How Turnpike Got Its Name

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How Turnpike Got Its Name
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By Tom Modugno of Goleta History

We all know and use Turnpike Road, but have you thought about the name? If you Google turnpike it says “an expressway, especially one on which a toll is charged“. Well our Turnpike isn’t really an expressway, and there’s no charge…so…why that name?

Blame it on the stagecoach! Back in the day, Turnpike was an expressway of sorts, and a toll was collected.

A classic symbol of the Wild West, the stagecoach played an important part in the history of the United States, but here in Goleta they were only in use for 40 short years, from 1861 to 1901. They did, however, leave their mark on our road names, and our foothills, literally….

Stagecoaches had been used in Europe for centuries, and throughout the U.S. from the earliest days. But they didn’t come into play in California until the gold rush, the first runs going between Sacramento and the mining camps. After that, roads in the San Joaquin Valley were improved and stage travel flourished. The Overland Mail Company used the roads to deliver mail, and they developed a network of roads between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The little strip of coast we live on was skipped because the Santa Ynez Mountains presented such an impassible barrier.

Before stagecoaches came to Santa Barbara County, the mode of transportation was on foot, horseback or ox-cart. The main highway, “El Camino Real”, was mostly just a worn trail, not able to accommodate a sophisticated vehicle like a stagecoach. In 1859, the Overland Mail Company decided to change its route to the coast, and state funding was provided to build a new and improved road.

The owner of the More Mesa ranch, T. Wallace More offered to build the road from Los Angeles County to San Luis Obispo County for $15,000. He was awarded the contract in 1860, but one of the wettest winters in history and a lack of good workers kept him from getting the job done. Even though he had already gotten paid, he broke his contract. The road construction was completed in 1861 by former Los Angeles mayor James Thompson and Santa Barbara celebrated the first stagecoach passing through with a grand fiesta and the firing of a cannon.

While most of the new route followed El Camino Real, portions between Ventura and Santa Barbara went on the beach, making the high tides a factor. Through Goleta, the road roughly followed today’s Hollister Avenue, and up the coast following today’s highway route. Every creek presented a challenge, with only a few bridges being in existence.

Dynamite was used to blast the Gaviota Pass wide enough for safe passage of large wheeled vehicles, and a heavy wooden bridge was built over the Gaviota Creek. Despite these improvements, heavy winter weather could still shut the new road down. This was also an ideal ambush spot for notorious outlaws, who would prey on stagecoaches and lone travelers. These bandits were the reason that folks traveling through Gaviota were especially cautious.

The most common coach used in Santa Barbara County was a Concord, the same one that is seen in all the old westerns. They cost about $1,500 and they weighed 2,500 pounds. The coach featured two hard leather upholstered seats facing each other, each fitting three adults across. A jump seat in the middle provided room for three more, making for a crowded, hard and bumpy journey. The ride was described as back breaking and bone jarring. The “shock absorbers” were rawhide straps that caused the coach to pitch back and forth, much like a rough day at sea, with the same nauseating results. The driver sat on the right side and under his seat was a safe called the “the driver’s box”. If it contained a valuable cargo, a shotgun guard would be hired to ride along, since the driver was not allowed to carry a weapon.

Stagecoach travel was slow, bumpy and an uncomfortable mode of travel, but it was the best way to go a long distance at the time. For several years, the “Gaviota Stage Road” served the people of California well, but in 1868 a group of Santa Barbara businessmen decided to improve the road going north. They proposed the widening of an existing horse path over the mountain range, creating a much quicker passage into the Santa Ynez Valley, and beyond.

The Santa Ynez Turnpike Road company was headed by Dr. Samuel Brinkerhoff, left, and lawyer Charles Fernald. This group of business professionals organized and financed the construction of a private toll road, or turnpike, that followed stakes set out by Benjamin Foxen on the historic, but rugged, Fremont Trail. A group of hired Chinese laborers, called “coolies”, was brought in from San Francisco and they went to work cutting the road on both sides of the range using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

This new, steep road would require a lighter more “streamlined” vehicle, called a Mud Wagon. The doors and windows were removed to lighten the load horses had to pull over the mountain. Even still, travel was slow. While climbing the steepest slopes, passengers were often encouraged to “get out and stretch your legs for a mile or two”….

This Mud Wagon is loaded up and ready to go. The driver, called a Whip, or a Jehu, (a reference to a biblical chariot driver), was a talented individual that had to juggle all the reins and a whip, all while keeping the wagon on a rugged road and keeping a sharp eye out for bandits.

The Santa Ynez River presented another obstacle in winter months.

The new turnpike started near Kellogg Avenue and went up the ridge through modern Rancho del Ciervo. About a mile past that, the route crossed a steep and wide expanse of sheer sandstone, known today as “Slippery Rock”.

The sandstone at Slippery Rock was tough for horses to get traction on, especially beneath metal horseshoes. It was dangerous slow going and it would cause great delays in travel time.

So the construction supervisors had the Chinese workers chisel deep horizontal grooves into the soft rock, giving the horses better footing. Vertical ruts had also been carved about three inches deep in order to help guide the stagecoaches through the technical section. Over the years, the wagon’s wheels wore deeper into the sandstone and then made even deeper by winter rains rushing through them.

The grooves worked, but it was still slow going. Another nickname for this section back in the day was “Slippery Sal.” This iconic photo shows the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains looking about the same as they do today!

The grooves can still be seen nowadays, but thanks to vandalism, the property owners have made Slippery Rock off limits to the public. Maybe someday it will become a recognized historic site and public access will be granted…

Just above Slippery Sal, the road went through a very narrow slot, a favorite spot for banditos to hold up a slow moving coach.

This Donna Doty Lane photo from 1956 shows the same gap.

