Gaviota Coast History

by Lex Palmer

The Gaviota Coast is a historic tapestry with threads that range from Rancho Period adobes to Cold War missile launch facilities. Nearly ten immigrant groups have followed the native Chumash, leaving behind a record of ghosts and ghost towns. Early explorers such as Gaspar de Portolá left names behind on the Gaviota Coast, such as La Espada (the sword), named after a 1769 incident near Jalama Beach.

Missions La Purísima and Santa Barbara began the first intensive agricultural efforts in locations such as Jalama and Honda Canyon in the late 18th Century. Mission agriculture focused on grains, beans, horses, cattle, and sheep.

After the mission system failed, Mexican land grants established during the 1830s-1840s covered the Gaviota Coast. Historic adobes from this era still stand, and include the Pedro Baron Adobe at Arroyo Quemado, and the Ortega Adobe in Arroyo Hondo. On Refugio Pass, the Pico Adobe is located on the former President Reagan Ranch. A number of ruined adobes are also present, such as the Squat Adobe found on Forest Service land near Gaviota.

Severe droughts in the 1860s, combined with poor livestock and fiscal practices, ruined nearly all the Mexican ranchers. These families sold their holdings to men such as Lewis Burton of Santa Barbara, and the Dibblee-Cooper-Hollister consortium. The Dibblees and Hollisters have retained some of this land to the present day. These new ranch holders focused on raising sheep and cattle, and developing wharf systems to ship their products out and manufactured goods in. Historic cattle ranches on the Gaviota Coastline include the Santa Anita, El Cojo, and Sudden ranches.

While a new wave of colonists struggled to place their values and cultural modifications on the landscape, a budding local extractive industry helped usher in the Americanization Period. The Cojo Landing whaling station operated from 1879-1886. Santa Barbara County's vast petroleum reserves helped replace whale oil. The 19th Century ghost town of Alcatraz near Gaviota existed to tap into the reserves. Wells like the Lutton-Bell No. 1 at the rich Ellwood Oil Field helped fund construction of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The Gaviota Coast has other significant minerals. The Celite Mine in Miguelito Canyon is the world's largest diatomaceous earth deposit that has been mined since mission times. Italian stone masons have quarried stone from Tajiguas and Refugio canyons. Nineteenth century geologists considered the Point Sal gypsum mine the most important in California.

Historic maritime transportation began when Spanish supply ships called annually at Cojo Bay to re-supply Mission La Purísima. Concerns over shipping safety resulted in establishment of the Point Conception Lighthouse in 1854. The Lighthouse Service later established the Point Arguello Lighthouse in 1901, where a community named Arlight thrived in the early 20th Century. The Coast Guard constructed the Point Arguello Lifeboat Rescue Station in 1936 using federal funding available during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Despite these safety measures, the Santa Barbara Channel remained hazardous. Mishaps such as the wreck of the sidewheel steamer Yankee Blade in 1854 near Point Arguello continued. A disaster took place off Honda Point in 1923 when seven U.S. Navy destroyers ran into the shoreline.

With no harbors available, farmers and ranchers established six wharves on the Gaviota Coast that served as a bridge between the rancho and railroad eras. These structures aided the shift from cattle and sheep ranching over to grain and dairy farming, and allowed the importation of manufactured goods into isolated Santa Barbara County. Construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad formed a new aspect of this transportation thread, and created a number of bridges that cross the deep arroyos.

Wharves like Lompoc Landing became a popular place for Victorian era recreation. Settlers from Lompoc began using the beach at the Santa Ynez River mouth to picnic in 1874. Recreational fishing and mussel harvesting were also common activities that have continued into the present. Chinese commercial fishermen collected seaweed, abalone, and hunted sea lions for their oil.

The Gaviota Coast became more integrated into the outside world as international incidents influenced the coastline. Army planners created the Camp Cooke training base in response to World War II. The Army presence continued until the Navy and Air Force took over in the 1950-1960s. The geography of what is now Vandenberg Air Force Base is ideal for missile launches. Space Launch Complex 10 where crews trained to staff ballistic missile aimed at Russia was designated a National Historic Landmark. The base launched the A Thor missile in 1958, the first Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile in the U.S. The base pioneered the use of hardened underground silos using Titan and Minuteman missiles. A number of important satellites for weather and remote sensing have also been launched there.

Ironically, the Cold War technology that ended the frontier conditions on Vandenberg Air Force Base helped it retain the historic landscape through establishment of safety clearance zones. Locales like the Sudden Flats have changed little since the Chumash met the 1769 Portolá Expedition, and offer a tangible link to the past for the current Air Force occupants and the public. In some cases, this Spanish frontier and space technology exists side-by-side. The historic properties of the Gaviota Coast illustrate how it has a continuum from ranchos to rockets.