History Podcasts

Santa Barbara Channel

Santa Barbara Channel

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Santa Barbara Channel, a rich area of marine life, lies west of the city of Ventura, California and south of Santa Barbara. As a part of the Pacific Ocean, it separates California's mainland from the northern Channel Islands.The Channel's east-west course is approximately 80 miles long and averages around 30 miles across. It becomes narrowest at the eastern extremity where Anacapa Island, formed by volcanic activity, is less than 15 miles off the coast of Ventura.The channel is a picturesque stretch of water; the islands are visible from the mainland on clear days. Whale-watching boats cross the channel daily from Ventura, while huge cargo ships and tankers travel the major shipping route on their way to or from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.As early as the 15th century, the indigenous Chumash paddled "tomols" across the channel to Santa Cruz Island to fish. It was traveled by non-natives from well before the 16th century, and more than 100 shipwrecks have been discovered.A sampler of the channel's historical highlights includes a 30-foot-tall lighthouse constructed in 1856 to assist and protect coastal vessels; a wharf built in 1872 to off-load lumber and passengers from large schooners; the Santa Barbara Harbor, built in 1930; off-shore drilling attempts by oil industry leaders, following World War II.Santa Barbara Channel also was the site of a major oil spill in 1969. Public indignation over the resultant massive environmental damage became a major spur to the incipient environmental movement.

The Santa Barbara Oil Spill: History and Impact

On January 28, 1969, a blowout on an offshore oil drilling rig 5.5 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara led to the release of nearly four million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. The spill ultimately spread across 800 square miles, creating a 35-mile-long slick and coating some 100 miles of mainland California and Santa Barbara Channel Islands coastlines in a black, viscous goo. It killed thousands of sea birds and countless more marine mammals, fish, and other ocean life, and helped initiate a powerful new chapter in the environmental movement.

The Santa Barbara oil spill was an important impetus for the first Earth Day and a series of bedrock environmental laws that followed in the early 1970s. None of these subsequent regulatory actions, however, prevented even larger spills. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and spewed oil for three months—130 million gallons in all—before the damaged well was capped. But the Santa Barbara spill, the third largest in U.S. history and the worst at the time, had arguably the most enduring policy impact.

In the days, weeks, and months following the spill, local volunteers and activists worked heroically to respond to the devastation—cleaning oil-slicked wildlife, spreading straw on beaches to to sop up oil, documenting contamination, and creating political and activist organizations. Reporters also played a large role, capturing images of oil-plagued beaches and oil-blackened wildlife that were broadcast around the globe.

As a direct result of the local outrage following the spill, four Santa Barbara-based organizations formed that are still active today:

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) originally launched under the auspices of Santa Barbara Citizens for Environmental Defense

History of Santa Barbara

The City of Santa Barbara realized the cultural and economic value of preserving its historic buildings much earlier than most American cities. Because of this early intervention, original Spanish Colonial and Mexican-era adobe structures still exist, providing a window to the City&rsquos past. With a spectacular setting nestled between the mountains and the sea, bathed in a mild climate, the City has also become a world-class tourist destination. However, what sets Santa Barbara apart from other California coastal cities is the unique thematic Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean Revival architecture found throughout the business district. In addition, Santa Barbara&rsquos thematic business district is surrounded by a collection of residential neighborhoods, each featuring unique architectural styles. These vary from the Victorian styles including Italianate, Eastlake and Queen Ann found on the City&rsquos Lower West Side, to the period revival styles of upper State Street, the exotic revivals of the Upper East Side, and the significant collection of Craftsman houses throughout the city.


The UCSB Library, Special Collection Archive, houses all of the Santa Cruz Island NRS historical records. The records have been added to the California State OAC (On-Line Archive of California) system. You can find the research catalog to these records at this link.

The log of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo contains the first-known written account of Santa Cruz Island. Cabrillo entered the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542, fifty years after the landing of Columbus.

More than two hundred years passed before Juan Pérez, leading the sea component of Gaspar de Portolá’s California expeditions, claimed SCI for the King of Spain in 1769. Historians credit the Pérez party with naming the island Santa Cruz, or Holy Cross,” after a group of Chumash returned a walking staff ornamented with an iron cross that a Catholic priest had lost onshore. By the early 1800s, the island’s native population had been devastated by measles and other introduced epidemics the last survivors were taken to mainland missions by 1814. Eight years later, Spanish rule in California gave way to Mexican rule. Andre Castillero became the first private owner of Santa Cruz Island in 1839 when he received it as a Mexican land grant, the validity of which was upheld 25 years later in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. According to the terms of the grant, the island’s boundary extends to the constantly shifting water’s edge the other Channel Islands, along with the rest of coastal California, are owned to the mean high-tide line.

