Goleta Asphalt Mine

If you know what you’re looking at (above), this boring clump of ivy on the UCSB campus holds a lot of historical importance. This is all that’s left of Goleta’s once booming asphalt industry. But let’s start at the beginning.

Tar, oil and asphalt have always been present in Goleta. The native Chumash had many uses for tarand asphalt for thousands of years, probably the most important use being to seal their impressive plank canoes, called tomols. The first written histories of Goleta mention how the ocean was covered with an oily surface, giving it an iridescent hue and the air was thick with an oily smell.

The earliest explorers that came through this area saw how the natives used the tar and so they also used it for ship repairs. In later years, the Spanish missionaries would use the tar to seal the aqueducts for their water system.

By the late 1800s, paving the streets of America’s growing cities became a big business. All across the U.S., major cities were desperate for asphalt, and the main supplier was on a little Caribbean island called Trinidad.

Folks in the Santa Barbara area were no strangers to tar since there were seeps all around the county. Carpinteria, Sisquoc near Santa Maria, the More Mesa and the bluffs above Goleta Point all had well known tar pits. Not to mention all the tar on the beach…

T. Wallace More was the first guy in Goleta to sell the tar that seeps out of the ground for profit. In the 1850s, he began selling asphalt from his newly acquired 400 acre ranch in eastern Goleta that we call More Mesa today. He found a big demand for the natural tar in San Francisco and other growing cities around the country. There was such a demand, More needed an easier way to ship out larger quantities of his valuable asphalt.

In the summer of 1874, T. Wallace More completed the construction of a 900 foot wharf on his ranch, just east of the mouth of the Goleta Slough. Over the years, More had shipped over 32,000 tons of asphalt from the pier at prices between $12 to $20 per ton. Demand was high for the raw material that was used for several purposes, like roofing and waterproofing dams, but with the growing popularity of automobiles, street paving was the biggest demand. Quickly, asphalt became the most profitable source of income for the More Ranch.

More used dynamite to blast the asphalt from the cliff, then crews would gather it up and load it into carts pulled by oxen up the ramps to his new wharf to be shipped out. It was a primitive operation, and by 1890 More stopped mining the asphalt, or “ashfelt” as some locals called it.

On the other side of the slough, there was another tar pit on a piece of land owned by Augustus “Gus” Den. Gus had suffered brain damage at birth, putting him at a disadvantage for much of his life, and this parcel he had inherited from his father  Nicolas, was nearly worthless. But his luck was about to change. This area, known as “Rincon Ranch”, was once covered with a thick oak grove, but that was all chopped down for fire wood, and it had no fresh water, making it worthless for farming or grazing. But it did have a tar pit on it, and in 1890, the California Petroleum and Asphalt Company leased the property from Gus, promising him $2 per ton of asphalt removed. The called it the La Patera Mine.

Meanwhile, there was another asphalt operation in Carpinteria, and like the More Ranch tar pit, they only did surface mining. The Carp mine was called the Las Conchas Mine because they had to dig through a deep layer of old shells from a Chumash midden to access the tar.

At Las Conchas, dynamite was used to blast the ground in the pit, then workers used heated shovels to slice into the rock asphalt and load it onto flatcars. From there it was hauled to the nearby refinery, where it was melted, cleaned with salt water and mixed with other materials to make asphalt ready for roads.  A railroad spur was built close to the beach bluffs to quickly move out more product. The quality of the asphalt was marginal but functional and the demand was high.

Almost immediately after opening Goleta’s La Patera Mine, experts realized the asphalt bed there was, “the richest ever discovered”. Samples were sent around the world and scientists declared it was a better quality than any found in Europe. On the Den property they would build the only local asphalt mine to use deep shafts, as opposed to the surface mines at More Mesa and Las Conchas. The Goleta mine would be very lucrative for both the asphalt company and Gus Den. They quickly had orders from all across the country.

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Hard to believe this industrial looking scene was right next to the scenic lagoon on the campus of UCSB. The “La Patera” mine operated under a few different owners from 1890 to 1898 and that same scenic lagoon was used as a dump for the mine tailings. In its heyday, the shafts at La Patera Mine went down to 550 feet and it pumped out 60 tons of quality asphalt every twenty four hours. Chunks of solidified tar were loaded onto horse drawn wagons and taken to the train station at Hollister and La Patera. Each wagon carried four tons of asphalt, three times a day, seven days a week. Once loaded onto the Southern Pacific line, the Goleta asphalt was distributed all around the country. Some of the historic streets of New Orleans were paved with tar from the La Patera asphalt mine in Goleta. By the mid 1890s, both mines would be taken over by the Alcatraz Asphalt Mining Company.

