Question submitted by Lee Lindblom
The peak production period for the asphaltum industry along the South Coast occurred in the 1890s, although minor commercial operations may be traced back to the 1850s. There were two primary mining sites, one just east of Carpinteria Creek and one in Goleta on what is now the UCSB campus.
Prehistoric peoples had utilized these bituminous deposits from natural seeps for millennia. Native American groups that predate the Chumash used the tar in the construction and repair of stone tools and implements. The Chumash used the asphaltum for any number of purposes, the best known of which was as a caulk for their ocean-going plank canoes. Heating the tar to make it viscous, they would then trowel it into the joints of the boat, forming a waterproof seal.
The Spaniards utilized tar in construction, with the Franciscan padres of the area missions finding asphaltum to be especially useful in building their community water systems. In the 1850s, T. Wallace More began a small commercial mine on his property at More Mesa. He sold the product for two dollars a ton in San Francisco. After his construction of a wharf east of Goleta slough in 1874, production quickened with prices reaching $20 a ton.
Carpinteria operations began in 1878 and in 1890 the Alcatraz Asphaltum Company set up shop on a portion of August Den’s Goleta Valley ranch. By the mid-1890s, the company operated both the Carpinteria mine and the Goleta mine under today’s UCSB. Asphaltum was used to pave streets and could also be used as a roof sealant. Many cities and towns across the U.S. were beginning to pave their streets during this period, making for a bit of a boom market.
The Goleta mine employed 50 workers at the height of production with miners working two 10-hour shifts. The work was dirty and dangerous; explosions were not unknown and the slightest open wound could bring on life-threatening infections. Gas build-up was also a concern. When fog rolled in, the heavy moist air would not allow the gas to naturally escape the shafts. Before the introduction of safety lamps, candles were the only source of illumination creating highly dangerous situations. Cave-ins were also a constant concern; in one incident a miner severely injured his leg when a tunnel collapse impaled him on his pick. The risks were great, but so were the relative rewards. Miners earned double the pay a local farm laborer would typically receive: $2.50 for 10 hours. There was never a shortage of workers.
Operations were at times a matter of trial and error. At the Alcaraz Goleta mine, attempts to mine directly into the viscous deposits failed when the gooey tar flowed around the wooden braces and filled the shafts. This problem was met by drilling horizontal shafts, known as drifts. Dynamite was used to blast through rock and then muckers would go in to shovel away the dirt and debris. Persistent water seepage in the shafts made bailing a constant preoccupation.
The Goleta plant closed in 1898 as the company concentrated on its more profitable operation at Rancho Sisquoc where the liquefied asphaltum could be carried some 35 miles by pipeline to Alcaraz Landing near Gaviota then shipped out. The Carpinteria plant closed in 1903, its deposits largely played out. Production on a smaller scale continued on other Carpinteria sites for a number of years, but the industry’s best times were over.
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.