Historical records show that by 1853, a large herd of sheep, along with pigs and horses, resided on SCI. Some of the buildings from the early 1860s still stand, including one at Christy Ranch. Ten San Francisco businessmen purchased the island in 1869, forming the Santa Cruz Island Company. By 1880, the company’s major stockholder, Justinian Caire, had become its sole owner. Over the next four decades, a small, self-contained community blossomed in the central valley, eventually including several ranch buildings, a blacksmith shop, a chapel, and a winery.

To pollinate the vineyards and produce honey, Caire kept European bees, which were reportedly on the island when he arrived. Also introduced by the mid 1880's was a variety of exotic vegetation that has since naturalized, including fennel and Italian stone pine some of California’s oldest and tallest eucalyptus trees grow in a large grove near the reserve field station. Wool and wine production, however, remained the principal venture of the Santa Cruz Island Company. Extensively vineyards grew in the central valley, and thousands of sheep ranged throughout the island.

Caire also constructed ranch facilities at Prisoners’ Harbor, the island’s principal port, as well as eight outposts scattered along the central valley and at each end. Many of these wooden and adobe structures are still being used and remain a valuable historic resource.

After Caire’s death, a long court battle over island management ensued among his heirs, and in 1925 the courts partitioned SCI. The eastern tenth, later known as the Gherini property, remained with Caire’s descendants until the early 1990s, when the National Park Service began acquiring it for the Channel Islands National Park. The western portion was purchased in 1937 by Edwin L. Stanton, a Los Angeles businessman. Stanton attempted to revive the sheep business by mixing domesticated sheep with the then-feral population, but this operation soon became unmanageable on the island’s rugged terrain. Many sheep were sent to market, and the company switched to cattle.

For the next half a century on SCI, the Stanton family operated a nineteenth-century-style rancho. In 1957, Edwin’s son, Dr. Carey Stanton, left his mainland medical practice and moved to the island. For many years he was its only registered voter. Like his father, Dr. Stanton recognized the importance of documenting the island’s natural and human history the Stantons’ detailed records and collections now reside with the Santa Cruz Island Foundation in Carpinteria, CA. Information and historical accounts can be found at Islapedia, on-line, authored by Santa Cruz Island President and Historian, Marla Daily.

In his quest for information regarding SCI, Dr. Stanton welcomed scientists. His relationship with the University of California began in 1964, when UC Santa Barbara held is summer field geology class on the island for the first time.

The venture was so successful that the University entered into a formal agreement with Dr. Stanton and the Santa Cruz Island Company in 1966 to establish a field station to support teaching and research. In 1973, this facility, along with the rest of the company’s 22,064 hectares (54,520 acres), became part of UC’s Natural Reserve System (NRS).

In 1973, this facility, along with the rest of the company's 22,064 hectors (55,520 acres) became part of UC's Natural Reserve System (NRS)

To protect the island’s future as well as to preserve its past, Dr. Stanton initiated the sale of the company’s holdings to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1978 for a fraction of their market value. TNC moved swiftly to remove feral sheep from the reserve. When Dr. Stanton died in December 1987, the remaining land and assets of the Santa Cruz Island Company transferred to TNC, and the era of private family ownership of SCI came to an end.

The NRS continues to provide facilities and access to the island for instruction and research through a license agreement with The Nature Conservancy. Together TNC and the SCIR have also begun to develop strategies and implement programs designed to remove non-native invasive species, restore damaged habitats, and improve the overall understanding of the island’s natural systems.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of an NPS presentation on The Channel Islands Biological Survey from 1939-1941.

Voyages into naval history

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum’s exhibits include this model of the U.S. Navy’s oldest ship, the USS Constitution. It is also known as “Old Ironsides.”

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is gearing up to set sail with a new exhibit this December that will feature paintings by Arthur Beaumont, the official U.S. Navy War Artist of World War II.

That will mark the latest display by a museum with a plethora of naval exhibits.

