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The Gap: Gaviota State Park, the Wild West of Southern California

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Photo: California State Parks
Photo: California State Parks

It's a beach begging for a country song. The public shore at Gaviota State Park sits off a lonely, winding, mountainous stretch of the 101-highway in Santa Barbara County, just south of the Gaviota Gorge Tunnel. It is the strangest beach I have ever visited -- on account of the giant, 811-foot long, still-active railroad trestle that towers high above, dominating the landscape. In the valley below the trestle, near the beach, I find a crowded campsite that looks like a makeshift town, a rugged supply store right out of the 1930s, a closed pier that has seen better days, and the muddy mouth of Gaviota Creek. As I walk farther down the small beach, past children playing in the water and old men fishing, I encounter the awe-inspiring, white zig-zagging cliffs of the Monterey Shale Formation, which make me feel like a tiny speck of dust. For over a century, this isolated outpost served as the spot linking Southern California and Northern California. Today it still seems like a place people stop for a little R&R, before they pass on through.

As is the case in much of coastal California, this land was inhabited for millennia by Native Americans. For centuries, a branch of the Chumash people made their home in a village known as Onomgio, at the mouth of Gaviota Creek. In 1769, Gaspar de Portola, Governor of Baja California, led an expedition up the California coast. He met the people of Onomyo, and a priest travelling with the expedition called the area "Gaviota," in honor of a seagull a Spanish soldier shot. The name stuck.

The Chumash were soon displaced and the Spanish era began. Gaviota primarily became a way station, although it was officially part of the massive Rancho Refugio owned by the Ortega family. Andrea Cota (an Ortega family widow) and her second husband, Mariano Olivera, built a large adobe in Gaviota and raised cattle, sheep, and horses. The beach at Gaviota was used for smuggling contraband goods into California. More importantly, the "Gaviota Pass" (now the site of the 101) offered the best passable route from the northern territories to the south. According to William Brewer, who journeyed through Gaviota in 1861:

This sandstone ridge is a continuous one, and has but one break, the Gaviota Pass, for a hundred miles or more. At the Gaviota a rent or fissure divides the ridge, but a few feet wide at the narrowest part and several hundred feet high. The road passes this "gate" and then winds up a wild rocky canyon, the wildest pass I have yet seen here.

The Gaviota Pass, with its distinctive "Indian head" rock formation at the "gate," became a crucial stagecoach route during the 1860s. It is believed the isolated Olivera adobe may have served as a stage station. The area's small population and difficult terrain made the Gaviota Pass an ideal hideout for notorious bandits, who would attack stagecoaches and lone riders. Bandits like Joaquin Murrieta, Salomon Pico, and Jack Power were the reason that those travelling through Gaviota were usually well armed and wary.

By 1866, the Dibblee and Hollister families had bought much of the former Rancho Refugio, including most of Gaviota. Over the next decade, they established a thriving sheep and cattle ranch on the sprawling property.

In 1875, the Dibblees and Hollisters built a wharf at Gaviota beach. Called Port Orford, the 1000 foot wharf was constructed by Thomas Bard. Goods including wool, livestock, lumber, and grain were shipped to and from Port Orford every week on steamers from the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. In her book The Gaviota Land, author Merlyn Chesnut describes the cattle drives from the ranch to the wharf:

The long drives to the Gaviota Wharf were made in the late spring or early summer, and it was then generally dry and dusty. There were often wide distances between straggling cattle, and interspersed riders were needed to propel the herd along...When early automobiles were on the road, a rider waving a red bandana preceded the herd to warn approaching motorists. Drivers were generally able to get by in a few minutes, but for those in a hurry, a rider went through the herd to make passage for the vehicle.

A small community (much like an all-purpose truck stop today) including adobes, a stage station, post office, inn, and general store soon grew around the wharf. It became a gathering spot for rural residents. A man named Miguel Burke operated the Gaviota Store and Hotel, which advertised Gaviota Coast Conservancy "dry goods, groceries, provisions, boots, shoes, cigars, tobaccos, wines, liquors, hardware, tinware, willow goods, glass and crockeryware, etc... In short, everything a rough and tumble ranch hand or traveler could want.

In the 1880s, the Dibblee/Hollister partnership dissolved, with each family getting a portion of the land. For many years during the late 1800s, Gaviota would be known not for who owned it, but as part of the infamous "gap" in the Southern Pacific Railway. According the Gaviota Coast Conservancy:

Although the Southern Pacific had completed routes through the state many years prior, the area that became known as "The Gap" was left isolated without direct rail service. The Gap consisted of that portion of coastline between Santa Margarita and Ellwood near Santa Barbara. Although the railroad initially considered building their line through Gaviota Pass, it was determined that the land was too rugged…Instead the Southern Pacific decided to follow the more gradual, although longer coastline route. During construction, depots were established all along the route (including one at Gaviota). By 1889, the line, building from north to south, had reached Gaviota Creek. Because of the many creeks flowing into the ocean in the area, numerous trestles had to be constructed...The largest trestle, 811 feet long, was constructed at the mouth of Gaviota Creek in November 1900. A siding [a low speed section of track] and depot were constructed at the east end of the trestle...The first train ran on March 31, 1901.

With the closure of "the Gap," direct rail travel was now available from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The railcar soon replaced steam travel as the main mode of transportation, and Port Orford lost much of its business (it was mostly destroyed in a 1912 storm). The trestle became a popular scenic spot on the route, and was crossed by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley. The trestle could be dangerous as well. In 1910, two girls were walking on the bridge when a train approached. Though they attempted to save themselves by hanging off the side of the trestle, one of the girls was killed.

As the rest of California grew, Gaviota remained a rural outpost, inhabited mostly by ranchers, rail workers and those working at the nearby oil plants. In 1916, the Hollister family opened a store in Gaviota, on the edge of their famed Hollister Ranch. The store soon became "unofficial ranch headquarters and a mecca in the area." There was an auto-court, gas station, post office, telephone exchange, and restaurant which became popular with long-haul truckers. Residents in the area would come from far and wide to listen to records, play early arcade games and go to dances in the large main room. The store survived until the 1950s, moving as Highway 101 was improved and enlarged.

In 1951, Santa Barbara County built a new pier near the site of the Old Port Orford wharf. A year later, the County gave the main beach at Gaviota to the state of California. The area under the trestle became a popular camping site. In 1967, thousands of acres surrounding the core beach were added to Gaviota State Park. Today, the beautifully rugged area around the beach remains unincorporated and rural. It's nice to know that in crowded California, there are still some paradises we haven't yet paved.

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