The beaches of Santa Barbara are some of the most pristine and beautiful in all of Southern California and are obviously a huge attraction for tourism and recreation. Although Santa Barbara’s mission and ranchos brought early visitors to the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that Santa Barbara became known for its shoreline. In 1870, famed Victorian writer Charles Nordhoff promoted the town as a health-resort and beach destination for well-to-do travelers from other parts of the country. Many wealthy visitors came, and stayed. One hundred and forty two years later, Santa Barbara draws over 11 million tourists a year to its’ sandy beaches and rocky points, bringing in more than one billion dollars to the local community, including $80 million in tax revenue. Surfing, sunbathing, volleyball, sailing, fishing, and many other activities are enjoyed year-round by local beach-goers and travelers from all over the world. However, Santa Barbara beaches were not always as they appear today. Several decades of coastal development and erosion have changed the face of the shoreline for better, or for worse. So, here’s a nostalgic look back at how the beaches we love today appeared so long ago.
Second only to the Mission as a tourist attraction and the subject of many postcards and paintings, Castle Rock once stood where the entrance to the Santa Barbara Harbor stands today. As the name implies, Castle Rock was a rocky outcrop precariously positioned at the tip of Castle Point, which was located between Leadbetter Point and Stearn’s Wharf. It was a common meeting place for residents and tourists alike who had picnics, parties, and lazy days at the beach under the iconic rock formation. In 1881, a road was excavated between Castle Rock and the bluff to allow horse-drawn carriages beach access to the Mesa and beyond. So, where did it go?
After the construction of an elbow shaped breakwater 500 yards off the point filled the near-shore with sand in the late 20’s, the decision was made to connect the breakwater to the shore. The same dynamite blasts that subsequently destroyed Castle Rock gave birth to the Santa Barbara Harbor in June of 1930. After the construction of the harbor, the area to the east was filled with sand to create Leadbetter Beach.
STEARNS WHARF and WEST BEACH
Stearns Wharf has long been the center of commerce since its creation in 1872. Named for its builder, local lumberman John P. Stearns, the wharf itself was once several hundred feet longer and served as an important port for passenger and freight shipping, and was even a naval installation during World War II.
Stearn’s Wharf survived the earthquake of 1925 and two fires in 1973 and 1998. Today, the wharf is Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark receiving over 5 million visitors per year and is home to restaurants, museums, and shops.
Located at the eastern border of Santa Barbara near Montecito, East Beach has long been one of the main beaches for sport and recreation in the area. It is often the first beach seen upon entering Santa Barbara. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s East Beach was not used as often as the beaches west of Stearn’s Wharf, probably because the area inland from East Beach was primarily rural with orchards and pastures. However, by the 20’s East Beach had become popular for swimming and sunbathing because of its large expanse of sandy beach and calm waters.
In the mid 60’s, East Beach became the epicenter of beach volleyball and it still hosts several tournaments each year. The first dominant figure in the sport was local Henry Bergmann who won over 15 tournaments throughout California and was arguably the sport’s greatest competitor of all time. Since Bergmann’s dominance, East Beach has been the training grounds for Olympic legends Karch Kiraly, Dax Holdren, and Todd Rogers.
Just before the turn of the 19th century, oil was discovered at the Summerland Oil Field just a few miles south of Santa Barbara. Quickly thereafter, the area sprouted numerous oil derricks and piers for offshore drilling, which would become the first offshore oil development in the world. At this time, there were no regulations in the oil industry. Drilling and construction left untouched shorelines looking like apocalyptic wastelands. Soon after the discovery in Summerland, oil was discovered in Santa Barbara at the Mesa Field in 1922, and in Goleta at the Elwood Field in 1928. The region proved to be full of untapped oil reserves and industrialists were quick to capitalize on the black gold.
The rapid increase in offshore oil production came to a grinding halt when on January 28th, 1969, an environmental disaster of epic proportions occurred a mere eight miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. An undersea break and subsequent explosion at Union Oil’s Platform A caused approximately 100,000 barrels of oil to spread across the region. The spill tainted hundreds of square miles of ocean, the entire coastline from Ventura to Gaviota, and all of the north facing beaches of the Channel Islands. Occurring at a time of cultural upheaval, the disaster was the catalyst society needed to organize the modern environmental movement. Shortly after the spill the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were all formed by political pressure from a populace that wanted ecological responsibility from the industrial sector.
Article By: Ryan Richardson
Historical Photos Courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Current Photos by Kristine Cramer