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A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara

Carpinteria Tar Pits

Ry Brennan, Christopher McQuilkin, Mary Michael

The Carpinteria Tar Pits are not a single location, but refers to the park that stretches along the bluffs, the Sattler and Alcatraz Mines themselves, or the assortment of Tar Pit markers, signs, and exhibits that enable popular consumption of the pits and are likely visitors’ primary and most extensive engagement with the pits qua pits.

Humans have inhabited California for at least 15,000 years (Simmons 1998). As Brian Fagan has pointed out, the word “Chumash,” coined by geologist John Powell, referred to (in Fagan’s words) “an amorphous diversity of…groups in the Santa Barbara region who shared some common culture or language” (2004). Traditionally, the Chumash caulked their seafaring vessels, tomols, with a combination of the region's naturally occurring tar and pine pitch.

Asphalt from Carpinteria has paved avenues across the country (Alcatraz Asphalt and its Uses 1895)--asphalt mining boomed in the region from about 1890 to 1910 (Griggs 1993). The business collapsed when a trust bought most of the world’s mines and shut down almost all of them. Parts of the former mines were then used as a dump by local residents. In 1932, Carpinteria State Beach was established, and in its early years maintained by the Civilian Conservation Corps; more land was added in the succeeding decades (Chapin and Mendez 2009).

In our exploration of the pits, we walked down the coast, away from Santa Barbara. It had rained the night before, and the morning was cool, so the tar was hard and immobile when we found it, and it did not smell. When we approached the remains of the mine to photograph the whirling pitch and examine the brick and lumber leftover from the mining days, a visitor was sitting on the far end, and did not seem to be bothered with the texture. Further down on the bluffs, the tar was sticky in places, the beach covered with driftwood structures, striking to see against the looming specter of the Chevron Pier in the distance at the terminus of Dump Road. The pier did not appear on Google Maps. It was unsearchable and, thanks to a Cornwall Security patrol car, unassailable.

At the other end of the park, tourists are not allowed. Winding one’s way along the bluff to the far side, one finds themselves at an impasse: a sign that reads “Private Property”, an orange sandwich board that blocks an animal run, and a chain strung across the way. They do not want visitors here. At the far end of the Carpinteria Tar Pits Park, where Alcatraz Mine used to be, we found ourselves at the Chevron Pier Parking Lot. During our visit, on the other side of the chain sat an old office chair, a tin casserole dish that had gathered water from the previous night’s rain, and a puddle. Chevron is here to decommission the processing plant. We are traveling toward abandonment. From this vantage point, it seemed like we’d already arrived.

The Carpinteria Tar Pits provide a highly unusual sensory experience. The visuals of the site are drowned out by what surrounds it: the more visually appealing ocean, the vibrant tide pools, and the nature walk that carves its way through the tar pits with soft promises of meditation and relaxation. Despite the high visual currency of the tar pits, the site doesn't offer much to look at. The most memorable sensual experience of the tar pits is the one that tourists are often warned against: touching the tar, playing with its stickiness in your hands, and experiencing the difficulty of removing it from your skin.

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