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Coal Oil Point, Campbell Ranch and Devereux School

Devereux Point. Also known as Coal Oil Point. Today it’s a popular surf spot and a great place for a nice walk on the beach. But, like most places in Goleta, there’s a lot of interesting history here.

The earliest known name for the point was the Chumash name P’ok’oy, and the lagoon was called ‘Ukshulo’. So if someone asks where you surfed and you don’t want to publicize it, tell them you surfed P ‘ok ‘oy.

We’re not sure exactly when it got the name Coal Oil Point, but the reason why is pretty clear. Multiple natural underwater seeps have been leaking all around the point for about 500,000 years and they release about 100 to 150 barrels of liquid petroleum a day. In 1990, the seeps released about twice as much hydrocarbon air pollution as all the motor vehicles in Santa Barbara County! The seeps produce a slick on the ocean surface that when degraded by weather becomes tar, that washes up on the beaches for miles around.

There’s evidence the Chumash found many uses for the tar, including sealing water baskets, decorating clothing and weapons, construction of their Tomol boats and even chewing gum, (not advised). When Europeans came on the scene, they made the first written record of the seeps in 1774, describing the gobs of tar on the beach and the strong odor. And they mentioned it again in 1792, writing the sea, “was covered with a thick, slimy substance” and had the “strong smell of tar”.

When California came under Mexican rule in 1821, they wanted to attract people to settle here and make it a more “civilized” land. So the government started giving away huge chunks of land, called Land Grants, to folks they considered promising individuals.

One such individual was a highly motivated young Irishman named Nicholas Den. Working on a Boston trading vessel, he fell in love with Goleta at first sight and jumped ship to stay in 1836. He was enamored with the California lifestyle and went to work for Jose Ortega at the Refugio Ranch, learning to be a ranchero. As fast as he possibly could, Den learned Spanish, married a local girl and became a Mexican citizen. In 1846, Den was awarded the Dos Pueblos Land Grant that stretched from El Capitan to Fairview Avenue. This made Nicholas Den the first individual to own Coal Oil Point. ( For the whole amazing story on Nicholas Den, read “The Royal Rancho” by Walker Tompkins).

While Nicholas Den owned Coal Oil Point, he didn’t use it for much more than grazing land for his cattle. The entire mesa from College Point to Coal Oil Point was covered with dense oak groves. This map from 1860 shows their interpretation of the coastline at that time.

This detailed map from 1871 shows a bit of the slough in the upper right, today’s Campus Point and Coal Oil Point. Most notable though is in tiny lettering, highlighted in yellow it reads, “Sand Beach”. So we know it’s been called Sands Beach since at least 1871!

After Nicholas Den passed away, his will split the Dos Pueblos Rancho between his ten children. Unfortunately, the Den family was land rich and cash poor. A devastating drought had killed almost all of their livestock and their livelihood, so selling off their land was their only income.

The following years brought a frenzy of real estate dealings throughout the Dos Pueblos Rancho, including Coal Oil Point, chopping the Goleta Valley into smaller and smaller parcels. A lawyer of questionable morals named Charles Huse was quick to make a deal, often without bothering to check with the executors of the estate. In the 1870s he leased a section of the Coal Oil Point area to the More brothers. Huse illegally permitted them to cut the Live Oak forest down for firewood that was in high demand by the whaling station at Goleta Beach. They harvested 1,000 cords of lumber, kept the profits for themselves, paid off Huse and left the land damaged and barren.

In 1913, Jack and Coto Cavalletto bought 200 acres of Coal Oil Point and started a farming operation. This was probably the poorest land in Goleta, since being stripped of the primeval oak forest. The lack of trees made the mesa a windswept dust bowl. The brothers planted a row of cypress trees to separate their halves and that still stands today, dividing Devereux Point from Isla Vista. Farming was difficult with the bad soil, but they managed to make a meager living. The Cavallettos would make a handsome profit later, when a wealthy foreigner would come along and pay top dollar for their mediocre land….

Col. Colin Campbell was just another English army officer until he married wealthy American Heiress. Colin met Nancy Leiter while serving in the Central India Horse Regiment. They felt like kindred spirits right from their first meeting.

Nancy had come to visit her sister who was married to the Viceroy of India. Both of her sisters had married royalty, one a Viceroy and the other an Earl, but Nancy wasn’t impressed by titles. Despite her parents wishes, she quickly fell in love with a man without a royal title, a career military man. Colin proposed to Nancy as they rode in a carriage on top of an elephant.

Nancy Leiter was born into riches, and the fame that comes with it, as this article makes clear. She was the daughter of a successful Chicago businessman and real estate tycoon, Levi Leiter, who reportedly owned one-third of all the commercial real estate in Chicago.

