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Santa Barbara's Wonderful Waterfront
updated: Feb 11, 2012, 9:00 AM

By the Urban Hikers, Stacey Wright and Peter Hartmann

One of our urban hikes took us along Cabrillo Boulevard from Helena Street to roughly Ledbetter Beach. We apologize in advance for failing to tell you about ALL of the amazing sights on this relatively tiny stretch, but in order to give a bit of history about some of our favorite landmarks, we're forced to skimp on others that are just deserving of the attention. Perhaps we'll need a follow-up to go in depth and also to tell you about the places we've skipped.

Starting in the late1870s/early 1880s, Santa Barbara had become a wildly popular resort destination for Eastern vacationers and others in search of sun, sea and relaxation. The area now known as West Beach and the Waterfront was one of the town's most popular tourist attractions. Today, nearly a century and a half later, the same can be said of this area, and it's easy to understand why tourists and locals alike appreciate the unparalleled magnificence of the Santa Barbara's waterfront.

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This is a view of Cabrillo Boulevard looking west.

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This is a view looking up State Street from the foot of Stearns Wharf.

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Bud Bottom's dolphin statue looking out onto Stearns Wharf.

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And this is the view looking east along Cabrillo Boulevard.

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After the original Sambo's opened at this location in 1957, it became a chain of national restaurants with over 1,100 locations throughout the country. The name of the restaurant (a combination of the owners' names) and its theme -- based on the children's book Little Black Sambo -- created something of a controversy, which many believe led to the demise of the company. We never got embroiled in the controversy, but we seem to remember that the now black and white sign used to be quite colorful. We may be wrong about that though.

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And now, a flashback to what West Beach and its "beach bums" looked like in 1906.

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Back when the Spanish arrived in 1782 and claimed Santa Barbara as their own, there was little concern or consideration for the construction of a sea port, despite the fact that the natural coastline was not one that offered a sheltered or safe anchorage. However, as circumstances changed, a harbor and wharf (actually 2 wharves) were ultimately built to facilitate tourism, commerce and recreational opportunities. Today one can't think of Santa Barbara's Waterfront district without conjuring images either the wharf or the harbor or both.

Back in the days before the arrival of the Spanish, the Chumash living in the coastal regions of this area lived in numerous small villages along the waterfront. In the area between what is now Mission Creek and Ledbetter Beach/SBCC there were at least four distinct Chumash villages. While large ships found Santa Barbara's coastline inhospitable, the Chumash benefitted from the shelter of the cliffs and the bounty of the sea. One of the villages, dubbed "Los Banos" was located near the bottom of Castillo Street at what is now the location of Los Banos Del Mar Pool.

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Another village, the Mispu, was located on what is now SBCC. If you look at the base of the cliffs by the city college, you can easily see the remains of one of the villages.

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Chief Yanonalit presided over Syujtun (we found various spellings of this village), a large village located between modern day Bath Street and Chapala Street, and referred to by the Spanish as a "Rancheria." The village sat atop a knoll, now known as Burton Mound and also occupied the area now called Ambassador Park.

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Located at the mouth on what is now Mission Creek, the fourth Chumash village clustered in the waterfront area was called Amolomol. This view of Mission Creek shows the approximate location of the Amolomol village.

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Modernly, the waterfront has a number of recognizable landmarks and features that make up West Beach and the Waterfront, including the bike path and large pedestrian walkways (although they aren't always used in accordance with their designation...)

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A skate park.

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Chase Palm Park.

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With a variety of restaurants, motel and other tourist service providers, it's also the "gateway" to Santa Barbara's Funk Zone...

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There are at least two "Designated City of Santa Barbara Landmarks" in this area, the first of which is Plaza del Mar Band Shell located at Plaza del Mar Park (next to Pershing Park). It was built in 1919. We know very little about the history of this historic spot and feel like it's been all but forgotten these days. It would sure be great if it could be restored, the surrounding area cleaned up and the bandstand once again put into use for local events.

