We all know and use Turnpike Road, but have you thought about the name? If you Google turnpike it says “an expressway, especially one on which a toll is charged“. Well our Turnpike isn’t really an expressway, and there’s no charge…so…why that name?
Blame it on the stagecoach! Back in the day, Turnpike was an expressway of sorts, and a toll was collected.
A classic symbol of the Wild West, the stagecoach played an important part in the history of the United States, but here in Goleta they were only in use for 40 short years, from 1861 to 1901. They did, however, leave their mark on our road names, and our foothills, literally….
Stagecoaches had been used in Europe for centuries, and throughout the U.S. from the earliest days. But they didn’t come into play in California until the gold rush, the first runs going between Sacramento and the mining camps. After that, roads in the San Joaquin Valley were improved and stage travel flourished. The Overland Mail Company used the roads to deliver mail, and they developed a network of roads between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The little strip of coast we live on was skipped because the Santa Ynez Mountains presented such an impassible barrier.
Before stagecoaches came to Santa Barbara County, the mode of transportation was on foot, horseback or ox-cart. The main highway, “El Camino Real”, was mostly just a worn trail, not able to accommodate a sophisticated vehicle like a stagecoach. In 1859, the Overland Mail Company decided to change its route to the coast, and state funding was provided to build a new and improved road.
The owner of the More Mesa ranch, T. Wallace More offered to build the road from Los Angeles County to San Luis Obispo County for $15,000. He was awarded the contract in 1860, but one of the wettest winters in history and a lack of good workers kept him from getting the job done. Even though he had already gotten paid, he broke his contract. The road construction was completed in 1861 by former Los Angeles mayor James Thompson and Santa Barbara celebrated the first stagecoach passing through with a grand fiesta and the firing of a cannon.
While most of the new route followed El Camino Real, portions between Ventura and Santa Barbara went on the beach, making the high tides a factor. Through Goleta, the road roughly followed today’s Hollister Avenue, and up the coast following today’s highway route. Every creek presented a challenge, with only a few bridges being in existence.
Dynamite was used to blast the Gaviota Pass wide enough for safe passage of large wheeled vehicles, and a heavy wooden bridge was built over the Gaviota Creek. Despite these improvements, heavy winter weather could still shut the new road down. This was also an ideal ambush spot for notorious outlaws, who would prey on stagecoaches and lone travelers. These bandits were the reason that folks traveling through Gaviota were especially cautious.
The most common coach used in Santa Barbara County was a Concord, the same one that is seen in all the old westerns. They cost about $1,500 and they weighed 2,500 pounds. The coach featured two hard leather upholstered seats facing each other, each fitting three adults across. A jump seat in the middle provided room for three more, making for a crowded, hard and bumpy journey. The ride was described as back breaking and bone jarring. The “shock absorbers” were rawhide straps that caused the coach to pitch back and forth, much like a rough day at sea, with the same nauseating results. The driver sat on the right side and under his seat was a safe called the “the driver’s box”. If it contained a valuable cargo, a shotgun guard would be hired to ride along, since the driver was not allowed to carry a weapon.
Stagecoach travel was slow, bumpy and an uncomfortable mode of travel, but it was the best way to go a long distance at the time. For several years, the “Gaviota Stage Road” served the people of California well, but in 1868 a group of Santa Barbara businessmen decided to improve the road going north. They proposed the widening of an existing horse path over the mountain range, creating a much quicker passage into the Santa Ynez Valley, and beyond.
The Santa Ynez Turnpike Road company was headed by Dr. Samuel Brinkerhoff, left, and lawyer Charles Fernald. This group of business professionals organized and financed the construction of a private toll road, or turnpike, that followed stakes set out by Benjamin Foxen on the historic, but rugged, Fremont Trail. A group of hired Chinese laborers, called “coolies”, was brought in from San Francisco and they went to work cutting the road on both sides of the range using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.
This new, steep road would require a lighter more “streamlined” vehicle, called a Mud Wagon. The doors and windows were removed to lighten the load horses had to pull over the mountain. Even still, travel was slow. While climbing the steepest slopes, passengers were often encouraged to “get out and stretch your legs for a mile or two”….
This Mud Wagon is loaded up and ready to go. The driver, called a Whip, or a Jehu, (a reference to a biblical chariot driver), was a talented individual that had to juggle all the reins and a whip, all while keeping the wagon on a rugged road and keeping a sharp eye out for bandits.
The Santa Ynez River presented another obstacle in winter months.
The new turnpike started near Kellogg Avenue and went up the ridge through what is today called Rancho del Ciervo. About a mile past that, the route crossed a steep and wide expanse of sheer sandstone, known today as “Slippery Rock”.
