The Goleta Slough
By Tom Modugno of Goleta History
The Goleta slough as we know it today is a narrow, semi stagnant waterway that winds through the large marsh beside the airport. Not much to look at really, but believe it or not it was once a large body of water that was used as a port of call for sailing ships. This view from the edge of UCSB makes it a little easier to imagine if all that brownish vegetation was water. That was a large bay!
Looking to the east, you see what’s left of Mescaltitlan Island. This once prominent land mass sat in the bay and was home to a huge native population before they were displaced, and then later the island was shaved down to almost nothing.
Long before any Europeans showed up, the Chumash and civilizations before them enjoyed the large, protected body of water. Pure mountain water fed the slough from nine different streams, abundant with steelhead trout and water fowl. Numerous villages lined the shore of the bay.
The tree covered Mescaltitlan island sat in the bay and it was a very popular spot for housing. Food sources, transportation and entertainment all at their front door, complimented by a warm pleasant climate, it’s no wonder villages sprang up all around the bay and on the island. Even pre-historic civilizations knew the secret of good real estate, “location, location, location”!
This map, developed by J. Johnson of UCSB, shows some of the Chumash names for familiar places around the bay. The village on Mescaltitlan was called “Helo'”, Campus Point was “Sismikiw” and the slough was called ” Sitiptip”, meaning “Place of much salt”.
In 1929 David Banks Rogers made this illustration of the vast size of the slough in prehistoric times. The slough was the most densely populated area in the Chumash region and perhaps all of California.
This hybrid map shows what areas the prehistoric slough would cover in modern Goleta.
Hollister Avenue was underwater and the water even reached the location of the present day Highway.
The first Europeans to set eyes on this amazing place belonged to the crew of the Cabrillo expedition on October 16th, 1542. Cabrillo commented on the large population found here but did not come ashore until he reached Dos Pueblos.
Shortly after Cabrillo passed by Goleta, he died from injuries he obtained on San Miguel Island. According to Walker Tompkins, Chumash legend says that two large ships anchored in the slough and their crews buried their leader on Mescaltitlan Island. Historians debate the final resting place of Cabrillo to this day.
After Cabrillo, several other explorers passed by but none offered much description of the slough until the Portola expedition came over land in 1769. Portola’s goal was to locate good places to build Presidios and Missions. The missionary priest Juan Crespi gave the Goleta area the name “Santa Margarita de Cortona”. Pedro Fages kept a diary and he gave the slough and the villages around it the name “Pueblos de la Isla”, or Island villages. But the soldiers nicknamed the island, “Mescaltitlan“, after a very similar island in Mexico, and that’s the name that stuck.
The Portola expedition described the thick oak forests around the slough, plenty of fresh water, the abundance of villages and the remarkable amount of natives in this area. For these reasons, they deemed it a good place to build a Mission. One of the journalists on this expedition, Juan Crespi, wrote, “Seems as though all the lushness in the world lies there…a very grand spot for a very large mission”. Juan Crespi also wrote, “This is all a Good Land”. That phrase was resurrected by Walker Tompkins for his seminal 1966 book and is a popular nickname for Goleta to this day.
In 1782, two Spanish ships were sent to finalize a location for a Mission in the area. Lt. Jose Ortega and Governor Felipe De Neve led a land expedition simultaneously carrying equipment, soldiers and livestock. One of the ship captains, named Pantoja, described a large bay surrounded by the thickest forest he had seen on this coast, and a large amount of natives and canoes. While they did want to build a mission in a heavily populated area, the sheer number of natives here was somewhat intimidating.
A former military man, Governor Neve wanted to put the Santa Barbara presidio on Mescaltitlan Island, with its natural salt water moat protecting it from attackers. Goleta offered plenty of flat, open land for growing crops, a safe port for the supply ships from Mexico, and a perfect spot for the mission at the west end of More Mesa.
