The Mesa History by Walker A. Tompkins

Mesa HistoryMesa, a Spanish word meaning “table,” is a common geographical place name in the Southwest. It has been applied to the flat bench fronting the ocean along Santa Barbara’s southwestern border since mission days. Our Mesa once extended from Arroyo Burro to the Santa Barbara Cemetery. At some remote point in geologic time, the central segment of this coastline, a block two and a half miles wide, sank below sea level, allowing a gulf of saltwater to surge inland as far as the Old Mission.

Over millenniums of time, sand, gravel and boulders scoured off the mountain walls were swept seaward by Mission and Sycamore creeks. They silted in the gulf to create a sedimentary floor on which the city of Santa Barbara was built. This left the eastern edge of the Mesa as a sheer drop-off, variously known today as the Mesa fault, the Mesa bluffs, or TV Hill.

Archaeologists from City College have excavated 6000-year-old midden heaps on the edge of the bluff behind La Playa Stadium which identify the site of “Mispu,” one of several local Chumash villages. Thus, while the Mesa is one of the oldest historical areas in the city, paradoxically it is one of our youngest residential districts.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1782 to build their Royal Presidio, the Mesa headland overlooking West Beach and the Santa Barbara roadstead was fortified with embrasures equipped with four cannon. This armament, it was believed, could discourage any fleet from landing invasion forces. No such threat ever materialized, however, so the four cannon wound up as garden ornaments in the patio of Casa de la Guerra. They remained there as curiosities for tourists until World War II, when in a burst of patriotic fervor, these irreplaceable mementos at our Hispanic past were melted down during a scrap metal drive.

The Indians in ancient times, to protect against surprise attack by land or sea, used to post sentinels on the tall hilltops now reached by Miramonte Drive overlooking the Mesa. The Spaniards followed their example, which gave the rounded hills the name they bear today, Lavigia, or The Lookout.

In 1850 the Americans annexed California to the Union. In March of 1856, a Mexican War veteran named Captain Albert Johnson Williams arrived by steamer with orders to build a government lighthouse on a 27-acre federal reservation on the Mesa. He waded through the surf from a small boat, carrying his pregnant wife Julia in his arms.

In order to haul stone and lumber to the building site located a mile east of Arroyo Burro, Captain Williams followed a Mexican oxcart road up from newly-surveyed West Montecito Street and across the Mesa flatland – the genesis of modern Cliff Drive. He had the lighthouse keeper’s residence roofed over by October, in time to move Julia into its shelter to give birth to their first child. The completion of the stone tower, 30 feet high, came later. The beacon lamp was first lighted on the historic night of December 19, 1856, and not once in the following 65 years did the oil-burning lamp fail.

Captain Williams chafed under the monotony of being a lighthouse keeper so in 1866 he turned the job over to his wife while he began farming land between Mesa School Lane and Fellowship Road. Julia missed only one night in 40 years climbing the spiral stairs to trim her lampwicks. That absenteeism can be excused by the fact that she was busy downstairs giving birth to another baby.

Williams died in 1882 but his widow carried on alone. She, the lighthouse and her famous flower garden were tourist attractions second only to the Old Mission when she died in 1906.

The fertile soil and moist climate of the Mesa made it prime agricultural land, so by the 1880s the Mesa had become a crazy quilt of farms ranging from 20 to over 200 acres. The largest, 264 acres, belonged to T. W. Moore and was located north of Cliff Drive between Las Positas Road and Flora Vista Drive. Adjoining Moore on the east was the 176-acre holding of R. D. Pinkham, extending to Meigs Road, named after his pioneer neighbor, Peveril Meigs, whose 104 acres ran as far as Santa Cruz Boulevard. Meigs Road was a pair of dirt ruts twisting over the hills like a varicose vein to connect with West Victoria Street, providing a sort of back entrance to the Mesa.