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The second Designated City of Santa Barbara Landmark also has the distinction of being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It's a 50 meter outdoor public swimming pool located directly across the street from Plaza del Mar Park (at the bottom of Castillo Street) and is aptly called Los Banos del Mar. Many old time locals still refer to it as "the Plunge", and other simply call the facility "Los Banos". Originally opened as a public "bath house" in 1899 the first facility was destroyed by fire. Rebuilt and re-opened to the public, the second bath house was a victim of the 1925 earthquake. The present facility, which opened to the public in 1939, has recently undergone significant improvements and renovations thanks largely to the efforts of The Friend of Los Banos, a group of private citizens who have worked collaboratively with the City Parks and Recreation Department to fund and make much-needed improvements. Not only can we recall many days spent at the plunge, we can both recall the times that as very small children we spent days swimming and playing in the nearby "kiddie pool" (which opens every summer).

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Heading back toward State Street is the Veteran's Memorial Building. Like the bandstand at Plaza del Mar Park, we know little about this building, and wish we knew more. What we do know about it is, that inside the building there are a number of interesting and historic murals that are well with stopping in to take a peek at.

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Looking back, in 1793 when George Vancouver and his men arrived in Santa Barbara they anchored off what is now West Beach and reportedly filled their water tanks from the nearby natural springs at what is modern-day Pershing Park. While he was here, Vancouver also reportedly lifted several Chumash artifacts, later given to London's British Museum. A few years ago we made a journey across the pond and can verify that at least some of the Chumash items taken from Santa Barbara are on display there. Among the other examples of exquisite Chumash craftsmanship and artistry on display we saw this "Padres hat." If you make it to London, don't leave without stopping into the museum and seeing what local Chumash artifacts are being preserved and on display there.

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As early as the early 1800's, Yankee trading ships stopped in Santa Barbara to purchase hides and tallow from large ranchos. For this reason, in 1828, a warehouse was erected at what is now the foot of Chapala Street, and both incoming and outgoing goods were stored there. In his book, Two Years Before the Mast, Henry Dana describes how the area appeared in 1853, making mention of the warehouse.

In the mid-1800s after Santa Barbara became a state after Mexican rule, there was a rise in opportunity for commerce. Unfortunately, the town was largely cut off from the rest of the world due to a lack of railroads and roadways. All traffic, human and otherwise, had to arrive by sea. Small dinghies were sent out to receive arriving passengers, often with ensuing mishaps to them and their belongings. Lumber and other freight was simply discharged from the ships to float ashore. On a recent urban hike, we spoke with a man living in one of the very early local Victorian homes, and he told us that during a remodel, when the walls of the home were opened and the beams exposed, slight traces of the salt that had formed on the lumber while it was coming ashore could still be seen.

As a result of the transportation issues, a short pier was constructed at the foot of modern-day Chapala Street in 1866. Unfortunately the pier wasn't sufficiently long to allow for deep water vessels to unload or pick up cargo or passengers and therefore the pier only marginally solved the problem. Then in1872, 15 years before the railroad made its way into Santa Barbara, local businessman Charles Stearns and others completed Stearns Wharf, a 1300-foot pier that allowed freighters and passenger steamers to tie up directly at the pier to unload passengers and freight without risk of getting wet. This modern convenience led to a significant increase in local commerce and tourism.

1878 was not a good year for the two wharves in Santa Barbara. The Chapala Street pier was completely wiped out by a southeastern storm and was never rebuilt. Stearns Wharf suffered a loss of about 900 feet off the end of the pier but was quickly rebuilt to serve the city and surrounding areas.

After the arrival of the railroad into Santa Barbara in 1887, Stearns built a wye to the east side of the wharf to accommodate a railroad spur onto the wharf. The extra little "finger" of the wharf jutting toward the beach (seen in the following photos) is all that remains of the wye that once served to move cargo from ships to rail and vice versa -- the other part of the wye was wiped out in a storm in 1898.

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For some odd reason, we are admittedly fascinated with the history of what is now Burton Mound, beginning with the Chumash village, Syujtun, and so we will tell you more than is probably necessary. Burton Mound is located at the back right corner of Ambassador Park as seen in this photo. We've also included an historical sketch of it, courtesy of the SB Historical Society. Behind what was Burton Mound is a lovely old residential neighborhood that is also home to several inns and motels.