Pantoja’s 1782 report provided this detailed illustration of the slough, and he refers to the slough as Lake Mescaltitlan. Curiously, it appears to show two islands. The A’s represent villages and he overestimated the population to be eight or nine thousand. Pantoja reports the slough was muddy, but on high tide, the depth south of the island was 12 feet. The rest of the slough was only 4 feet deep and the bottom was fine sand. Also notice the slough extends far to the left, where it connected to the Devereaux Lagoon. So in wet years, the UCSB/Isla Vista area would have been an island.
Just like today, the depth and the size of the mouth were dependent on the tide, the time of year, swell directions, rainfall, etc. This report was made in August. If Pantoja had come in the winter, the mouth would probably have been much larger. The purpose of Pantoja’s survey was to determine if the slough could be used as a harbor and he decided it was not. Additionally, the creeks in August were mostly dry and Goleta didn’t have a lot of rock readily available for construction purposes. For these reasons, they instead chose a spot near Mission Creek, two leagues down the coast.
Ten years later, in 1792, the British explorer George Vancouver passed through the Santa Barbara Channel and made a stop off Goleta. He describes the abundant tar on the surface of the water, the very large village pleasantly situated within a small bay and the remarkable intelligence of the natives at this particular location. Vancouver wrote that the slough might have “afforded good anchorage” if not for the bed of seaweed across its entrance, indicating a shallow rock bottom.
Walker Tompkins wrote that in the early 1800’s, Jose De La Guerra used the slough as an anchorage for his schooner. In 1819 his ship ran aground trying to slip into the narrow slough mouth. De La Guerra hired Benjamin Foxen to repair the ship, and Foxen did the work in the mud flats inside the slough.
This map made by reputable cartographer Jose Narvaes in 1823 shows the slough as a bay and he calls it Mescaltitlan.
In 1829, Benjamin Foxen built a ship on the Atascadero inlet of the slough for William Dana. Foxen imported lumber and had it floated into the slough. The ship was constructed in a cradle and launched into the slough by flooding the area around it so it floated free. Other ships were built in the slough later, but lack of local lumber kept it from becoming a popular shipbuilding location.
This map comes from the 1853 diseno filed by Daniel Hill in order to get his land grant. Note the tree symbols on the island and what appear to be differing depths throughout the slough. It shows a huge sand bar at the entrance to the slough, and at the eastern end of it can be seen a “wreck”, a somewhat common occurrence it seems.
Near this spot was where 5 cannons were found by Nolan Harter as he walked the low tide in January 1981. A group of volunteers acted fast and were able to remove the cannons before the sand washed back in.
They were dated to be from the early 1800’s, but since there were so many shipwrecks in the area, we still don’t know exactly which ship they came from.
Local historian Justin Ruhge noted all the shipwrecks that occurred near the Goleta Slough in the 1800s. Whether these ships were trying to gain entry to the bay or if they were simply caught in storms and washed ashore is purely speculation. Either way, it seems the slough was a popular place for large ships to be.
This map from the Den diseno of 1855 also shows the sandbar long and wide. The western side of the slough looks to be more of a waterway and the eastern side seems to be a marsh. Note the name Point Salinas, today just surf battered rocks off Campus Point. Also notice on the east side the word Foxen, perhaps referencing the location of Foxen’s 1819 repair of De La Guerra’s schooner?
Quite the opposite extreme, this map from 1860 shows no sandbar at all and the bay looks wide open and robust, the island firmly in place. Whether this was just drawn in haste or that’s how it actually was at the time, we can’t know for sure. We do know that the sandspit’s size fluctuated throughout the years.
In late 1861, heavy rain started falling and didn’t stop, dumping inch after inch on the over grazed foothills surrounding Goleta. The rain continued for months in what would be known as the Great Flood of 1862, wreaking havoc throughout California. The over abundant rain caused rapid erosion and muddy water poured down through the creeks, dumping fourteen feet of silt into the slough.
Along with the sediment came uprooted trees and chaparral, colliding with the incoming ocean tide, and settling into the slough. After the first week of steady rain, the slough became a huge, shallow bay from Hope Ranch to the Devereux lagoon. The great lagoon that had been a safe haven for ships for centuries was turned into a shallow, mud bog in a very short period. It was never to be the same again.
