Seeing Santa Barbara’s Past with New Eyes
Santa Barbara Public Library Digitizes More than 2,500 Historic Images
Thursday, November 15, 2018
A treasure trove of rare photographs chronicling Santa Barbara’s earliest days has been liberated from a corner of the Central Library archive room and uploaded to a public website for all to admire and explore. “These photographs have been locked away in a file cabinet for over 60 years,” said Library Director Jessica Cadiente. “By digitizing them and making the images available online for free, we have not only preserved critical pieces of Santa Barbara history; we have made it available to anyone anywhere in the world.”
By Paul Wellman
From left to right, historian John Woodward, librarian Jace Turner, and digital specialist Lisa Lunsford teamed up to make Edson Smith’s one-of-a-kind photo collection available to everyone. The original prints will remain in safekeeping and can be viewed by special appointment only.
The collection of 2,500 or so images — dating all the way back to the first years of photography in the mid-1800s, when Ulysses S. Grant was president and State Street was a muddy thoroughfare of horses and carriages — depicts all corners of Santa Barbara life through the turn of the century. There are snapshots of Franciscan friars and De la Guerra descendants, the first Southern Pacific train and the old Potter Hotel, Fiesta celebrations and earthquake destruction.
Santa Barbara Library
Matais Reyes was a woodcutter and a familiar character around Santa Barbara in the 1880s. He made his living by gathering firewood in the foothills and bringing it to town on his burros.
The main building blocks of the series came from a man named Edson Ashley Smith. Born in 1887 along the waterfront near where Stearns Wharf now stands, Smith was the son of county undersheriff Rufus Dana Smith. After an early career as a bookkeeper for the United Electric Gas & Power Company, Edson Smith served as secretary of the Santa Barbara Club for 43 years. Throughout his lifetime, he amassed a collection of historic photographs, taking special pride in images of the city’s original adobes, construction of the downtown Fountain Saloon, and of a poll tax receipt that proved Richard Jenkins paid county treasurer R. Carrillo three dollars in 1857 for the right to vote.
Smith married and had a daughter, and upon his death in 1947, he willed his photography collection to Santa Barbara College (UCSB’s precursor), which later gave it to the library. Little else is known about the man, though his News-Press obituary states, “Santa Barbara Club members invariably found him considerable, helpful, and friendly.”
Santa Barbara Library
Workmen enter the Santa Barbara Waterworks Tunnel, the four-mile route to the construction camp at Gibraltar Dam. A city librarian wrapped in canvas for protection carries books on loan to the camp library (ca. 1920).
For the next six decades, Smith’s collection — along with hundreds of additional photos that had been donated to the library over the years — sat squirreled away, known only to staff and a handful of area historians. That is, until a fateful conversation took place in 2015 between Community Relations Librarian Jace Turner and art gallery owner Frank Goss. Turner expressed the library’s long-standing desire to digitize the images, to which Goss suggested he connect with John Woodward, a Santa Barbara attorney and historian with a vast photography collection of his own. The two met and brought on digital expert Lisa Lunsford to round out the team.
Woodward, a protégé of famed preservationist Pearl Chase, is paying for the project with a grant through the library foundation. Once it’s completed, he’ll support a new effort to catalog and preserve the library’s own archives, some of which recount the Faulkner Gallery’s opening in 1930. At that time, it was the only art gallery between Los Angeles and San Francisco and hosted the works of Picasso, Matisse, and Klee alongside performances by the London String Quartet. Reviews of the time slammed Picasso and called for more shows by Santa Barbara landscape painter Lockwood de Forest.
The Potter Hotel on West Cabrillo Boulevard, seen here shortly after it was completed in 1903, attracted countless visitors to Santa Barbara until it was destroyed by fire on April 13, 1921.