Other major landholders north of Cliff Drive were J. M. Beckstead, S. P. Snow behind whose property a row of eucalyptus trees provided the name for “Eyebrow Hill” until recently, and Bert More. The Rev. S. R. Weldon lived on the easternmost Mesa property, now the site of McKinley School. On the ocean side of Cliff Drive the chief landowners, from west to east, were Grant Dewlaney, Rose G. DeAdrim, B. H. Porter, C. A. and J. B. Oliver, M. A. Davis, C. R. Potter, Harriet Babcock, and Captain C. P. Low.

Beans were the main commercial crop on the Mesa, although George Gaylord raised bumper crops of corn, barley and squash on his farm on Mesa Road. Peter Davis, next to the lighthouse reservation, raised flax. Later he turned to raising pigs, which he said were the smallest packages he knew of in which to ship grain to market. Jonathan Mayhew had the South Coast’s largest almond orchard just west of the lighthouse. Lavigia Hills were mostly grazing land for dairy herds.

The old Mesa Road, now Cliff Drive, ended at the Oliver and Brooks farms, known today as the Palisades and Westwood Oaks tracts. One reason why the Mesa was not urbanized in the ’80s or ’90s was because the farmers refused to split up their holdings for homesites.

By far the most pretentious home on the Mesa was “Dibblee’s Castle” or Punta del Castillo, overlooking West Beach. This stately mansion was built in 1886 by Thomas B. Dibblee, millionaire owner of the vast San Julian sheep ranch near Lompoc. The square stone tower of the Castle dominated Santa Barbara’s western skyline for 46 years.

The 80-acre, pie-shaped wedge of flat land lying westerly from Second Point was the retirement home of sea captain Charles P. Low of New England, whose clipper ship N. B. Palmer once won a trans-Pacific race over the famous Flying Cloud. Captain Low had architect Peter 1. Barber build him a mansion with a glassed-in cupola in 1874, on Cliff Drive just west of La Marina.

In 1920, seven years after Captain Low’s death, the broad, level expanse of Captain Low’s farm caught the attention of Earle L. Ovington, aviation pioneer and developer of Casa Loma Air Field located on the north edge of today’s Community Golf Course. The Mesa, Ovington believed, would be the ideal place for a municipal airport. The federal government agreed, providing Ovington’s runway was long enough to accommodate the largest commercial plane then in service, the Ford tri-motor or “Tin Goose.”

Such an aircraft made successful landings and takeoffs on “Low Field,” as Ovington dubbed the project. But Ovington’s airport crash-landed before he could pave the runway, and for a most unpredictable reason – the Mesa became the scene of an oil boom!

The discovery well, Channel Oil No. 1, was a wildcatter spudded in city’s official airport. With landing and take off zones spiked with wooden derricks, the project had to be abandoned permanently. By the time Ovington died in 1936 the eastern third of the Mesa was a forest of derricks, mostly drilled with cable tools to oil-bearing shale around 2,800 feet. The deepest well, drilled by Richfield, was abandoned as a duster when the bit reached 5,000 feet. A row of derricks inside today’s Marine Terrace subdivision was owned by Prince David Mdivani (then a spouse of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton), operating under the corporate title of transoceanic.

The Mesa oil field was almost depleted before World War II. It was never more than a public nuisance. The last operating well, owned by Howard Miller, continued pumping until it was capped in 1971.

One of the most bizarre facets in the Mesa story concerned the “Fellowship Group,” a religious cult that purchased 87 acres of the old Pinkham farm in 1919, fronting on Cliff Drive and extending to the summit of Lavigia Hills. Basically an agricultural cooperative, the Fellowship Group, led by a Rev. George Littlefield, announced that they were going to be a self-sustaining community, with members sharing the common bounty of orchards and berry patches, chicken farms and vegetable gardens.

Rev. Littlefield set up a printing press in the building which still stands at 506 Fellowship Road and began publishing religious tracts for distribution throughout the world. He called his plant the Red Rose Press, named for the rose garden at his home on what was to be called Red Rose Way.

Plans were filed at City Hall for a communal laundry and co-op stores. But as is so often the case with such enterprises, the chiselers relaxed to enjoy a welfare state supported by their more industrious colleagues. Came the oil boom, and the Fellowship disintegrated. Fellowship Circle, ringing the hilltop like a halo, remains as a reminder of the ill-starred commune. As for Rev. Littlefield, he continued his publishing until his death in the 1940s.