This map from 1870 shows the post flood slough looking more like a narrow waterway than a bay and the sandbar is very pronounced. Mescaltitlan Island and much of the slough was now owned by Alexander More and he used the island to grow beans. By this time, most if not all of the oak forest on the island had been chopped down for firewood, leaving it barren.
Just to show again how the weather affected the slough, this map dated January 1871 shows no sign of a sand bar at all, probably the work of harsh winter storms. The slough area looks large, but it’s labeled as an Estero, which means a swamp or marsh.
In 1891 Aventino Cavalletto and his co-workers were row boating in the slough after work and became stuck in the mud at low tide. As the men struggled to push their boat out of the muck, one of them stubbed his toe on a large metal ring. They started digging it out and made an incredible discovery. Pictured is James Cavelletto pointing to the area of the incident, below the Campbell Hall parking lot at UCSB.
They uncovered a huge wrought-iron anchor, eight feet tall and dating back to the 16th century! Cavalletto loaded it onto his wagon and it served as a hitching post at the Cavalletto residence for 60 years. Walker Tompkins is shown with the historic anchor that can be seen at the Stow House in Goleta today. Exactly when and what ship the anchor came from remains a Goleta history mystery. And why would they leave their anchor behind? Or did the ship sink in the slough? Theories abound.
This 1888 map shows the marshlands of the slough still having a large footprint, but not deep enough to ever be a harbor again. Around this time, the More family allowed some Goleta families to camp and boat around in the slough for fun.
For 15 years, the Sexton family spent about a month of every summer camping at “Camp Lupine” usually on the east side of the slough, across from the sand spit. This was taken around the 4th of July. Note Mescaltitlan Island on the upper right of this photo and the UCSB bluffs on the far left.
They would load their wagons up with tents, cots, bedding, food supplies, stoves and whatever else they needed for a long camp out at the slough. Including flat bottom boats for paddling around in the shallow waters.
The Sextons had a wonderful time every summer, boating, exploring, spearing sharks, digging clams, picking mussels and searching Mescaltitlan Island for “Indian curios”.
Judging by all the smiles, it looks like they’re all having a good time! Is that a shark jaw skeleton that guy is holding up?
The Smith family also camped on the slough some summers. They built a few semi permanent structures on the sand spit for their visits.
Their own private playground to be enjoyed every summer. Can you imagine?
The U.S. Geological Survey map from 1902 shows the sandbar all the way across the entrance and a road onto the island, probably built by More to tend to his crops. Walker Tompkins wrote about an abundance of cube shaped boulders with iron rings attached found around the Atascadero Creek inlet on the east side of the slough. Made from a stone not found in this area, Tompkins concludes they were discarded ballast from foreign ships taking refuge in the slough. The More family used some of the blocks as foundations for their chicken coops and Horace Sexton remembered seeing piles of the ballast stones being bulldozed into the creek in later years. Solid evidence of large ships using the Goleta Harbor and they are still buried in the mud to this day.
This 1900 map shows the slough as a series of small waterways. Number 1 denotes the location of the 16th century Cavalletto anchor. Number 2 is the Atascadero inlet, where ships were built and the ballast stones were found. Number 3 is the usual location of the Sexton’s “Camp Lupine”. Also notice the spelling of the island as Mascalitan Island. Many locals actually thought the name of the island was “Skeleton Island”, a slurring of the Spanish name, but also indicative of the years of grave looting that had occurred there.
This 1927 photo was taken from across the slough, looking at the sand spit and the UCSB mesa beyond. The tower was a gas well that was abandoned by this time and removed soon after. The structures in the foreground were semi-permanent housing for the campers. Today this is Goleta Beach Park.
In the 1920’s, Barnstormers were flying throughout the country selling airplane rides, performing stunts and convincing folks airplanes were here to stay. Several passed through Santa Barbara, and that may have prompted this forward thinking map maker to make the proclamation in 1927 that the worthless old Goleta slough would be a great place for an airport. Fill it in make it useful, just like they did up in Oakland!