Known for its rich and diverse interpretation of the maritime history of the Santa Barbara Channel, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum was founded in 2000 by a group of fishermen, divers and sailors who are a part of the area’s thrilling history. Its mission is to create quality exhibits and educational experiences that celebrate the Santa Barbara Channel and illuminate the community’s rich connections with the sea.

A periscope from an old U.S. submarine stands in the museum.

Greg Gorga, the museum’s executive director, told the News-Press the new exhibit will feature around 50 magnificent paintings by Mr. Beaumont and will run from December through March.

SBMM is only one of 10 museums in the country selected to feature Mr. Beaumont’s work.

And the museum, which was a Naval Reserve building until the 1990s, is only one of a handful of U.S. museums to have a working periscope from a submarine.

In addition, the museum has what Mr. Gorga believes to be the most important maritime artifact from the Santa Barbara Channel: the giant first order Fresnel lens from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Point Conception Lighthouse.

More than 160 years old, the lens stands more than 18 feet tall and weighs approximately 6,000 pounds.

However, Mr. Gorga said the museum’s largest Naval exhibit explores one of the Navy’s worst moments: the Honda Point disaster. On Sept. 8, 1923, seven U.S. Navy destroyers were shipwrecked, and 23 sailors lost their lives in the Navy’s largest peacetime loss.

In addition to featuring archival photos and artifacts from the Honda Point disaster, the museum also features many other U.S. Navy exhibits including five U.S. Navy ship models, an air-to-water torpedo that was tested by the Navy in the Santa Barbara Channel, a U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet and an old WAVES uniform.

This model of the USS Ronald Reagan graces the museum.

Although the museum must remain closed at least until Sept. 10 due to COVID-19, it offers virtual tours on its website, sbmm.org. The site also includes virtual activities for kids that cover both the history and skills of the U.S. Navy such as knot tying and how to build Navy ships out of Legos. Other topics vary from sailor diets to the history of lighthouses.

In addition, the museum is hosting Zoom webinars on the third Thursday of each month. The latest one is at 7 tonight and will cover “North America’s Galapagos The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey.” The program will be hosted by Corinne Heyning Laverty.


The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum will hold a Zoom webinar at 7 tonight. The topic is “North America’s Galapagos The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey.” The host is Corinne Heyning Laverty.

To register, go to sbmm.org/santa-barbara-events or call 805-456-8747.

For more information and virtual tours of exhibits, go to sbmm.org.

In addition, Mr. Gorga said the museum has plans to open another new exhibit in the next couple weeks about the Santa Cruz Acoustic Range Facility on Santa Cruz Island.

Mr. Gorga said more information will be released soon about the SCARF and Beaumont exhibits.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

The Chumash Indian homeland lies along the coast of California, between Malibu and Paso Robles, as well as on the Northern Channel Islands. Before the Mission Period, the Chumash lived in 150 independent towns and villages with a total population of at least 25,000 people. In different parts of the region, people spoke six different but related languages.

The area was first settled at least 13,000 years ago. Over time, the population increased and the people adapted their lifeways to the local environment. Villages along the coastline, on the islands and in the interior had access to different resources, which they traded with one another.

This trade was made possible in part by the seagoing plank canoe, or tomol, which was invented by 1,500 years ago. In addition to the plank canoe, the Chumash are known for their fine basketry, their mysterious cave paintings and their bead money made from shells.

Today, there are still many people who can trace their ancestry back to these historic Chumash communities. Now you can learn more about how the Chumash people once lived, what customs they practiced, how they made money and what kinds of food they ate.

Chumash Life

Chumash life was centered around their town and village.

At one time there were hundreds of separate Chumash settlements here in Santa Barbara. Some villages were as large as towns while others were quite small. The villages were constructed on high ground near lagoons, creek mouths, lakes, or springs. The largest towns were built along the mainland coast near the Santa Barbara Channel. Some other Indian people had similar customs, but no other Native Americans lived in exactly the same way as the Chumash people. Their invention and use of the plank canoe, their extraordinary baskets, tools and bead making, their customs and beliefs, and their craftmanship are what make the Chumash Indians unique.

Each Chumash family lived in a house called an 'ap. A village would have many such dwellings. At least one large ceremonial sweathouse, or 'apa'yɨk, was built in every village, too.

