Ellwood Pier Removal

By Tom Modugno of Goleta History

There has been a lot of media about the removal of the old oil piers at Ellwood lately. And unfortunately, it seems this has caused a lot of confusion. Headlines like, “Two oil piers set to be removed at Haskell’s Beach” and “Haskell’s Beach May Be Free of Oil Piers in a Year’s Time” have led many folks that don’t actually go to the beach to believe the Haskells pier by the Bacara is being removed.

Thankfully, the Haskells pier, shown here, is not going anywhere for the time being. Another part of the confusion is some news reports are calling this the Ellwood pier, and the old pier remnants below Sandpiper Golf Course the Haskells piers! So, now that we have the names straight, let’s look at the history of the pier remnants that are being removed at Ellwood.

These are the pier remnants that are being removed. And to be honest, as a history buff, this makes me sad. They have been there my whole life and like so many things in Goleta, I’ve always taken them for granted. The politicians say they are happy to see them go because they represent the dirty, bad oil industry. But to me they represented a turning point for Goleta and Santa Barbara County. They were responsible for the construction of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the Barnsdall Rio Garnde filling station and Ellwood School, among other things. They were victims of the historic Japanese attack on mainland America and a reminder of that historic event. But they will soon be just a memory.

They have been a part of life in Goleta for nearly 100 years.

A part of California history you could touch with your hands if you so desired. So, let’s take one last look at these old structures and their story.

Before oil was discovered, the Ellwood bluffs and the beaches below them were empty, wild and natural places.

But in1928, after multiple failed attempts to find oil on the Goleta coast, one last desperate try paid off. That first strike at Ellwood was one of the major oil strikes of all time, producing over a million barrels of quality crude oil. Two companies working together, Barnsdall Oil and the Rio Grande Company, had drilled down over 3,000 feet deep before they finally hit a gusher.

Competing oil companies quickly determined that the majority of the oil field lay offshore, under the ocean. They also found that Barnsdall-Rio Grande had made a minor clerical error in the filing of their offshore mineral claim, which after 12 months made their claim null and void. So, while Barnsdall-Rio Grande was busy drilling additional onshore oil wells, attorneys for competing oil companies quietly waited for the 12 months to pass. Once it did, attorneys immediately filed new claims and took possession of the priceless properties that would yield millions of barrels for years to come.

One of these coastline properties was acquired by Sam Mosher, a longtime oil man from Long Beach who would later build the Haskells pier, buy Dos Pueblos Ranch and create the Dos Pueblos Orchid Farm.

The huge success at Ellwood ignited a frenzy of oil leases and wildcat well drilling up and down the coast, from Gaviota to Carpinteria and the Mesa in between.

By 1929, the offshore frenzy began, and piers were built to explore further into the oil field. This was the birth of the two piers that are being removed today, the two on the right.

By 1931, more oil companies were quickly getting in on the action. The second and third from the left are the ones being removed.

The Ellwood bluffs and coastline became a beehive of industrial activity. A Black Gold Rush if you will.

The once quiet and empty Ellwood bluffs were now a hub of activity, 24 hours a day. Long accepted rules of conservation in a new oil discovery were thrown out the window. It was a case of “get the oil out of the ground before your neighbor beats you to it”.

New roads, buildings, vehicles, machinery and storage tanks were popping up every day. New technology was constantly being introduced to increase the output. Obviously, aesthetics was not a concern…..

By 1936, offshore techniques had improved, and the piers got a little longer.

By World War II, oil exploration was more important than ever. The production plants at Ellwood were cranking out as much crude oil as possible to keep our forces rolling overseas. This was how the Ellwood coast looked when a Japanese submarine emerged off the coast of Goleta.

February 24, 1942 was a huge day in American history. Mainland United States was attacked by a foreign country, and these oil piers were front and center to all the action.

This newspaper image from the 1960s shows the last 2 pier remnants and proclaims that one was actually hit by the Japanese shelling.

This photo taken from the piers details where the damage was done.

These are the two being removed and the one on the right was noted as damaged by a Japanese shell.

After the war, the output from the offshore oil field had begun to slow. This photo from 1954 is the last glimpse we have of the longer piers because in 1955, they began to dismantle the piers. Note the end of the pier on the lower left, it will later become known as the Bird Island.

By 1956, most of the piers had been removed, but for unknown reasons, they left that little piece all by itself.

It would sit there abandoned for 50 years and later became known as Bird Island, a fixture on the Goleta coast.

1959. Bird Island offshore and 3 remaining pier bases.

1961. Still 3 remaining.

A different angle from 1965 allows us to see that the remaining piers still had wells on them that we can only assume were still in use.

1972 and well towers are still on the two piers on the left, which are the two that are being dismantled now. That’s probably why they were the last two standing, they kept producing!

Here’s a couple of great photos from local William Etling taken around 1975. He appreciated the old piers and recorded them forever with his camera.

Great shot with the Bird Island in the background.

Another great shot from the brand new Sandpiper Golf Course in 1975, showing the remaining two well towers in the background.

By 1979, the last 2 standing. Still with well towers and Sandpiper in the background.

1987 and it appears the well towers are gone. Most likely victims of the 1982-83 El Nino storms.

A recent photo of the nearly 100 year old structures, still standing after countless waves have pounded away at them.

When I read that the two last Ellwood Oil piers were slated for removal, I had to go photograph them one last time.

I read that a politician said, “Their removal is a major step in ending a legacy of fossil fuel development in Santa Barbara County”. I’m not sure how removing the remainders of two historic old piers that are no longer functioning ends a legacy of anything. It only erases a reminder of a lot of history.

If these old walls could talk, they would have had a lot of stories to tell.

I would hope our civic leaders might have the foresight to put up some kind of a memorial or at least a sign, commemorating the Ellwood oil piers, the history surrounding them and the positive effects they had on our society. Rather than just erasing their history forever.

So for future generations, I leave this photo collection as the only memory of the Ellwood Oil Fields. Adios amigos.

Read more history at goletahistory.com


Written by tMo

Tom Modugno is a local business owner, surfer, writer, and community activist. He also runs GoletaHistory.com and GoletaSurfing.com

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