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Literary Corner

Judith Dale: San Marcos Pass – A historic gateway to Santa Barbara County

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  • 6 min to read
The unsolved Gaviota mystery of 1846

A six-horse stagecoach climbs Slippery Rock on San Marcos Pass between Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara in this 1890 photo.

Recently we had relatives visiting from Kansas. Due to COVID-19, rather than doing the usual "touristy" things such as eating out, wine tasting and shopping in Solvang, we took car trips to see the sights around the county. Of course, we went over San Marcos Pass to see the beautiful views. I told them a little about the history of the Pass, but I realized how little I knew about this historic road, so I decided to do a little research. I hope you enjoy what I found.

Early Days

San Marcos Pass has been used to connect the coast and the Santa Ynez Valley for thousands of years. The first was the Chumash, who had villages along the coast, on the Pass itself and in the Santa Ynez Valley. The Pass was the main trading route between the coastal and Valley Chumash villages. Later, the Spanish missionaries and soldiers used the Pass to travel between the missions. San Marcos Pass was named after Father Marcos Amestoy, a monk. While in charge of the Santa Inez Mission, he supervised building the mission dam, waterworks and filter houses between 1804 and 1813.

In 1848, during the Mexican American War, Col. John C. Fremont led 300 American troops over San Marcos Pass to capture the presidio at Santa Barbara. On Christmas Eve, the troops left their campsite near what today is the intersection of Alamo Pintado Road and Highway 246 in Solvang to begin their journey over the Pass. It was raining hard, and due to the slippery, muddy trail, Fremont lost 150 pack mules that night while traversing the Pass. However, all his troops arrived safely, and he was able to capture Santa Barbara without firing a shot since the Mexican forces were in Los Angeles defending that presidio. Ten days later, Mexican Gen. Andres Pico surrendered to Fremont — the war for California was over. In 1850, San Marcos Pass became part of the California Republic.

Stagecoach Days, 1861 — 1901

Since there is no way to go north out of Santa Barbara without crossing the Santa Ynez Mountains, the shortest path was over San Marcos Pass. A stagecoach route was built by Chinese workers working from both ends of the proposed course. The original stagecoach route started near Kellogg Avenue in Goleta. (Later, the route began at the Arlington Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara.) The slope up the mountain was so steep that the Chinese workers had to cut ruts in the rock to guide the stagecoach wheels and chiseled deep grooves into the rock between the tracks so the horses could climb up without slipping. This section of the trail was known as "Slippery Rock." (In 1892, a new route was built on what is now called Old San Marcos Road.)

Patrick Kinevan was an Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. in the early 1850s. By the late 1860s, he had made his way to California. He staffed a stagecoach station on the new Santa Ynez Turnpike Road in Santa Barbara County. Kinevan's job was to supervise the change of horse teams and collect tolls at the bridge that crossed San Jose Creek. (The tolls were supposed to help pay off the cost to build the road and hopefully make a profit for the stockholders.) Kinevan got a 160-acre homestead and, with the help of his wife and their 10 children, increased the ranch to over 640 acres. Kievan Road is named after Patrick Kinevan.

After crossing the summit, the road went down to Cold Spring Tavern, which still stands today and offered food and drink for stagecoach travelers. The route continued to the Santa Ynez Valley, going through Santa Ynez. At the corner of Sagunto and Edison streets, the old College Hotel was located and was a stage stop. The route headed north on Edison Street to Baseline Avenue to the town of Ballard (the original stage station and the first town in the Santa Ynez Valley.) The route then turned right on Alamo Pintado Road to Mattei's Tavern and on to what is today Highway 154 to Highway 101.

Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge.jpg

The Cold Spring Canyon Bridge carries Highway 154 traffic high above the floor of Cold Spring Canyon near the summit of San Marcos Pass. At its highest point, the bridge deck is 400 feet above the canyon floor. It is the highest arch bridge in California and among the highest in the U.S. 

Many stagecoaches didn’t make it over the Pass without being robbed. The favorite target of the most bandits were cattle buyers as they had saddlebags filled with money. Legend has it one of the greatest robberies happened in the 1850s when a stagecoach was robbed on its way to the bank. Two bandits took a box of gold coins and hid it in the hills. A few days later, they were found — one was shot, and the other put in jail. Neither of them had the box of gold. Just before he died, the bandit in jail told the sheriff that the box was buried in front of a tree where two streams met. No one ever found the treasure. A long time later, one of Kinevan's descendants found a gold coin in the orchard near the house where they used to live. The coin was octagonal, the sort that vanished in the robbery. He gave it to a priest who shipped it to the pope.

Even more dangerous than robbers were runaway horse teams. A bee sting, a rolling tumbleweed, a rattlesnake, etc., could cause the horses to spook. Although they were rare, a runaway horse team often resulted in the death of the stage driver and the passengers as the stagecoach or wagon tipped over on the curves and rolled down the ravine.