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Many excellent local historians have written about this important and fascinating part of town, and we refer you to the "professionals" for a more thorough and possibly more accurate account of Burton Mound. But through our investigation and research, this is what we've learned about it. Following the arrival of the Spanish, the land was owned by Mission Santa Barbara and called El Rancho del Playa. After secularization, it became the property of the Mexican Government and was then granted to James Burke. In 1833 Mr. Burke sold the land to Joseph Chapman, a New Englander who built a small adobe on the property. After purchasing the home and property from Mr. Chapman, Benjamin Foxen remodeled it into a larger more grand adobe, probably sometime in the early 1840s. The remodel was possibly the work of a well known architect, Tomas Robins.

Also in the 1840s a local adventurer, sea captain and rancher, George Nidever and his wife Sinforosa Sanchez purchased the property and began living in the well-known adobe. It was here that "Juana Maria", the "lone woman" of San Nicholas Island was brought to live after Nidever "rescued" her from the island in 1853. Unfortunately the woman did not acclimate to her new life, and died after only seven weeks of living in Santa Barbara. The story, as told in the Island of the Blue Dolphins was (and still may be) required reading for all elementary school children when we were in school.

In 1860, Don Louis Burton, a frontiersman and adventurer like Nidever purchased the adobe, and he and wife Maria Antonia Carrillo lived there together until Burton's death in the adobe in 1879. For reasons unknown, the area and knoll have since 1879 been known as Burton Mound.

Due to the location of a natural sulfur springs at Burton Mound, before the advent of indoor plumbing, residents and tourist frequently visited the hot springs to bathe and relax. The waters were thought to contain medicinal properties and healing powers, luring many Easterners to Santa Barbara for rest, renewed health and relaxation. In 1903, Milo Potter opened the very luxurious and opulent 600-room Potter Hotel to serve visitors from around the world. The hotel was a financial success and in 1919 Mr. Potter sold it to an outfit that renamed it the Belvedere. In 1920 the hotel was sold once again, and renamed the Ambassador. For reasons still unknown, a fire broke out at the hotel, completely destroying it within a matter of hours. Luckily none of the guests or employees were seriously injured or killed, reportedly due to the heroic actions of several individuals. There has never been another hotel rebuilt on the site of the old Potter Hotel, and in 1923 the Museum of the American Indian got permission from the owners of the property to excavate in search of artifacts from Chumash village that had occupied the site long before the arrival of the Europeans.

The harbor has a lengthy and interesting history, and is now the center of the universe to a variety of people. Recreational sailors, commercial fishermen, tourists, businessmen and businesswomen, locals, photographers, people-watchers...you name it, they visit, live, play and work at the harbor...and why not? It's about as beautiful place as anyone could imagine.

Unlike others, our harbor is not a natural one. Constructed between June 1929 and June 1930, it opened as "Santa Barbara's Pleasure Pier and Yacht Harbor." The project, which was many years in the making and backed by some of Santa Barbara's most influential men including Messieurs Fernald and Storke, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. Admittedly it has some inherent problems, including the need for regular dredging, and the cost of a slip is beyond what most local people could afford to pay. So yes, we admit it's not perfect in every way. Based on a plaque posted at the entrance to the harbor, we suspect there must have been some pretty heated times during the planning and construction of the Santa Barbara Harbor. Specifically, the plaque posted in 1930 honors Mayor Max C. Fleischmann for his "loyalty, generosity and steadfast cooperation." We're grateful to Mayor Fleischmann too!

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As always, we encourage you to go out and explore the city, meet your neighbors, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all, expect the unexpected.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 255942 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 09:41 AM

Thank you Urban Hikers....
I wish I had thought of doing what you`ve done...it`s awesome!..I am the great grand nephew of one Pedro Yanonalit...myself,my Dad & his Dad are all named for this Chief of Syuxtun [of the 11 dialects,this is the correct sp. for the area]....of the MANY versions re: our history,I like yours the best...
I recently closed my biz,[Chumash & ghost tour,still own the rights though] but I would have loved to include you guys in the adventure.....thanx Urban Hikers


 JOHN WILEY agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 11:50 AM

Thanks for sharing your local adventures. The herstory of the island woman is intriguing. Have you added any of the referenced material to the SB wiki pages?


 COMMENT 256053 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 02:17 PM

As always, a great article. I'm still mad they got rid of the mushroom fountain in the kiddy pool (even though my kiddy pool days were long past). I have great memories of standing underneath it looking at the world through a thin sheet of water.