And again in 2012 from Jack Elliott’s blog,, now blocked by a healthy oak tree.

The road went on to the Kinevan Ranch “Summit House”, where the stagecoaches stopped and changed horses. This is also where the toll was collected for use of the new turnpike road. The tariff was $1 to $3.50 for wagons, depending on the size of the team, 25 cents each for horses, cattle and riders and 5 cents each for goats and pedestrians. Not cheap back in those days…

From there, it went over the summit and down to Cold Spring Tavern for a rest stop. (Still a great place for a rest stop!) Then the stagecoaches went down the pass to Felix Mattei’s Hotel in Los Olivos, now known as Mattei’s Tavern, and then on to Santa Maria. 

The idea of paying to use a road was not popular with the locals, but the Santa Ynez Turnpike Road was such a necessity, it was tolerated. Occasionally a rancher would “accidentally” stampede his cattle past the Summit House and down the Pass, only to argue with Kinevan later about the fee he owed. San Marcos Pass would not be free to the public until the County acquired it in 1898.


In 1892, property owner Tom Lillard got fed up with lazy drivers leaving his gate open and his cattle straying, so he locked his gate and refused further travel through his property. A new route was soon graded to the east of Slippery Rock and that is today known as Old San Marcos Pass. The new route had some obstacles of its own, like the two sharp U turns halfway up the mountain. The stage drivers called them the Double U’s and they still are a hazard today.

Further up the road was Hobo Rock. A huge boulder that the stage coaches had to carefully skirt around. It got that name because under the overhang was a popular camp for vagrants at the time.

The road was quite narrow at the rock, so stage drivers had to slow down for safety reasons. This made Hobo Rock yet another opportunity for bandits to hold up travelers. Unfortunately this landmark was buried under landfill for the construction of the new San Marcos Pass.

Today a series of 53 signs mark the stagecoach route from San Barbara to Los Olivos. The signs start at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater, which was the Arlington Hotel, where stage passengers began the long, eight-hour trip over the Santa Ynez Mountains for a fee of $5.50.

In 1901, the Southern Pacific coast line was completed, providing a faster and more comfortable option for travelers. The stagecoach did continue to have a limited run thanks to Felix Mattei, bringing his guests from Gaviota to Santa Ynez. But by 1914, the model T Ford put an end to that run as well.

So that’s why it’s called Turnpike Road! Be thankful that nowadays you can zip over to Cold Spring Tavern for a tri tip sandwich, toll free!

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Show Comments
John Wiley Aug 22, 2021 03:34 PM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Yet another fascinating article, Tom! Thanks for the detailed story and great photo collection. Seeing and snapping Slippery Rock from the air, I've pondered how different the trip can be today - a leisurely 10 minute small plane flight vs. 8 hours or far more in a punishing coach. Let's hope your suggestion of public access to a historic monument comes to pass.

PitMix Aug 23, 2021 11:47 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

It's hard for us to appreciate the effort it took to do basic things just over 100 yrs ago. Things have really changed but are we able to handle these changes?

Minibeast Aug 22, 2021 05:08 PM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Many many thanks for this awesome read. Well done. Loved it all, from start to finish.

CMKR Aug 22, 2021 08:37 PM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Thank you for this informative and interesting article and the great pictures!

eainca Aug 23, 2021 06:38 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

So now I know why “Hobo Rock” was named. From the 40’s thru the 50’s I lived in Rosario Park (the entrance is the original stage road). When I traveled the road, twice a day, the ‘new’ section of the Pass was the lower half. It joined the original section at the Trout Club and just past the cut it bore left (it’s a driveway now) to the summit. The section called Kinavin Rd (where you turn to get to Cold Springs Tavern). The upper half to the summit was compleated in the 50’s and continues down into the valley.

mtndriver Aug 23, 2021 08:13 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Love your history posts, Tom, always so interesting. I grew up just off Turnpike and always wonder how it got that name. Lived at the Trout Club for many years, too, always wondered about those two very sharp turns on Old San Marcos—how did a stage coach get around those, must have been pretty tricky.

Tugogwa Aug 23, 2021 09:54 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

My college job in the 70s was working at the Arco gas station which was at the N/W corner of Turnpike and Hollister. One of the most common questions for directions was from travellers from the east coast, fresh off a flight at the airport and driving their rentals. They were all interested in getting to Los Angeles quickly and wanted to know how they could get on the turnpike.

tagdes Aug 23, 2021 03:29 PM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

When did they remove the ARCO station there. If they'd have kept it maybe the Mobile on the the S/W corner wouldn't be so expensive.

condorhiker Aug 23, 2021 07:16 PM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

I live on what used to be the Lillard-Catlett Ranch. I've always wondered which ridge did the stagecoach road come down and where did the road intersect what is now Patterson Avenue? Same question for the Fremont Trail.

EastBeach Aug 24, 2021 12:26 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Isn't Slippery Rock where Oprah gets her water? I've heard they have quite a drilling operation trucking water across town.

EastBeach Aug 24, 2021 12:33 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

That map showing "Fremont Trail 1846" is interesting ... any connection to the current Fremont trail that runs from East Camino Cielo down to the Fremont Campground on Paradise Rd?

tsulger50 Aug 24, 2021 08:00 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

I am going back and forth from this article to google maps/google earth and cannot find the route. Kellogg to Rancho Ciervo seems to go up Patterson which is no where near Turnpike. Your map shows it going up west of San Jose Creek and West of Old San Marcos road. Not sure how Turnpike connects to this. Any maps that overlay the current maps and show the route??

a-1629818144 Aug 24, 2021 08:15 AM
How Turnpike Got Its Name

Great article again. Thank you very much. I'm interested in the designation of a 'Gold Mine' on the map. I wasn't aware of any gold or silver mining in this area. Am I wrong?

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