The 1870s were, in many ways, a key decade as Santa Barbara metamorphosed into an American city. English became the language of public record, tourism grew into an important industry, Stearns Wharf opened the city to the world, a streetcar system began, and gas lighting came to State Street, to name just a few milestones. Another development was the appearance of sidewalks along the city’s main thoroughfare, a process that sparked a controversy that would last some 20 years.
Negotiating State Street in the 1860s was not exactly for the faint of heart. During the dry season, horses, wagons, and buggies raised choke-inducing clouds of manure-laden dust. Still, most preferred this to conditions in the winter when rains could turn State Street into a virtually impassable quagmire. Add to this the lack of gutters and the tendency of some to use the street as their own personal garbage dump and the result was an unsavory, unhealthful mess. Complaints were raised about the stench from the carcasses of horses and other animals left in the street to rot. As the population grew, traffic congestion became a growing concern. All these conditions were hardly conducive to pedestrian safety or comfort and were certainly counterproductive in a city increasingly attuned to attracting new settlers and tourists.
By the early 1870s, there was growing public clamor to grace State Street with some sort of sidewalk. Up to that time, installation of walkways was a comparatively hit-or-miss affair, with business owners taking it upon themselves to construct a short length of sidewalk in front of their own establishments. One newspaper, in calling for improvements, resorted to sarcasm in an attempt to get the ball rolling:
Santa Barbara is impregnable. No charge of any enemy will ever overpower it. It is defended by a system of pitfalls, ambuscades, inclined planes at every angle, unexpected abutments, and precipices.
We refer to the sidewalks on our streets. An army which should march up State Street any dark night would be fit only for hospital duty afterward. A person requires encyclopedic knowledge of the locality in order to go : on either side of the street after nightfall without risk to life and limb.
In 1871, the City Council passed a series of regulations to rectify the situation. The result was a mix of public and private initiatives; the city would grade State Street and install gutters
while business owners would be responsible for constructing walks out of wood, brick, stone, or asphalt. Almost every business owner chose wood. The first sidewalks were laid on State Street between Canon Perdido and Haley streets.
By 1873, sidewalks extended along State Street from Anapamu to Gutierrez streets. Maintenance of the sometimes fragile walks became an increasingly serious problem. Protruding nails caused painful injuries and uneven surfaces made for some adventurous strolls. Yet there was no substantial change in the situation until 1888, when the council passed a law specifying that sidewalks on State Street from Mission to Mason streets had to be made of stone or concrete. Tourism was a factor; one newspaper pointed out that visitors would hardly wish to walk around downtown if they were taking their lives in their hands due to unsafe and unsightly sidewalks.
Although it took some 20 years of wrangling and controversy, by the 1890s, State Street had safe, paved sidewalks for the growing number of visitors and shoppers to downtown.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.