A Field Guide to Oil in Santa Barbara

Carpinteria Tar Pits

Mariah Clegg, Christopher McQuilkin, Mary Michael

The Carpinteria Tar Pits are spatially diffuse. They are not a single location, but can refer to the park that stretches 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 probably arrived in California 15,000 years ago. Whether these early settlers were ancestors of the Chumash that Spanish explorers encountered, or migrated from elsewhere more recently is difficult to say. 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.” Asphalt mining boomed from about 1890 to 1910, when asphalt from Carpinteria paved avenues across the country. 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.

In our exploration of the pits, we walked east. 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 Lovecraftian, whirling pitch and examine the brick and lumber leftover from the mining days, a young woman was sitting on the far end, and did not seem to be bothered with the texture. Farther down on the bluffs, the tar was sticky in places, the beach covered with structures built of driftwood, striking to see against the looming spectre 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 sign that blocks an animal run, and a chain strung across the way. They do not want visitors here. For at the east end of the Carpinteria Tar Pits Park, where Alcatraz Mine used to be, we find ourselves at the Chevron Pier Parking Lot. And here on the other side of the chain is an old office chair, a tin casserole dish that’s gathered water from last night’s rain, and a puddle, looking out to the empty side of the parking lot. Chevron is here to decommission the processing plant. We are on the way to abandonment. And from this picture it seems we’ve already arrived.

The Carpinteria Tar Pits provide a highly unusual sensory experience. The visuals of the site seem to be drowned out by what surrounds it: the more visually appealing ocean, the vibrant tidepools, and the "nature walk" that carves its way through the tar pits with soft promises of meditation and relaxation. Dutifully, we don't see the oil platforms in the distance, the oil processing drum at the end of Dump Road. Despite the high visual currency surrounding the tar pits, the tar pit site itself doesn't actually 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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