The first shaft was dug 200 feet deep, right in the middle of an outcrop of asphalt. The miners soon realized their mistake in digging straight in, as the deeper they dug the more fluid the asphalt got, similar to digging into wet sand. So they dug another vertical shaft into solid earth, 100 feet away from the first, then every 50 feet down, they dug horizontal tunnels to tap into the original shaft. The tunnels were lined with 10×10 fir timbers shipped in from Oregon, but even these heavy supports often snapped under the heavy pressure.

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The mine employed 50 men, from local boys to experienced former gold miners, local farm workers to transients. The days were long, and the work was hard, but the pay was good. Workers made as much as $2.50 for a 10 hour shift….. 25 cents an hour!  Sounds pathetic today, but that was twice as much as a farmhand made. The work was dangerous and unhealthy. Dynamite was often used to break through sections of congealed tar in the shaft, making the job even more hazardous. The air in the shafts was so polluted even the slightest open wound could bring on serious infections. Workers described the job as, “Hot, dirty, cramped and dangerous” and men often passed out from breathing toxic fumes.

Before long, asphalt became one on Santa Barbara County’s biggest money makers with orders coming in from all around the world. The Goleta mine became a heavily developed industrial area with shaft houses, machine shops, a cookhouse, stables and a two story boarding house where employees paid $4 a week for room and board. The mine had to operate seven days a week with no holidays because the constantly oozing tar would clog the shafts if not mined daily.

In May of 1895, two miners were involved in an underground explosion caused by candles being used to light the shafts. The candle flame ignited flammable gas that had seeped through a deposit. The concussion from the explosion knocked the worker at the mouth of the shaft off his feet, so he assumed the workers inside were dead. Amazingly, they survived the blast and climbed fifty feet of ladders in complete darkness to a landing, where they plastered their burned bodies with mud. One of the men was 70 years old!  They were rescued and taken to the hospital where they both died soon after. This motivated the Alacatraz Company to invest in steam blowers for ventilation and safety lamps for the miners. This article got one of their names wrong, but Charlie Ellis and Bill Burch were buried next to each other at the Goleta Cemetery. The wife of one of the men sued Alcatraz for $30,000 for life of her husband, but we’re not sure if she won or not.

Injuries were still common despite the improved safety measures, like this incident in 1896.

The dangerous work going on underground didn’t keep these Goleta beauties from hamming it up on the mine property. Left to right- Rose Sexton, Lulu Maulsby, Callie Chambers and Edna Sexton Beatty.

In October of 1896, the Alcatraz Asphalt Mining Company sold all their Santa Barbara mines to wealthy investors for a whopping two million dollars. The buyers kept the Alcatraz name.

The new investors recognized the potential value of the Goleta and Carpinteria mines and they were willing to invest a lot more money into improvements, as well as expanding the operation at a new Sisquoc surface tar pit.

The first thing the new owners invested in was a “really good, fresh milk cow”!

In May of 1899, the Alcatraz Company was still hiring for the La Patera mine, but the asphalt was getting more and more difficult to access.

Rumors began to swirl that the new owners would be closing the La Patera mine since they were mainly focused on their new Sisquoc location. That Santa Maria area mine was a larger deposit and easier to mine then the original two locations.

By the end of 1899, the La Patera mine in Goleta and the Las Conchas mine were both closed down. The Goleta mine got so deep, it became extremely dangerous, and winter rains would flood the shafts, making them unusable. The Alcatraz Company sent all their employees to continue mining asphalt at Sisquoc with tremendous success, and they would eventually build a refinery with a wharf on the Gaviota Coast.

Gus Den’s Rincon Ranch went back to being a barren wasteland that wasn’t good for much until World War 2 broke out and it became the housing area for a sprawling Marine base.  This 1928 aerial shot of today’s UCSB lagoon shows what we believe to be remnants of the asphalt tailings that were dumped into the lagoon.

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Today an opening to one of the La Patera mine shafts still exists beneath this unkempt clump of ivy on the busy UCSB campus. Thousands of tons of fine quality asphalt remain below this spot, as well as the remnants of shafts and tunnels, probably now filled in by the oozing tar. This shabby ivy patch is the only memorial of the once thriving and lucrative Goleta asphalt industry and the brave men that risked their lives trying to make an honest living, over a century ago.

Read more local history at GoletaHistory.com

tMo

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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