tall, 25 feet long, and weighs about 2000 pounds.   He was the work of sculptor Howard Ball, who built him in his Torrance studio, and towed him to the Hancock Park installation location behind his 1958 VW bug. A city crane than placed the mammoth on four small concrete foundation pads. At the time, the LA Times stated that he was the first of 50 planned sculptures. He was followed soon after by the baby, and the female who’s in the soup, also the work of sculptor Ball. At the other end of the lake, there’s a smaller woolly mammoth, apparently shouting at the others, but that’s all the mammoths.  There are a few other large mammal sculptures dotting the park surrounding the pits and the museums.

The mammoths have endured. In 1992, heavy rains flooded the lake, causing the female break loose from her moorings and shift position. Instead of trumpeting a warning to her family on the shore, she now appeared to be warning the park visitors about the dangers of the Snack Stand. Then she floated away and eventually became mired in the tar for real. It’s notable that, after 25 years of exposure, including partial submersion, she was still watertight enough to float.

Today, the snack stand is gone, but the mammoths abide. Fiberglass is tough stuff.

(On my way home from the Tar Pits, I happened upon another impressive work of fiberglass craft, also an extinct species. I’m tossing in those pictures for good measure, and yes, although extinct, it does still drive.)

Images by Steven H. Miller