In 1928, these daring young flyers landed an airplane in a cow pasture behind St. Raphael’s church, which at that time was on the corner of Hollister and Fairview Ave. They leased that land and set up a flight school right there. The aviators enlisted the help of some county employees to scrape away the willows and brush, creating a primitive air strip. That marked the beginning of what was to become the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, and the next nail in the coffin for the slough as a waterway….
A couple years later, the map makers vision became a reality. The original Two Hangars, by the arrow, were built alongside Hollister Avenue, and the tiny Ag town of Goleta suddenly had an airport. From this day forward, the slough began to be thought of a nuisance that needed to be filled in.
This 1928 aerial photo shows an almost closed slough mouth, choked with sand. The second arrow shows an intact Mescaltitlan Island with some vegetation still on it and the waterways through the slough are clearly visible. The X denotes where I stood when I took the photos that began this page, the edge of the UCSB mesa. Note the lack of sand all the way up towards today’s Campus point, evidence of fluctuating beach sizes that still occur.
About the same time as the previous photo, this was taken from the west end of the sand spit, looking east with Mescaltitlan on the left.
1928 from above, and what must have been winter, judging by the sand spit being very small and a lot of wave activity at the slough mouth. Notice the water right up the bluffs on the lower left with little or no sandy beach.
Archeologists realized what a treasure trove the slough area was by the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Many relics were recovered and a lot was learned about the native societies that lived there. This shot of a Mescaltitlan Island dig is looking east, towards the More mesa and where the ballast blocks were found.
This official 1935 surveyor’s map gives a clear view of where the waterways were at that time. A massive sand bar is shown and a small but clearly open slough mouth existed. Note the highlighted text-Title Under Litigation. In the 1930’s the ownershp of the slough was in litigation between the original Nicolas Den estate and the T. B. Bishop Company due to a clerical error. The Den estate was declared the rightful owner.
This 1938 aerial shows the last days of an intact Mescaltitlan Island, at the green arrow. The white arrow shows the primitive airport runways, the red arrow is Old Town Goleta, the slough and UCSB mesa are labeled.
Around 1940, the Federal Government established a program to construct airports all across the country. Since Goleta already had a little airfield with a lot of empty land around it, it seemed a natural for expansion. So in 1941, construction began on the new Santa Barbara Municipal Airport at the Goleta slough. A portion of Mescaltitlan Island was used as fill dirt to turn the marshlands into runways, with no regard for the archeological impacts.
This aerial shows the filling in of the slough as it was happening. The white arrow shows the original Two Hangars along Hollister Avenue. The red arrow is Mescaltitlan Island, sliced almost perfectly in half. The yellow arrow shows the heavy equipment staging area and some fill dirt being pulled in from today’s UCSB mesa. You can already see the airport taking shape in the slough.
By the end of the year we had entered the Second World War, and the government took over the Goleta airport for a Marine base. They immediately kicked the construction into high gear, taking more of the island for fill dirt. This shot captures the destruction of the island, with Marine aircraft visible in the upper right.
Almost overnight, the sleepy little airfield at Goleta became a bustling military base. The arrow shows what was left of Mescaltitlan in 1944, and the remainder of the Goleta slough was squished over towards the UCSB mesa.
The slough was a mere shadow of it’s former self in the 1950’s, but man wasn’t done messing with it yet….
In 1951, the Goleta Sanitary District stopped using the former Marine sewage treatment plant at Campus Point and constructed a new plant alongside the remainder of Mescaltitlan Island to better serve the growing community.
In the mid 1950’s, traffic in Goleta was getting very congested, thanks to the burgeoning new Research Park and the University that took over part of the Marine base. After years of intense debate, a highway was built directly to the east side of the UCSB campus to help alleviate the traffic problem. Once again, Mescaltitlan was used to fill in more of the slough, finishing the Ward Memorial Boulevard by 1963.
Controversy found the slough again in the 1960’s when UCSB proposed extending Ward Memorial to reconnect with Highway 101 near Storke Road, giving direct access to the campus from the west. This would require more filling in of the slough, which contradicted the county’s general plan, that somehow had the remainder of the slough becoming a marina!
The debate over whether to build the marina or the western Ward Memorial extension raged on for years. Developers tried to compromise with this “Airport Lake”, complete with a boat launch and parking for more than 800 cars! All hanging on the approval of the new freeway, of course.