Artists and writers had a special affinity for the Mesa as a carefree place to live. As early as 1918 the celebrated Swedish painter of western deserts and Indians, Carl Oscar Borg, built his unique studio at 403 Loma Alta Drive, later a nursery school run by Mrs. Liam O’Sullivan. It is still standing. In 1923, Ed Borein, the cowboy artist and etcher, erected an adobe replica of a Hopi Indian pueblo at the ocean end of Barranca Avenue. The great and near great beat a path to the door of “La Barranca,” probably the most famous home in Santa Barbara during the ’20s and ’30s. It survived until 1973 when it was bulldozed and replaced by a condominium complex, over the vigorous protests of preservationists.

The earthquake of June 29, 1925, destroyed the Mesa’s two best-known landmarks, the lighthouse and Dibblee’s Castle. The lighthouse tower toppled like a bowling pin and was replaced by an automated beacon on a steel tower. Dibblee’s mansion had been sold in 1908 to Frederick W. Leadbetter, a papermill baron from the Columbia River, who had converted the flat area above La Playa Stadium into a private polo field. The beach below is still known as Leadbetter Beach. The quake damaged the Castle so badly that it was razed in 1932 and WPA workmen used its stone blocks to build the revetment along the wall of Cliff Drive from Montecito Street to the City College entrance. The Leadbetters did not choose to rebuild the landmark, and moved to Montecito. In 1954 the estate became the campus of Santa Barbara City College.

The western portion of the Mesa, running to Arroyo Burro or Hendry’s Beach as it was popularly known, formed a part of the original Pueblo Lands granted to Santa Barbara Presidio by the King of Spain in 1782. Japanese farmers settled in this rural area of grassland and an extensive oak grove dating from the 1700s. They established freesias, or flower farms, which attracted hundreds of tourists and Sunday-driving townspeople. The existing stands of pine and eucalyptus date from the 1920s. The Wilcox property at the southwestern tip of the Mesa was a commercial nursery, currently the subject of a controversy between developers and conservationists.

The neighborhood between Mesa Lane and Oliver Road, while originally platted as early as 1920, did not develop until after World War II when many veterans built homes with the help of GI loans.

City weather records show that the Mesa’s winter temperatures are 10 to 12 degrees warmer than downtown, and 10 to 12 degrees cooler in the summer. This climatic attraction, plus the spectacular marine views, caused a housing boom after World War II. The first subdivisions, Grandhurst and Fair Acres, broke the trend away from farmland use in 1929. The Pacific Estates tract east of Washington School was the last major development.

Because a whopping 63 per cent of Mesa residents live in single-family homes, children are numerous. To meet their educational needs, three elementary schools exist on the Mesa – McKinley, built in 1932; Washington, in 1954; and Monroe, in 1958. Shoreline Park, a magnificent 15-acre strip between Shoreline Drive and the beach, was dedicated in 1967 after the city voters approved a bond issue to buy the land. Many regard it as the finest public park in Santa Barbara.

In 1957 Prescott Ray donated his hilltop home and grounds on Kenwood Road to the public for park use – the spot where Indian and Spanish sentinels had once stood guard. Although only an acre and a half in extent, the Hilda Mcintyre Ray Park commands some of the most breath-taking views in the city. Another park of identical size, at 740 Dolores Drive, was built on the city’s Vic Trace Reservoir property to serve the residents of La Coronilla subdivision nearby.

By 1974, when the latest census figures were compiled, the Mesa had 10,978 people living in 3,826 dwellings on 1.920 acres of land, a much lower density than most areas of the city. To accommodate this prosperous market, a shopping center has bloomed east and west of the intersection of Meigs Road and Cliff Drive, including Santa Barbara County’s only ice skating rink.

Binding, the Mesa’s citizenry together for political purposes is the Mesa improvement Association, dedicated to protecting the Mesa lifestyle as one of the most envied in the South Coast area.

© Copyright 1980 by Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.