Remembering My Childhood
on Stearns Wharf
A Lifelong Santa Barbaran Recalls Halcyon Days of Driving and Walking the Wooden Planks
By Terry Ortega | October 6, 2022
My family has been in Santa Barbara since the late 1840s, so it’s quite possible that one or more of my ancestors strolled on Stearns Wharf in 1872, the year it was built. My grandparents and parents loved the waterfront, so my family spent many days walking the breakwater and swimming near the wharf. We also went on drives that invariably included stops at Shoreline Park, Thousand Steps, the Bird Refuge, and a drive onto the pier.
My parents, sisters, and grandparents — seven of us in all — would squeeze into our burgundy Chevy Malibu and take off, with the windows rolled down and none of us wearing seat belts. When we drove onto the pier, I always stuck my head out the window and watched the sand below the wooden planks become dark water, a sight that caused me to scream every single time. My dad would drive extra slow, the tires would thump over every board and uneven spot, and my stomach would flip because my very young self was convinced that the weight of the car would cause the pier to collapse and plunge us into the water below.
After surviving my near-death experience, we would walk along the boards, surrounded by the unmistakable smells of the sea and fish. I always peeked in the windows of Madame Rosinka’s mysterious parlor, fascinated by the crystal ball, magic crystals, and the statue of a palm with lines and “heart,” “head,” and “fate” written on it, but what I most wanted to see was the fortune-teller herself. I remember selecting pieces of saltwater taffy from different bins in the candy store, but my favorite thing to do was to watch the crabs and lobsters bounce around the tanks in the window of what is now the S.B. Shellfish Company. I wondered if they were happy in there or if they had any inkling of what was going to happen to them. I never once thought of them as food.
Our strolls would take us to the end of the pier to see if the anglers had caught anything. My sisters and I tried to get as near as we could to pelicans and gulls, and we dared to sidle as close to the edge as possible. Sadly, our visits to the wharf stopped in 1969 when the oil spill happened. I remember seeing pelicans and seagulls covered in oil on TV. We still visited the pier, but now it was mainly to see the progress of the rebuilding. The soles of our feet would be covered with tar. By the time the wharf had been rebuilt, I was 15 years old.
Stearns Wharf has been a constant source of joy in my life and today remains a magical place to me, replete with sweet memories of life with parents and grandparents, sisters, my own children, and continued walks with my husband of 30 years. I haven’t driven on the wharf since 1969, but I still get a piece of taffy now and again, watch the pelicans, and wonder if the lobsters in the tanks are the ones I used to know.