Rearview Mirror: Glimpses Into Santa Barbara’s Stagecoach Past

Posted on Apr 12 by SEASONS Magazine

The arch bridge that carries Highway 154 above Cold Spring Canyon. Photo by Mark Weber.

The arch bridge that carries Highway 154 above Cold Spring Canyon. Photo by Mark Weber.

By Fred Nadis

I’m walking with two cheerful women in boots and jeans on Stagecoach Road, a meandering dribble of asphalt on the far side of San Marcos Pass, with a view of the arch bridge that carries Highway 154 above Cold Spring Canyon. At the road’s edge, Julia, with her long white hair draped on her handspun poncho, points and says, “This is it.” We follow an overgrown trail. Sure enough, after it switches back through sandstone, we can see ruts made more than a century ago by the tall iron-rimmed wheels of stagecoaches. We follow a one-mile segment of the abandoned roadway through rock slabs and manzanita. No other hikers are around. Mountain bike tread marks are present, though, and an old rusty beer can, with telltale triangles punctured on either side.

“1960s,” I say.

“Hmm,” says my wife, Kate. “There wouldn’t be anything left of the can.”

I’m a historian. But I don’t argue. I have no idea how old the can is, but it was definitely not drunk by a stagecoach driver. There is a ringing quiet. Lichen and moss grow on the creased sandstone.

How did I become a “rut nut?” It started with the signs. There are 53 Wells Fargo “Old Stagecoach Route” signs across the county. Santa Barbara remained stagecoach dependent until 1901 when railroads arrived.

You can see the first sign at Arlington Theater—the site of the former Arlington Hotel. The earliest stagecoach road led north from the hotels on State Street along what is now Hollister to Gaviota Pass (now Highway 101). It was rough going. Townspeople talked about building a new road over San Marcos Pass.

One of the 53 Wells Fargo "Old Stagecoach Route" signs found in Santa Barbara County. Photo by Kate O'Connell.

One of the 53 Wells Fargo “Old Stagecoach Route” signs found in Santa Barbara County. Photo by Kate O’Connell.

Back then, able-bodied men were required to offer five days of labor a year for public works, but no one grabbed a pickaxe. In 1868, local investors brought in a group of 28 Chinese workers by steamship from San Francisco. They joined another crew of 32. Many of the workers bunked near a spring on Paradise Road. A year after they set to with picks, shovels and explosives, the turnpike over San Marcos Pass was completed.

Santa Barbara Carriage Museum is a great place to acquaint yourself with the non-automotive past. Tom Peterson—wide-shouldered, wearing a tan cowboy hat and with the ruddy face of someone who has ridden horses for decades—greets me at the gate. He leads me past historic saddles, many ornately carved and silver-laden, as well as a parade ground’s worth of conveyances including an ornate Spanish cart, buggies, an antique hearse and an army wagon.

To the left of the entrance hall, daubed in the yellow and red indicating it was for hire, is a stagecoach emblazoned Santa Barbara and Los Olivos Stage Co. Peterson demonstrates how the foot brake worked, applying pressure to the rear wheels. When I ask where the lock-box would be kept, Peterson says, “Under the driver’s seat, in the boot,” and urges me to “climb up.” I do.

People once boarded this stage at downtown hotels and paid the 25-cent fare for the eight-hour slog to Los Olivos. Built in Stockton, it is a “mud wagon,” somewhat lighter yet sturdier than the Concord stagecoaches made in New Hampshire commonly seen in Hollywood westerns. Nearby are the whips that two of Santa Barbara’s last stagecoach drivers, Ted Whitney and Selin Carrillo, flicked at their teams of six horses. Peterson says, “One of Selin’s grandchildren called and said he had this stuff out in the garage, did I want it? We sure did.”

The museum also has a coach from Santa Barbara and Saugus Stage Co. Passengers heading north from Saugus (Santa Clarita today) down through Ventura and up the beach would wait for the tides to change at Rincon—at times, apparently, beset by bandits while stuck on the sand.

Before our planned rendezvous with Julia, my wife and I drive up Turnpike Road toward the mountains and stop near sign 18 at San Marcos Road where the daily stagecoach once passed the one-room schoolhouse that is still part of Cathedral Oaks Nursery School. The road built by the Chinese workers continued north, then wound up into the mountains above Fairview and Patterson roads.

A steep section, known as Slippery Rock, where workers with pickaxes carved grooves for wagon wheels and horses’ hooves, was another favorite place for hold-ups. In 1891, when ranchers grew tired of telling drivers to close gates to protect stock, the route shifted south to San Marcos Road, complete with its present double-U turns. Kinevan’s Summit House, atop the pass, where tolls were collected and horses changed, is no longer around. On the far side of the pass, a second staging station, Cold Spring Tavern, still thrives, with buildings that date to the early 1860s—”or so legend has it,” says staffer Patty Tierney.

Particularly on weekends, you can count dozens of motorcycles in the tavern’s dirt parking lot. Mainly Harley-Davidsons, but also Triumphs, Ducatis and Suzukis. Tourists and white-haired desperadoes mingle calmly in the shade. You can look inside a historic bunkhouse used by the Chinese road workers, but won’t see much. Nearby, cooks tend slabs of tri-tip barbecue and bang their tongs to Norteño music, while a woman talks her child down from where he hangs in the thin vines on the steep embankment above the old stage roadway.

After a tasty sandwich, and short drive down the pass, I stop to study the long descent into Santa Ynez Valley with binoculars, but don’t spot any remnants of the old route; it took stagecoaches from Cold Spring four hours to reach Los Olivos, where passengers, as of 1886, could catch a train north. Much of the old road through the valley has been hidden below Cachuma Lake. After years of drought, however, the artificial lake has shrunk and looks more like it once was: a river.

The past can be stubborn that way.

Originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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