Each village had a playground: a smooth level area big enough to play outdoor games such as shinny, kick ball and the hoop-and-pole game. Another area in the village was a ceremonial dance ground surrounded by a high fence of tule mats to serve as a wind break. Inside was the siliyɨk or sacred enclosure, a semi-circular area, enclosed for privacy, where priests and shamans conducted religious rituals.

This website includes information about the Chumash people's daily lives, as well as resources archived by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Visit the Museum and experience the Chumash people, "the ones who make shell bead money."


The year 1925 was a defining moment in the history of Santa Barbara.

In the early morning hours of June 29, 1925, a major earthquake, destroyed much of the downtown State Street corridor.

At the time of this disaster there was a growing community movement in Santa Barbara led by Bernard Hoffman and Pearl Chase to have a uniform architectural style, evoking our Spanish Colonial past. Their efforts led Santa Barbara to form the country&rsquos first architectural review board with strict design standards. What the earthquake leveled would now be rebuilt &mdash in the Spanish style.

This distinctive look of "El Pueblo Viejo" &mdash the City&rsquos core historic district &mdash rose from the rubble and serves today to set Santa Barbara apart. Our renowned Hispanic architecture is defined by red tile roofs, white stucco walls, decorative wrought iron on windows, balconies, and walls handrails, and decorative tiles. Lush landscaping provides color and contrast. The charm and history of the city permeates its buildings and public spaces, bringing to life the cultural tapestry of Santa Barbara.

The residents of Santa Barbara were the Chumash Indians who lived here as many as 6,000 years ago. Early Spanish soldiers arrived in the 18th century to occupy the area and built the original Spanish fort - El Presidio - to protect the alta California coastline from foreign invaders. Spanish priests came to &ldquoChristianize&rdquo the Indians and teach them trades and skills useful to Spain in the New World.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, California became part of Mexico. In 1848, following the Mexican-American War, California became part of the expanding United States, and joined the union as a state in 1850. For more information about the history of the Presidio and our city's early settlement, explore the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation website.

The town&rsquos main thoroughfare, State Street, has been the route through which history, people, and events have entered and shaped Downtown Santa Barbara.

The Gold Rush ushered in the American age and changed Santa Barbara from a sleepy pueblo to a bustling little town. Soon steamships arrived, loaded with visitors from the eastern states. When the historic Stearns Wharf was built in 1872, it allowed direct access for ships to safely unload building materials, freight, and passengers.At the dawn of the 20th century, the railroad was then completed which fully connected Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and San Francisco, ending the community&rsquos isolation and ensuring its future as a major visitor and resort destination.

A steady stream of retailers, doctors, bankers, and service businesses set up their storefronts and offices in Downtown Santa Barbara.

From 1912-1921 Santa Barbara was a major center of silent film production in the days before Hollywood.(Salvatore Ferragamo started his career here crafting shoes for the film stars.) By the 1940s, State Street had also established itself as a retail shopping mecca for the region and its visitors.

Things began to shift in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the city limits expanded to the north. Attention was diverted from the old downtown and to the new retail developments uptown. Across the country downtowns began experiencing this downward spiral of disinterest and disinvestment. Downtown Santa Barbara was no exception, as mall shopping became the new way of life.

In response to the development of the region&rsquos first regional mall, La Cumbre Plaza, downtown businesses organized as the Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara in 1967.

Retail promotions and community celebrations reflecting local history and cultural amenities were established by Downtown Santa Barbara. These included the Annual Downtown Santa Barbara Holiday Parade, the Art & Wine Tour, 1 st Thursday, Small Business Saturday, the Annual Awards Breakfast, and Member Mixers. Other community events supported by Downtown Santa Barbara included Old Spanish Days, Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Pianos on State, as well as a variety of other events.

City leaders have always recognized the value of a strong downtown. The Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency (1972 until 2012) fueled unprecedented public investment in Downtown Santa Barbara, including the construction of the Paseo Nuevo as a public-private partnership, and the creation of convenient downtown parking lots and garages.

One of the City&rsquos significant developments was &ldquoThe Plaza," a six-block section of State Street. Originally constructed in 1969 and designed by architect Robert Ingle Hoyt, the Plaza's sidewalks, paseos and landscaped streetscape define The Downtown's special charm and pedestrian environment. The Plaza was expanded in the 1990s, with additions of public art, benches, and our favorite, the State Street Flag Program.