 COMMENT 256066 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 03:16 PM

herstory? only something like that could ruin another fantastic urban hikers article, wiley.


 COMMENT 256074 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 03:54 PM

The history-book story of the islands is so far from correct,that the U.H. are better off not publishing on Wiki.
Ask a Chumash Elder about it & you will have a story to end all stories.
If I told you folks everything there is to know about this part of the coast,your 1st incl. would be disbelief,then shock,then acceptance through your own exp.,then fear at the power...then enlightenment.


 COMMENT 256108 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 06:00 PM

Thank you Urban Hikers. I love all the little bits of history you pass on to all of us! Question. Did the 4 Chumash villages co-exist, or was each there at a separate point in time? Please keep reporting your adventures to us!


 COMMENT 256122P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 07:54 PM

Interesting and thank you! One observation, though: I am sorry you gave the impression that the costs of harbor slips are beyond the reach of locals. That's certainly so for some slips and boat owners with their Hope Ranch etc. affluence, but there are many small boats berthed and the slip fees are comparable and often lower than elsewhere in Southern CA, as are the slip transfer fees. Also, nearly 100 boats are the primary residences for some and, again, most are not affluent. Still, though, having a boat is a luxury for some. And, finally, it's a working harbor with an active fishing fleet.


 COMMENT 256138 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-11 11:04 PM

What great photos. I am amazed by the lack of traffic on Cabrillo Blvd. Obviously I travel on it at a busier time of day.
Thanks for the history lesson, some of this I should already know as an 8th generation SB native.


 RED CREEK agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-12 10:33 AM

Super photos and informative, interesting text.

A few additions: Many of us growing up in and around this area loved to play on "fossil hill" which was excavated in the 60's? when the road up the hill to shoreline park was created. Previously the road ended at the bath house (our name for the pool).

On the hill opposite the pool were lots of trails, white sand and hidey-holes and the local kids loved playing on it. Fossil hunters did too , and some big clam fossils are still around in the neighborhood, but harder to find.

The local scuttle on the San Nicolas woman (and all the Chumash) was that they were forced into slavery, all their possessions burned, including their beautiful boats so they wouldn't excape. This is in some history books, but growing up we heard this from the local descendents of both Spanish and Chumash. It would be good to get the truth out once and for all so we don't continue to unabashedly glorify the Spanish occupation era.

Much of the tragedy of that time occurred along the waterfronts where the villages existed and now we romp in the surf.


 COMMENT 256183 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-12 12:13 PM

Hi Redcreek....
Chumash-wisdom here..the woman of the islands [wont use either name] was not a slave...she hid when the Sp. rounded the Chumash off the islands & lived for years in happy seclusion until she was spotted by a Sp. ship,which then sent another boat to retrieve her.
She was brought to the mainland & died in only 6 [apx.] weeks due to illness contracted by the Sp. We [the Chumash] can sit literally,for hours on end..laughing at the stories told by history books & "leading experts"..we don`t change their stories because misinformation works on our side..


 COMMENT 256356 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-13 11:04 AM

The truth in the previous two comments is no where to be found.

The Chumash were removed from San Nicholas because the Russian fur traders and the Alaskan Indians they used to hunt for seals were slaughtering the native Chumash on the island. The Russians would leave Alaskans on the islands to hunt for seals and return weeks or months later to pick them up. In the meantime the Alakans were killing the Chumash men and using the women as they pleased. The few Chumash remaining were removed from the island for their own protection. The woman in quesiotn "Juana Maria" was not hiding from anyone. She left the boat to return to the island to get her child which she thought was with one of the other women.

Also note, the Spanish were long gone, this was the Mexican era. There is also speculation that "Juana Maria" was not Chumash, but actually Alaskan.


 COMMENT 256593 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-14 08:15 AM

356 is repeating old Western information.
The two posters who 356 claims are wrong,are actually correct....& the speculation is that Juana may have been Tongva,not Alaskan.....
Alaskans & Chumash have more in common than Sp. & CH., so it stands to reason that there was not the conflict suggested,but as is known,the Sp.& Mex. gov. were the killers.
Who wrote that..Graffey?


 COMMENT 256874 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-02-14 05:42 PM

I so appreciate the Urban hikers. Another great installment. I miss the mushroom pool and the pool at east beach too. Not that I'd wade, but I feel sorry for kids today.


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