Her father passed away in 1904 and shortly thereafter they were married in a brilliant social affair in Washington DC. Afterwards, they moved back to India, since Colin was still in the military. They followed his duty to Afghanistan and Russia, finally retiring in England.

Nancy was used to an opulent lifestyle and she had the means to live luxuriously. So when she and Colin were able to choose what they believed would be their permanent home, they chose the imposing seaside Kingsgate Castle in Kent, England. Besides being a stunning estate with plenty of space for entertaining royalty, the ample grounds included a polo field for Campbell and his friends that were frequent house guests. They lived happily and had their four children in this giant castle, but they grew tired of the excessive taxes the English government charged on their American income. So they decided to move to the United States.

Colonel Campbell arrived in Santa Barbara in 1919 on the hunt for a location for a country estate like he was leaving behind. While many fellow millionaires had settled in Montecito, Campbell wanted room to build a polo field and raise dogs. His first choice was Hope Ranch, but it had just been sold to developers by the Pacific Improvement Company.

Some prominent local citizens told him Goleta had lots of open space and after looking around, he decided that Coal Oil Point was the place to build his new empire.

While the soil was marginal and there was no fresh water, there was plenty of room for a sprawling estate and a mile of private beach. Colin was especially drawn to the large lagoon and envisioned a lake for canoeing stocked with fish and elegant white swans. Campbell bought 100 acres of Coal Oil Point from Jack Cavalletto for six times what he paid for it.

Additionally, he acquired 300 acres just south of Hollister Avenue to drill for potable water for his country estate. When the well drillers informed Campbell they thought they were going to strike oil, the Colonel told them to stop, and drill elsewhere. He wanted water, not oil!

In 1920, the Campbells brought their children, their “domestic staff ” and six train car loads of furnishings to Esther Hammonds’ oceanfront Bonnymede Estate. They would live there for a year while their new country home was being constructed.

Access to the Coal Oil Point had always been via a battered old road from Hollister Avenue, down between the marshy sloughs to a sharp left turn that was nicknamed El Rincon, or the Corner. In fact, the Den family called this area the Rincon Ranch for years. This road was narrow and when there was rain, a nearly impassable mess.

Col. Campbell offered to pave this road at his expense, as long as his neighbors agreed not to haul excessively heavy loads on it. One grumpy old local didn’t like this fancy foreigner coming to town and telling people what they can and can’t do, and he proclaimed Campbell had to pave it or he couldn’t get to his own property! The Colonel didn’t like to be bullied, so he purchased a parallel strip of land just west of the old road, paved it, fenced it off for his private use and named it…..Campbell Road. Years later, the county took over both roads, removed the dividing fence and renamed the combined thoroughfare Storke Road, after C.A. Storke who owned the ranch adjacent to it on the east.

Beginning at the “rincon”, Campbell built a windy and scenic concrete slab road that ran alongside the lagoon and looped around the knoll where he would build his mansion. The concrete for the mile long road was all mixed and laid by hand.

The current road still follows the same route and the original concrete road can still be spotted in a few locations.

Col. Campbell was very involved in the details of the ranch, designing the landscaping, planting the eucalyptus and cypress trees for windbreaks and converting the Cavalletto bean field into his private polo grounds. He had the slough dredged in a failed attempt to make a harbor and he made a landing strip on the bluffs for his Hollywood friend’s private planes. You can see the lagoon road and the tree lines in this photo.

Colin wanted to be an American and he applied for citizenship within months of moving here. He enjoyed the hard work of running a ranch, participating in all the most menial of tasks, like feeding the chickens.

Given his budget, he was free to purchase any and all the farm equipment he may, or may not need. They planted hundreds of apricot, olive and walnut trees, fields of beans, wheat and alfalfa and assorted flower and vegetable gardens.

Prefab houses were built for temporary housing for his family and a beach house was built early on, showing Colin’s appreciation for the beauty of his new surroundings. That’s the Colonel on the left with his son, dogs and two friends. Campbell was enjoying his new life in humble little Goleta and he had big plans for his ranch. Unfortunately, his time here was cut short….

Returning from a trip to Chicago by train with Nancy in 1924, Colin Campbell suffered a fatal heart attack as they passed through San Jose. His will directed he be buried on his new ranch in Goleta.

Mrs. Campbell had a private family cemetery built at the tip of Coal Oil Point. The entrance pillars can still be found there.

An elaborate but private funeral was held and a ten foot tall cross, made of Scottish granite, marked Col. Colin Capbell’s final resting place. It’s also still there.

The tall granite Celtic cross was carved with ancient and legendary Scottish life symbols, worth examining the next time you’re out there.

With a heavy heart Nancy devoted her life to fulfilling Colin’s dream of a successful working ranch home. Unhappy with all the plans from a variety of architects, she enlisted the help of her also recently widowed friend Mary Osborne Craig.