Downtown Santa Barbara also provided important leadership for the revitalization of the downtown area, advancing a proposal in the mid-1970s to create a self-assessment on all the businesses to create a stable budget in support of the organization&rsquos work. Santa Barbara&rsquos first Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) was created in 1975, and a second BID was created for the Old Town District in 1976.

Downtown Santa Barbara&rsquos retail mix also continued to evolve in the 1970s and &lsquo80s. The City of Santa Barbara's commitment to planning continued with the completion of a Historic Resources survey effort, along with the adoption of the "Burgard Plan," a visionary plan to blend commerce and culture to make arts an integral part of the Santa Barbara experience. The Paseo Nuevo opened with fanfare in 1989, and small businesses continued to make Downtown Santa Barbara their home, expanding the district to side streets and growing from 400 businesses in 1975 to more than 1420 businesses in 2015.

The economic downturn in 2008 created increased vacancies and budget challenges, and the elimination of redevelopment agencies in the State of California in 2012 marked the end of an era for public reinvestment. Yet Downtown Santa Barbara has recovered and rebounded from the economic downturn.

Today State Street serves as the cultural heart and soul of Santa Barbara. Its vibrant theatre district has five theaters serving 80 to 2000 audience members and nine museums, some of which, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, have distinguished national reputations.

In recent years, start-ups and technology-related firms such as Sonos Corporation have made Downtown Santa Barbara their headquarters, creating new demand for similar tenants. Adding to the mix are a growing number of wine tasting operations, creating a cottage industry &ndash and a new pasttime &ndash for downtown customers and residents.

Downtown Santa Barbara today is at an important crossroads, with a legacy of success and opportunities ahead. New investments are anchoring the lower blocks of State Street, providing infill and new uses to activate and connect the Downtown core to the waterfront.

Its future remains as bright as its past, in part due to its amazing location, its storied history, and the strong leadership inherent in the public-private partnership between the City of Santa Barbara and Downtown Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara Channel Crossing 101

Chuck Graham

I was having a tough time judging the angle the freighter was taking in the Santa Barbara Channel’s northbound shipping lane. Paddling in my kayak, I was sitting low on the water, kind of in no man’s land. I blamed it on the four, tail-fluking humpback whales spouting 50 yards off my bow, a fine distraction indeed. Do I sprint ahead hoping to see the freighter’s massive bow way over my left shoulder, or do I play it safe and back paddle northeast out of harm’s way?

There’s always much to consider before attempting a channel crossing in the Santa Barbara Channel, destination the Channel Islands National Park. Float plan, check. Flares, radio, glow sticks, check. Compass, paddling leash, and spare paddle, check, check, and check.

I’ll study those weather reports and hope they’re somewhat accurate. I can never decide what’s more of a deterrent: dense fog or howling northwest winds? I’ve paddled across in both, and it challenges any glimmer of positive energy working from my shoulders, down through my forearms, and eventually into my forward stroke.

I’m always on the lookout for marine mammals and big fish too. It’s always inspiring and uplifting to be swarmed by several hundred common dolphins just off my bow. When I see them, I want them to stay with me until I’m within two miles of my destination. When I see fragile little seabirds like Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, hardy avian species that brave one of the most dangerous channels in the world, I force myself to quickly stop feeling any sort of self-doubt, especially once I’m beyond the oil platforms.

Of course, it doesn’t help things any when, on one particular solo crossing, a three-foot-tall dorsal fin rose out of choppy seas on the swell in front of me just beyond the oil platforms. Cruising west to east 50 yards off my bow,it dove below never to be seen again. Needless to say,though, my head was on a swivel all the way to Scorpion Anchorage near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. I couldn’t help but have visions of terror, that faraway look a great white possesses as it eyeballs its prey. Sitting low in the water,I could easily see it catapult me out of my kayak or troll after me off my stern. I remember not stopping the rest of the way that day, no eating or drinking the final 10 miles. My paddling pace maintained at a high clip, but so did a sore neck from looking over each shoulder.

Once past the oil derricks, the Pacific Ocean seems to get a bit bigger, the north and southbound shipping lanes transform into some sort of paddling gauntlet, and beyond that it’s eight miles of nonstop paddling to the largest and most diversified isle off the California coast. Once inside the one-mile National Park boundary that extends around each isle in the park, I typically relax, soak in the moment, and realize it’s not that bad of a commute.

Watch the video: Santa Barbara Island: Kayaking, Camping, Snorkeling, Hiking and Sea Lions (August 2022).