The sandstone at Slippery Rock was tough for horses to get traction on, especially with metal horseshoes. It was dangerous slow going and it would cause great delays in travel time.
In an effort to make this section easier, the construction supervisors had the Chinese workers chisel deep horizontal grooves into the soft rock, giving the horses better footing.
Also, vertical ruts were carved about three inches deep in order to help guide the stagecoaches through the technical section.
The grooves worked, but it was still slow going. Another nickname for this section back in the day was “Slippery Sal.” This iconic photo shows the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains looking about the same as they do today!
Since the stagecoach had to go so slowly through Slippery Rock, it was a prime location for a highway robbery.
This was one of those places that passengers were asked to get out of the stagecoach and walk to lighten the load on the horses, making it even easier for thieves to do their thing.
Over the years, the wagon’s wheels wore deeper into the sandstone and then made even deeper by winter rains rushing through them.
The grooves can still be seen nowadays, but thanks to vandalism, the property owners have had to make Slippery Rock off limits to the public. Further damage has been done to the historic ruts by U.S. Forest Service bulldozers, using Slippery Sal as a shortcut.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to see Slippery Sal in “person” in 2023, and my host gave me this print of the classic photo. It was remarkable to finally be at the same spot this photo was taken after years of hearing and reading about it. Hopefully one day it will be a recognized historic site and supervised, public access will be granted.
Just above Slippery Sal, the road went through a very narrow slot, another favorite spot for banditos to hold up a slow moving coach.
This Donna Doty Lane photo from 1956 shows the same gap.
And again in 2012 from Jack Elliott’s blog, yankeebarbareno.com, now blocked by a healthy oak tree.
In 2023, that narrow section looked like this.
The road went on to the Kinevan Ranch “Summit House”, where the stagecoaches stopped and changed horses. This is also where the toll was collected for use of the new turnpike road. The tariff was $1 to $3.50 for wagons, depending on the size of the team, 25 cents each for horses, cattle and riders and 5 cents each for goats and pedestrians. Not cheap back in those days…
From there, it went over the summit and down to Cold Spring Tavern for a rest stop. (Still a great place for a rest stop!) Then the stagecoaches went down the pass to Felix Mattei’s Hotel in Los Olivos, now known as Mattei’s Tavern, and then on to Santa Maria.
The idea of paying to use a road was not popular with the locals, but the Santa Ynez Turnpike Road was such a necessity, it was tolerated. Occasionally a rancher would “accidentally” stampede his cattle past the Summit House and down the Pass, only to argue with Kinevan later about the fee he owed. San Marcos Pass would not be free to the public until the County acquired it in 1898.
In 1892, property owner Tom Lillard got fed up with lazy drivers leaving his gate open and his cattle straying, so he locked his gate and refused further travel through his property. A new route was soon graded to the east of Slippery Rock and that is today known as Old San Marcos Pass. The new route had some obstacles of its own, like the two sharp U turns halfway up the mountain. The stage drivers called them the Double U’s and they still are a hazard today.
Further up the road was Hobo Rock. A huge boulder that the stage coaches had to carefully skirt around. It got that name because under the overhang was a popular camp for vagrants at the time.
The road was quite narrow at the rock, so stage drivers had to slow down for safety reasons. This made Hobo Rock yet another opportunity for bandits to hold up travelers. Unfortunately, this landmark was buried under landfill for the construction of the new San Marcos Pass.
Thanks to a dedicated group of local volunteers, we today have a series of 53 signs that mark the stagecoach route from San Barbara to Los Olivos.
The signs start at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater, which was the Arlington Hotel, where stage passengers began the long, eight-hour trip over the Santa Ynez Mountains for a fee of $5.50.
Here’s an actual ticket for a one way ride from Los Olivos to Santa Barbara.
Included with the ticket was this liability disclaimer, relieving the Stage Company of any responsibility, even if caused by negligence of their agents. Pretty risky ride!
In 1901, the Southern Pacific coast line was completed, providing a faster and more comfortable option for travelers. The stagecoach did continue to have a limited run thanks to Felix Mattei, bringing his guests from Gaviota to Santa Ynez. But by 1914, the model T Ford put an end to that run as well.
So that’s why it’s called Turnpike Road! Be thankful that nowadays you can zip over to Cold Spring Tavern for a tri tip sandwich, toll free!
Sources: Walker Tompkins, Stagecoach Days in Santa Barbara, Wikipedia, USPS.com, Waymarking.com, Donna Doty Lane, Robert Dillon, Rich Fragosa, Goleta Valley Historical Society, Jack Elliott, Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, John Waugh, Jeff Kinsell
Categories: Goleta History