This woman is also worthy of an entire page. Briefly, her husband designed the El Paseo in Santa Barbara and was an up and coming young architect when he suddenly passed away. This would be the first major project Mary Craig would take on by herself and it was crucial to her career as one of the first female architects. Doing the project for a dear friend made it a little easier. Mary went on to have an amazing career, becoming one of the most important woman architects in history, and having a huge influence on the Spanish Colonial style of Santa Barbara.

After living in European castles, the Campbells had decided they wanted to live in a “plain living house” and that’s what Mary Craig set out to build for Nancy. While plain by the Campbell’s standards, it was still quite a large home. They used local adobe bricks to build the 20,000 square foot main house in California Mission Colonial style with arched windows and doorways, 30 rooms, 18 bathrooms and a 12,000 square foot basement. Also on the grounds were tennis courts, a blacksmith shop, a guest house, employee housing, a boating lagoon, the beach house below the bluff and lots of other buildings including a large garage that would house their five Rolls-Royces. The estate was a working ranch that produced livestock and crops for consumption and sale. Construction cost over $500,000 and it was the showplace of the Goleta Valley.

Nancy’s brother Joe Leiter was a called “one of the most colorful figures in the history of Chicago” and he was the manager of the Leiter family’s huge fortune. Joe was a huge help every step of the construction process, using his business savvy and experience to help young Mary Craig get the big job done. Despite his reputation for being wild and careless, he got along well with Mary and they would remain friends after the job was done.

The finished product still stands strong today, despite a lack maintenance.

The home was designed hacienda style, around a central courtyard.

Mary Craig’s good working relationship with Nancy’s brother Joe helped her career immensely. Joe Leiter was a mentor to her and helped her become a renowned architect in her own right, despite a lack of formal training and being a woman in a man’s world.

It’s fun to imagine the grandeur of this once proud manor.

I wonder where the bell is now…..

With the house complete in 1925, an army of moving vans delivered tons of antique furniture, Persian rugs, exotic animal skins, fine art, linen, silver, crystal and all the trappings of a mega wealthy family to the Campbell Ranch. The manager of the house and the ranch would be George Churchill and his wife, who had been working for the Campbells for 20 years.

The Campbell Ranch soon became a hot spot for celebrity parties like Goleta had never seen. Guests included high society from all around the globe. Celebrities would land their private planes on the bluff. A most notable affair was a grand ball for Prince George of England, and a beautiful wooden dance floor was installed on the patio for the occasion.

While there were some lavish parties, Nancy Campbell mostly lived a quiet ranch life, enjoying smaller gatherings. Mary Craig often brought her young daughter and stayed weekends with her dear friend.

Many mornings they awoke to bagpipes being played outside the window by one of the Campbell’s Scottish staff members.

Nancy Campbell once wrote about her Goleta home , ” I am glad to be here, in God’s wonderful world, all clean and sunshine, and honest -It’s the only way to live- one can die easily then.”

Another unique attraction Mary Craig designed at the Campbell Ranch was a beautiful redwood barn for Colin’s polo horses. Today, this is the largest wooden building standing on the UCSB campus.

This is the only barn Mary Craig ever designed and it was built in the classic style of English Polo Barn architecture. Built with old growth redwood, this is most likely the only surviving example of this design in California, which makes it even more historically significant.

On a small hill overlooking the West Campus Stables, the barn was still being used up until the 1978 earthquake caused serious damage, making it unsafe.

It’s sad to see a once noble structure in such disrepair, but there is a movement to save and restore the barn.

Another unique feature of the Campbell Ranch that is still standing today is this unusual little building that looks like a fancy outhouse. It is actually a useful ranch building called a dovecote. Dovecotes were used to house doves and pigeons for eating. The small openings at the top encouraged doves and pigeons to nest safely inside where there are a bunch of cubbies to serve as individual nest holes. They are also elevated, to deter most predators, except the rancher with a ladder, who would harvest them at will. Their droppings were also used as fertilizer for their farm.

This was built in 1923, and is particularly special because it was designed by Mary Craig, but also because it was built in the Spanish Colonial Style. The only Spanish Colonial dovecote known to exist in California, it is another valuable historic treasure sadly being overlooked and slowly deteriorating.

Another unique feature of the Campbell Ranch was the beach house, today called “the jailhouse” due to metal bars that once were in the small door on the back wall. Once decorated with abalone shells, today it is catchall for litterbugs and a canvas for a constantly changing display of street art. See a collection of the art here

When it was new, it was beautifully adorned with abalone shells. The front area was an open barbecue fireplace area. Legend has it the beach house was used as an unloading spot for illegal spirits during prohibition. Supposedly the back opening led to tunnels and storage rooms that extended well into the bluffs behind.