The Harbor Commission was concerned stone jetties proposed for the new Goleta harbor entrance would “sand starve” Santa Barbara beaches, so they came out against the idea.
Goleta’s population was exploding in the 1960’s, and the developers were in a frenzy. This overzealous plan shows both a harbor and the recreational lake by the airport, as well as the new western Ward Memorial extension going past a new golf course. Even the existing Goleta and Isla Vista were labeled as “redeveloped”. Build, build, build!
This editorial from the Lompoc Record in 1967 illustrates a large part of society’s mindset at the time. The natural environment was nothing more than a means to make money, and no one was really disagreeing with them. That would soon change however.
Meanwhile, in 1969, two separate projects were proposed for the same eastern slough area. Eventually just a trimmed down version of Fess Parker’s ambitious mobile home project was approved.
Here it is today, known as Rancho Goleta Lakeside, nestled up alongside the Ward Memorial Boulevard.
A major, manmade disaster would finally shut down the western Ward Memorial extension and slam the brakes on the rampant development. Early in 1969, thousands of barrels of crude oil were spilled into the Channel, turning Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches black and miserable. Thousands of sea birds and other marine animals were killed and the media coverage was intense. People around the world watched the catastrophe and the oil companies pathetic response. The ugly drama sparked a national environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day.
Almost overnight, the Goleta Slough went from an eyesore to an asset. Bird habitats were suddenly much more important and the debate over the future of the slough heated up. In this article, the UCSB Chancellor is still defending the freeway project, but another historic event in Isla Vista would soon change his tune.
Despite public outcry, the Santa Barbara city council approved the freeway extension through the slough. The last quote in this article says, ” That’s progress, we’ve got to go, we can’t stop”.
This 1970 editorial explains how the Isla Vista riots and the environmental movement changed the attitudes of the UCSB students and faculty. Chancellor Cheadle’s popularity tanked and the state threatened to cut funding to the campus. His opinion was now easily swayed and his vigorous endorsement of the freeway extension ended, basically killing the project.
What was left of the Goleta slough would be spared. Moving forward, the slough would be looked at in different light. No longer an eyesore that needed to be developed, it became a natural environment to be protected.
In 1982, the City of Santa Barbara officially recognized the importance of the slough and prepared the Airport/Goleta Slough Coastal Plan. The following year the property was designated as an ecological reserve by the Fish and Game Commission. In 1987, 440 acres of Goleta slough became the Goleta Slough Ecological Reserve and is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Finally, in 2007, approximately 160 acres were named the Goleta Slough State Marine Conservation Area including the area below the mean high tide line in Goleta Slough and Atascadero Creek. This area is designated a “no take” zone, where no marine life may be taken or caught. This effectively saved all the remaining slough for future generations.
In his 1984 book, historian Justin Ruhge let his imagination run wild with the possibility that the Spanish had chosen the Goleta Slough as the location for their presidio and mission. This is his rendition of Santa Barbara being built at the Goleta Slough. I’ll take good old Goleta any day…
Occasionally, when we get some rain and the mouth has not yet broken open, the slough appears to return to some of its former glory.
But it’s glory is short lived, as the airport staying dry is of the ultimate importance.
But every few decades, we get a serious rainstorm, and Mother Nature reminds us who’s really in charge.
The Goleta Slough may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it certainly has blazed an impressive trail through history. And amazingly, it has withstood centuries of man’s desire to change and develop the natural world.
Thankfully, humans are beginning to realize the value of our natural environment. Today what’s left of the Goleta Slough is a critical coastal salt marsh habitat. A natural home to countless birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, all playing a part in our world.
So take a break and head down to Goleta Beach, park where the Sextons and the Smiths used to camp. Try to imagine a busy village on Mescaltitlan Island, take a little walk where multiple ships ran aground trying to navigate the narrow entrance, and appreciate the natural beauty of our Goleta Slough.
I highly recommend this book by Justin Ruhge, Goleta- Pueblo de las Islas. If you can find a copy, buy it.