In 1901, the railroad was completed along the coast, which marked the end of the stagecoach route over San Marcos Pass. Mail and passengers “rode the rails rather than the trails.” Thanks to Goleta resident Patricia Corwin and financed mainly by Wells Fargo Bank, there are 53 signs along the route telling the history of the stagecoach days.

Note: There are no historical signs on Highway 154 itself as Caltrans forbade them, but you can find them on State Street, Hollister Avenue, Old San Marcos Road, as well as many locations here in the Valley. To see the Valley locations, visit https://lompocrecord.com/news/local/marking-the-route-of-stagecoaches/article.

San Marcos Pass today

When the stagecoach days were over, a roadway was built in place of the old stagecoach road. Legend has it that the first automobile to go over the Pass was in 1910. The driver was so mad at the price Kinevan made him pay at the summit toll road that he left his car and walked back down. San Marcos Pass originally had 22 steep switchbacks. With more modern machinery (bulldozers, etc.) in the 1950s and '60s, a new route was built to accommodate automobiles. When Bradbury Dam was built on the Santa Ynez River in the early 1950s creating Lake Cachuma, the road had to be changed, which shortened and straightened it.

The Cold Spring Canyon Bridge made the Pass much safer. It eliminated a steep, curvy and dangerous section of the road. Construction started in 1962. The bridge contains 5,094,000 pounds of steel and is as tall as a 36-story building. At its highest point, the bridge deck is 400 feet above the canyon floor. It is the highest arch bridge in California and among the highest in the U.S. The bridge is 1,217 feet long and opened for traffic in February 1964. In March 2012, an inwardly curved barrier was added to prevent people from jumping off the bridge.

Daily traffic on Highway 154 varies from 11,400 in Los Olivos to 14,000 at Stagecoach Road. (By way of comparison, Highway 101 daily traffic figures are 24,800 to 30,600 cars per day.) Many people who live on the east side of the Valley and work in Santa Barbara or Goleta take the Pass to work. The busiest time of day on the Pass is from 3 to 6 p.m. April, May and December are the most active months. Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the busiest days, mainly due to tourism.

There is a traffic collision every 2.5 days on the Pass — most of them minor but some are deadly. The crash rate on the Pass is .78 crashes per 1 million miles. The rate is .58 crashes per 1 million miles on Highway 101, so you are 26% less likely to have a crash on Highway 101 than Highway 154. (NOTE: Some people have claimed the high rate of crashes on the Pass is due to drunk drivers who have been wine tasting at the various vineyards in the Valley. Statistics have proven this is not the case as most crashes are caused by excess speed and risky maneuvers, not drunk driving.)

The California Highway Patrol, Caltrans and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) have all worked together to make the Pass safer. In 2014, a roundabout was installed at the east intersection of Highway 246 and Highway 154. Another one will be established at the junction of Highway 154 and Edison/Baseline in 2022. Guardrails have been added, passing lanes and turnouts have been constructed, centerline rumble strips have been installed on the entire stretch of the Pass, and vehicle speed-feedback signs have been placed to make motorists aware how fast they are driving. In 2022, high-friction surface treatments will be installed in five locations experiencing a high collision rate during wet roadway conditions.

It is estimated that this improvement will result in a reduction of 127 collisions over a 10-year period.

Judith Dale: William Benjamin Foxen -- A Santa Barbara County Pioneer

Judith Dale built her career in education; continues to serve the SYV community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board; board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation; and as the former mayor of Buellton.

The public has suggested that additional measures be taken to make the Pass safer, such as forbidding trucks and bicycles, lowering the speed limit, putting a center concrete barrier between the lanes, making the Pass a toll road and increasing fines for violations on the Pass. All of these measures would require state legislative action that runs against current statewide laws and regulations. Also, it has been suggested to require Google maps and other mapping programs to tell people to stay on Highway 101 and not take Highway 154, which is shorter. The city of Buellton and the county have both asked these companies to do this, and they refuse. The Pass is a public highway, and these mapping companies are privately owned, so at this time, governmental agencies have no power over them.

Statistics show that by far, the majority of crashes on the Pass are caused by Santa Barbara County residents, not tourists. The best way to keep this beautiful, scenic highway safe is for each of us to be responsible drivers and realize the Pass is a lovely but dangerous road. Give it the respect it deserves so we can all safely enjoy this scenic highway that is such a colorful and vital part of our history.

Learn more about Santa Barbara County's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale with these 26 stories

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

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The area around Guadalupe has evolved through many stages — from Chumash villages, to Spanish rule under Mission La Purisima, to a Mexican land grant, an immigrant farming community, a railroad town, and a modern agricultural city.

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We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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