Mission Canyon History by Walker A. Tompkins

Ethel Barrymore, the late empress of stage and screen, once told a friend, “Fortunate indeed is the person who can live in Santa Barbara, and doubly blessed if his home is located in MissionCanyon.”

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Miss Barrymore so zealously guarded her hideaway in Mission Canyon that despite their best efforts, brothers Lionel and John were never able to find it. (Its location is a secret to this day.)

Mission Canyon, which with the Old Mission complex and the area bounded on the south by Mission Street, make up Santa Barbara’s “Mission district”, is unique. No residential neighborhood in the city boasts a richer historical background, or offers more relics and landmarks of old Spanish days.

Fr. Junipero Serra, when he helped found the Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782, intended Santa Barbara’s Franciscan mission to be built in El Montecito near the present site of Our Lady of Carmel church on East Valley Road. But four years later, when his successor, Fr. Fermin Lasuen OFM, arrived to establish our mission, he decided that Montecito was too infested with grizzly bears and renegade Indians to risk building a mission so far removed from the protection of the presidio soldiers, so he looked elsewhere.

Fr. Lasuen’s choice for a mission site was the ancient Chumash Indian rancheria of Taynayan, which extended from the entrance to Pedregoso (stony) Canyon, now called Mission Canyon, to the present Roosevelt School playground on Laguna Street. On the saint’s day of Barbara, Virgin y Martyr, December 4, 1786, he dedicated Santa Barbara Mission to the glory of God and the Christianization of the pagan natives. It was the tenth link in the chain of 21 missions which eventually lined the California coast, and today is the only one which has been occupied uninterruptedly by the Franciscan Order. (A popular local legend has it that the altar lights, ignited by Fr. Lasuen, have never been extinguished. Unfortunately, the candles are blown out periodically when the church doors are opened on windy days.)

The first mission was a tule-thatched shelter of logs and brush. It was replaced a year later by an adobe structure containing four small rooms. In 1789 a third church of stone and adobe was erected and a campo santo, or cemetery, was laid out. By 1797 a tile-roofed quadrangle had been completed, including the long arcade flanking the monastery wing, so familiar to us today. This church, which had no bell towers, was wrecked by the earthquake of December 21, 1812. The edifice as it now stands was begun in 1815 and dedicated with a fiesta in the fall of 1820. It had only one tower; historians cannot agree which one, but it is known that the second tower, probably the one on the left when facing the mission, was in place by 1830. It collapsed and was replaced by another belfry in 1833.

A village comprising over 50 adobe huts, extending from today’s archives wing past Junipero Serra Hall and across Constance Avenue, was constructed to house the neophytes. It survived until the 1870s.

In order to provide irrigation water for the vineyards, gardens and grain fields near the mission, a dam of native sandstone blocks was erected in Mission Canyon in 1806 to impound the waters of Pedregoso (Mission) Creek, which in those days flowed all year round. This dam, constructed by Indian labor under the supervision of resident priest Fr. Marcos Amestoy (for whom San Marcos Pass is named) is still standing in the heart of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

The reservoir impounded by this dam was linked to the mission by an aqueduct of baked tile and redwood pipes, ending in a dome-roofed filter house which still stands on the edge of Mountain Drive near the intersection of Mission Canyon Road. Here, the water trickled through a bed of charcoal and gravel, into a stone-walled reservoir near the intersection of Alameda Padre Serra and Los Olivos Street, so well made that today, 170 years later, it is still in use by the city Water Department.

The famous Moorish fountain and lavendaria or laundry vat were completed by 1808. A fruit orchard occupied what is now Mission Park, east of the church; grain fields extended to the west as far as Alamar Avenue. Traces of the old aqueduct – a six-foot-high stone wall with a slot in the top for the water to run through – may still be seen. Stone ruins marking a grist mill, a trapezoidal reservoir once served by a dam and aqueduct from Rattlesnake Canyon, a tannery, pottery, and other outbuildings, may be visited in Mission Park.