In 1930, a mere 5 years after the completion of her Goleta ranch, Nancy died suddenly at 57 years old. She was on a trip to England and her remains were returned to Goleta to be buried next to Colin’s on Coal Oil Point. Their son, Colin Leiter Campbell and his family lived on the estate for another ten years.

When Colin Jr. decided to move on in 1941, a huge auction of all the Campbell furnishings attracted the rich and famous. Charlie Chaplin took home the extremely rare English silver from the 1600s that bore Colin Campbells initials, C.C., since that was a perfect fit. The Campbell’s friend, Cary Grant, spent over $1,000 on a rare book by T.E. Lawrence. The wooden dance floor that English royalty had danced on was sold to Goleta farmer Peter Irvine and he moved it to Oak Park in Santa Barbara, where it still serves today. The whole ranch property was for sale, but no satisfactory bids came for it.

But in a few short years, the Campbell family had left their mark on Goleta. Their loyal employee George Churchill and his wife stayed on at the ranch as custodians until a buyer could be found.

The Campbell Ranch sat unoccupied for a while but there was still plenty of activity. Prior to the war, Union Oil Company leased some of the land for exploration and built a small metal pier that was soon removed. In 1942 WW II came to our shores, so a Coast Guard radar station was installed at Coal Oil Point to watch out for possible attacks and two 75 mm field guns were strategically placed on the property.

This Cliff House was built by the Goleta Marine Corps Air Station and it served as the officers’ club and mess hall. After the war, the soldiers took their big guns, but left the building. Soon after, the most noble use of the property was about to begin, and it would change the name of Coal Oil Point forever.

Enter Miss Helena Devereux of Philadelphia. Devereux had become discouraged as she saw that children with special needs were underserved by the public education system. She knew she could do better, and in 1912 she began teaching some of these children in her own home. She strongly believed that any child, regardless of their disabilities, could learn in an environment tailored to their needs. She was right, her schooling was soon in great demand, and she opened many additional schools in a short period of time.

She had 20 schools in the Eastern U.S. by 1945, when she bought a campus in Montecito, where Westmont College is today. Helena soon determined the Montecito location was not going to be large enough. Her realtor directed her to the former Campbell Ranch, which she felt was a perfect fit. Her foundation bought the whole 500 acre ranch for a bargain price of $1000,000, one fifth of what Mrs. Campbell paid just to build the main house. The Campbell’s trusted ranch manager, George Churchill, handed the keys over to the new owners to begin a new era.

The Campbell’s private cemetery on the property created a cloud on the title that could only be cleared be removing the human remains. So the Campbell children arranged to transfer their parents remains to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington DC. The ring of cypress, the brick entrada and the granite cross remain to this day.

The Devereux Foundation went to work converting the once luxurious ranch into a functioning school. Within a few days it was open and they began their good work. And the Coal Oil Point got a new name, Devereux Point.

The Campbell Mansion was renamed for Helena T. Devereux who died in 1975 at the age of 90. And on this county plaque, they put the year the Campbell mansion was built, with the Devereux name….most likely confusing many for years to come.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Devereux foundation sold off much of the ranch acreage including 250 acres which became part of the Santa Barbara airport property. UCSB purchased over 220 acres, including the Campbell family cemetery, in 1967. With this sale, Devereux was left with just 33 acres. Eventually Devereux Hall was no longer used as housing and became the administrative headquarters and medical facility in 1987.

In 1970 the Coal Oil Point Reserve was first established, occupying the southern portion of Devereux Slough and the adjacent dunes. 1999 brought the creation of the Snowy Plover Management Plan.

In 2007 UCSB purchased another portion of the Devereux School and created the UCSB West Campus. Sands Beach and Devereux Point are very popular surf spots and thousands of people a week walk past the relics of an amazing history.

Next time you’re out there, take a moment to summon the spirit of Col. Colin Campbell, check out his fancy dovecote and appreciate the natural perfection that is Coal Oil Point.

Read more about Mary Craig here.

Learn more about Helena Devereux here.

Sources: Bubbleology Research International, Wikipedia, Justin Ruhge, John Johnson, UCSB, Classic Chicago Magazine, Megan McKinney, Montecito Magazine, Anita Guerrini, Santa Barbara Historical Museum, Michael Redmon, Stacey Wright & Peter Hartmann the Urban Hikers, Devereux.org, Bryan Meckelborg, Jenny Dugan, Adam Lewis

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

2 replies

  1. Wow! I just love this history. I was at UCSB 1962-67 and lived in the area until 1974. I still consider Goleta to be my home. The Devereaux Ranch was somewhat mysterious to me. I knew it was a school for children with disabilities but whenever I asked about it back then, I got vague answers and was told to stay away. About a decade ago I finally got to visit as part of a nature and whale watching tour. Fascinating. Who would ever guess that so much went on there long ago. Thanks so much.

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