Long before professors and administrators dined on Thai chicken in the Faculty Club or drama majors performed in Hatlen Theater, the land these facilities now stand on was once home to Goleta’s very own asphalt mines. For nearly a decade in the late 19th century, the land now occupied by UCSB hosted packs of miners picking and blasting at the rich asphalt deposit that runs along the Goleta coastline. The asphalt mined here was then used to pave streets and seal roofs in Goleta and other regions around the country.
A Brief History of UCSB
The beautifully landscaped campus students now call UCSB has passed through many hands over the centuries. The Chumash tribe originally lived on the land, and according to documentation from the Santa Barbara Museum Historical Society, even had permanent settlements near Cheadle Hall and the 217 entrance to UCSB. Later, under Mexican rule, portions of California lands, including Goleta, became available for purchase by private buyers. In the 1890s, a group of Englishmen started the Alcatraz Asphaltum Company and took over the land after it became windswept. The now filled-in mine shafts lie between the University Art Museum and the Faculty Club on campus. At the turn of the century, the mine was abandoned and the land went through several owners until 1942 when World War II led to the creation of a military base in the area. In 1950, the University of California Board of Regents purchased the base and in 1954 opened a liberal arts school known as the UC Santa Barbara College, a name that was later shortened to UCSB.
Getting the Shaft
The Alcatraz Asphaltum Mine operated from 1890 to1898 on the site of the present day UCSB campus.
Senior Campus Planner Dennis Whelan said a fenced area blocks the filled-in entrance to the main vertical shaft.
“They are generally located in the area between the Faculty Club, Hatlen Theater and the Arts Building,” Whelan said. “A fenced area is clearly visible from the service road between the Faculty Club and Hatlen Theater, now heavily overgrown with ivy. The horizontal shafts ran in several directions laterally around this vertical shaft.”
The Alcatraz Asphaltum Company leased the 400-acre tract of land from then-owner Mr. August Den. The mine employed 50 men ranging from local boys to experienced gold miners to quarrelsome transients. In one document from the Santa Barbara Museum Historical Society, historian Horace Sexton described the working conditions as long and arduous.
“The men worked shifts of 10 hours each, two shifts making up the day’s work,” Sexton wrote. “The change-overs were at 7:00 a.m. and at 4:30 p.m. They came up for an hour at noon looking like blackened gnomes.”
The mine paid $2.50 per day to the miners and $2 to the “muckers” who hauled dirt and shale out of the mine and loaded the asphalt onto cars sent to the main shaft. The miners and managers lived in bunkhouses and ate in a cook house on the site.
When the mine first opened, no one managing had much experience, so the first shaft sunk crookedly some 200 ft. into the viscous asphalt itself, about 50 ft. from the lagoon.
According to California Dept. of Conservation records, the deposit of asphalt was one of the purest examined, with the asphaltum being three to 12 ft. thick in some places. The walls were formed of slightly solidified clays, with distinct stratification.
The asphalt would expand and harden when exposed to the air in the shaft, so it was decided a second shaft should stand in the shale alongside the vein of asphaltum as opposed into the vein itself. However, this second shaft was later deemed dangerous due to brackish water that kept seeping in and creating the potential for flooding in the shaft and skin infections.
In his writings, Sexton stated that the mine was quite deep.
“The horizontal tunnels, called ‘drifts,’ extended some 100 ft. to the ore body,” Sexton wrote. “These drifts were made every 50 vertical ft. to the final depth of the mine, some 550 ft.”
The miners worked their way through the shafts by picking and blasting with dynamite. Besides the obvious blasting and seepage dangers, the mine was dangerous in other ways as well. Continuous streams of warm gas flowed from the asphaltum, and two men were even killed when their candles exploded in a pocket of gas. Their deaths established safety rules that had previously not existed. Cave-ins also occurred, injuring miners, and in one instance, impaling a worker on his own pick.
At the height of production, the mine produced 60 tons of asphaltum daily. The product was transported all over the United States, and according to Sexton, it was “reliably reported that the streets of New Orleans were paved with asphaltum from the Goleta mine during those years.”
The Alcatraz Asphaltum Company was later taken over by other companies and refined until 1898 when oil was deemed cheaper to produce and the Goleta mine was abandoned.
Ross Brunetti, an engineer and geologist for the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said many tar and asphalt mines existed in California until people discovered they could obtain oil from wells for much cheaper.
“In 1901, the first major oil field opened and within a few years of that asphalt mining couldn’t pay out,” Brunetti said. “The whole state was so rich with oil from wells that mining asphalt was not economical until the energy crisis of the 1970s.”
He said when the asphalt and tar mining industry collapsed, the workers oftentimes inadequately filled in the mines or simply left them open.
“There was no requirement or incentive back then,” Brunetti said. “They’d just brush off their hands and walk away.”
Mine for the Taking
Today, students biking to class may have no knowledge of the sand-filled shafts that could rest below them, as the exact location of each filled-in shaft is indefinite.
“Nobody knows precisely where they are,” Brunetti said.
Whelan said a historic marker once stood before the ivy-covered square hedge near the Faculty Club. He also said the sign may have disappeared as the result of theft.
“There was a historic site marker at the location,” Whelan said. “It is not there now.”
While the asphalt mines on UCSB campus are filled, Brunetti said the state has many unmarked abandoned mines. When one is found, the Office of Mine Reclamation is informed and proceeds to fill it in for safety.
“If it’s a vertical shaft, they will fill it in,” Brunetti said. “If it’s horizontal, they will put a grill over the entrance so bats can go in and out. This way it can remain a habitat.”
Abandoned Mines Unit geologist Sarah Reeves said many factors affect the safety of abandoned mines. She said that if a mine were backfilled with sand and gravel versus clay, the mines are less stable.
“It really depends on how extensive the underground workings are,” Reeves said. “The fill material can sometimes actually erode further into the mine and sink.”
Though the Alcatraz Mines were probably filled with sand and dirt, Reeves said they are not likely to be dangerous because of the lack of evidence concerning sinkholes or moving foundations.
“If you build something on an abandoned mine thinking it is safe because it is filled and pressure from the building makes the horizontal shafts move, the building can move, and that would be bad,” Reeves said. “It’s really a case by case basis.”
Whelan said he is not worried about campus building foundations. He said UCSB takes mine shafts into consideration before constructing new buildings.