In the early 1830s the missions were secularized. The Indians scattered, and the mission buildings in Santa Barbara fell into disrepair, under the control of corrupt administrators. The church was actually rented to Goleta Valley ranchers by the time the Americans took over California in 1850. Not until Abraham Lincoln’s administration a decade later did the Old Mission and its contiguous cemetery revert to the ownership and control of the Catholic Church.

The American newcomers were quick to appreciate the sylvan beauty of Mission Canyon, and they began to move in and build homes. Mission Creek was an ever flowing stream, and a popular hike was up the canyon to a picnic spot at Fern Falls, beyond today’s Tunnel Road bridge. Above them were a series of rocky cascades known as The Seven Falls. Unfortunately, when Mission Tunnel was bored through the mountains in 1911, Mission Creek and its falls dried up except for periods of heavy rains.

Homes in Mission Canyon ranged from the humble adobe of Tomas Ignacio Aquino, famed as the last full-blooded survivor of the Chumash tribe when he died in 1952, to magnificent mansions like Glendessary, on the shady lane of the same name. This sprawling half-timbered Tudor manorhouse was one of many fine homes built before the turn of the century by Christoph Tornoe, a gifted Danish artisan. It was built for Robert Cameron Rogers, who composed the lyrics to the classic ballad The Rosary within its walls.

Tornoe also built the Herman H. Eddy home on Puesta del Sol, Eddy being one of the founders of the old County National Bank dating from 1875. Tornoe’s workshop, at the intersection of Tornoe Road and Foothill Road, became a famous pottery operated by Frederick Rhead, whose specialty was ceramics with a mirror black glaze, much sought after by wealthy Montecito clients. A Mission Canyon landmark for many years was Rhead’s kiln topped by a thirty foot smokestack. The wooded hill behind it, flanking Foothill Road, is known today as Tornoe Hill, crowned by Tornoe’s home at 989 Tornoe Road, now the residence of Hugh J. Weldon.

Mission Canyon was so populous by the 1880s that it boasted its own elementary school, located just west of the Mission Canyon County Fire Department station of today. Another landmark near the mission was a boarding house run by Mrs. Hope Weston. When it burned down in 1927 the property was purchased by Mrs. Max Schott and is now the site of Rockwood, home of the Santa Barbara Women’s Club.

Viewed from across town, one of the most prominent architectural features of the Mission district is St. Anthony’s Seminary west of the Old Mission. The seminary, intended for the training of young priests, originally opened in one of the wings of the mission in 1896 and did not get its own building until 1901. Most of this structure went down in the earthquake of 1925. It was rebuilt in 1926, along with the imposing Chapel of Christ the King with its 137-foot Spanish tower pointing skyward like a finger to God. This chapel, with its exquisite reredoes carved out of solid stone, was opened in 1927.

Early in the century an ornithologist and oologist had his home on the north bank of the creek below the seminary. His name was William Leon Dawson, and he set up a museum to house his collections in two small cottages. In 1917 a group of prominent Santa Barbara citizens met in Dawson’s home and founded what is now the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, one of America’s finest.

Miss Caroline Hazard, former president of Wellesly College, and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Rowland Hazard, subsidized the fledgling museum as a memorial to their brother and husband. The present Spanish-style museum was started in 1922 by Miss Hazard, whose elegant home on the bluff above is now St. Mary’s Retreat House. Mrs. Clinton B. Hale, the daughter of Col. W. W. Hollister of Glen Annie Ranch in Goleta, donated the Hall of Botany in her husband’s memory. Mrs. Frederic C. Gould added a large Indian Hall to house an extensive anthropological collection owned by the famous artist Fernand Lundgren, whose home still stands on Mission Canyon Road. Major Max Fleischmann, the yeast king, added a Hall of Mammals and a Bird Hall, along with extensive laboratories, and a Lecture Hall.

Another of Santa Barbara’s major cultural assets which is located in Mission Canyon is the Botanic Garden. In 1926 Mrs. Anna Dorinda Bliss of Montecito heard that a housing tract was being planned for upper Mission Canyon. Rather than see one of Santa Barbara’s most beautiful untouched attractions ruined by “progress”, Mrs. Bliss bought the entire 26-acre subdivision and dedicated it as a botanical preserve, confined to native flora of California, as a living memorial to her father, Henry Blakesley.

