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If you know what you’re looking at, this boring clump of ivy holds a lot of historical importance. This is all that’s left of Goleta’s once booming asphalt industry.

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In 1890, the Alcatraz Asphalt Company leased a 400-acre tract of land  that had a surface tar pit on it, from Augustus “Gus” Den. There were other asphalt deposits in Carpinteria and on the More Mesa, and they  had all been used throughout the years, all the way back to the Chumash. But Alcatraz would build the first mine to use deep shafts, eventually going down to 550 feet, and it was very lucrative for both the Alcatraz company and the land owner.

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Hard to believe this industrial looking scene was right next to the scenic lagoon on the campus of UCSB. Alcatraz operated this mine from 1890 to 1898. When the Goleta plant was operating in its heyday, it pumped out 60 tons of asphaltum every twenty four hours. Chunks of solidified tar were loaded onto horse drawn wagons, each wagon carrying four tons, three times a day, seven days a week, down to the train station at Hollister and La Patera. Once on the Southern Pacific line, the Goleta asphalt was distributed  all around the country. Some of the historic streets of New Orleans are paved with tar from the asphalt mine in Goleta, California.

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The mine employed 50 men, from local boys to experienced former gold miners, local farm workers to transients. The days were long, and the work was hard, but the pay was good. Workers made as much as $2.50 for a 10 hour shift….. 25 cents an hour!  Sounds pathetic today, but that was twice as much as a farmhand made.  The work was dangerous and unhealthy. Dynamite was often used to break through sections of congealed tar in the shaft, making the job even more hazardous. Two miners were killed in an underground explosion, and the air in the shafts was so polluted even the slightest open wound could bring on serious infections. Workers described the job as, “Hot, dirty, cramped and dangerous” and men often passed out from breathing toxic fumes.

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The first shaft was dug 200 feet deep, right in the middle of an outcrop of asphaltum, and the nearby lagoon served as a convenient dumping place for the mine tailings. They soon realized their mistake in digging straight in, as the deeper they dug the more fluid the asphalt got, similar to digging into wet sand. So they dug another vertical shaft into solid earth, 100 feet away from the first, then every 50 feet down, they dug horizontal tunnels to tap into the original shaft. The tunnels were lined with 10×10 fir timbers shipped in from Oregon, but even these heavy supports often snapped like toothpicks under the pressure.

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Shown here is the Carpinteria asphalt mine, also operated by Alcatraz. In 1898, Alcatraz closed the Goleta plant, and moved to a more economical surface tar pit on the Sisquoc Ranch.

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Today, an opening to one of the mine shafts sits unnoticed on the busy UCSB campus. Thousands of tons of fine quality asphalt remain 200 feet below this spot, as well as a network of shafts and tunnels where brave men risked their lives trying to make a living, over a hundred years ago.

Sources:
Justin Ruhge, Walker A. Tompkins, Santa Barbara Independent, Geocaching.com, Santa Barbara Museum Historical Society, Daily Nexus