The Botanic Garden, later deeded to the Natural History Museum, has grown to 60 acres and contains every plant indigenous to California, from the rare Santa Cruz Island Ironwood to redwoods and even a meadow of wild strawberries and golden poppies. The Cactus Garden is one of the most extensive on the West Coast. In season the Ceanothus and Channel Islands sections are ablaze with color. The neatly-tended sylvan paths which wind down the slopes to the Indian Dam in the pit of the canyon are popular with hikers of all ages. The Botanic Garden, like the Museum of Natural History, is free.

Following the earthquake of 1925, the Franciscan fathers put the open land immediately east of the mission on the market for $70,000, to raise funds to restore the shattered bell towers. Mrs. Joseph F. Andrews and Miss Caroline Hazard hastily formed a citizens committee to raise money to purchase the property for a public park, to prevent developers from crowding houses up to the very portal of the Queen of the Missions.

Concerned Barbarenos raised $35,000, a sum which the city fathers matched by taking out a loan from a bank, thus rescuing and preserving Mission Park as a municipal rose garden and a greensward where children can fly kites and play soccer and toss Frisbees. A group of insensitive taxpayers sued the council for incurring this indebtedness, but lost their case. The loan was paid off in ten years at a final cost to the city of $52,000.

To preserve the view from the steps of the Old Mission looking toward the ocean, Mrs. Andrews built the beautiful row of eleven red-roofed, white-walled Spanish style homes along Plaza Rubio, the block-long street between Laguna and Emerson Streets. Later efforts by the city to clutter up Mission Park’s open spaces with public tennis courts were successfully blocked by the redoubtable Miss Pearl Chase, one of hundreds of contributions she made to keeping Santa Barbara beautiful.

Writers, photographers and artists of nationwide renown have made Mission Canyon their home. Residents of the area formed an improvement and protective organization early in the century. It was moribund by 1918, when it was reactivated by two young canyon dwellers, attorney Hugh J. Weldon, Tornoe’s son-in-law, and Edward Selden Spaulding, the author-artist who founded Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch. They became secretary and president respectively of the Mission Canyon Association, which remains today, sixty years later, one of Santa Barbara’s most vigilant, progressive and active community citizens’ groups.

When Santa Barbara was surveyed in 1851, the northern boundary of the city was Mission Street. Prior to World War I the city’s first outside subdivision was laid out between Mission Street and Constance Avenue bordering the Old Mission. The new cross streets were named First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth – sidewalks on State Street still carry those unimaginative appellations imprinted in the concrete. Such prosaic nomenclature offended sentimental Barbarenos, who took pride in their Spanish-flavored street names.

So in 1927, by overwhelming demand, the five streets were rechristened. First Street became Padre, honoring our mission heritage. Second Street became Los Olivos, because it bisected the old mission olive grove. Third Street became Pueblo, honoring the fact that Santa Barbara was one of only four settlements in Alta California designated as a pueblo, or town, and therefore entitled to a gift of four square leagues of land from the King of Spain. (Our “pueblo lands” extend from the foothills to the sea between Tucker’s Grove and the Rincon.) Fourth Street was renamed Junipero, meaning juniper, in honor of Padre Serra. Fifth Street picked up its Spanish equivalent, Quinto. Constance Street memorializes Constance Dreyfus, the wife of a well-known realtor who helped develop the Mission district. Up until the 1950s our city’s main thoroughfare, State Street, dead-ended at Constance Avenue where the First Presbyterian Church is now located.

Except for this subdivision, the rest of the “Mission neighborhood”, including the Old Mission and all of Mission Canyon and adjacent Mission Canyon Heights, are a part of Santa Barbara County. Rocky Nook County Park, at the entrance to historic Mission Canyon, formerly belonged to Mrs. G.T.S. Oliver. Upon her death in 1928, friends bought the land from her estate and deeded it to the County.

The residents of Mission Canyon have steadfastly resisted annexation to the city, pointing to the superior maintenance of their roads and streets, and their localized county fire protection, as reasons to maintain their present autonomy in what they consider to be one of the South Coast’s choicest residential neighborhoods.

© Copyright 1980 by Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.