As the drought and receding shoreline of Lake Cachuma continue to do their thing, Santa Barbarans worry. And not without merit. Generations of locals have fretted about much-needed water — or lack thereof — and have come up with a number of ways to remedy the situation. In fact, the creation of the lake in the 1950s was just such a solution.
One of the few perks of having a longstanding drought is that certain topographical features, otherwise unseen to us, reveal themselves. Such is the case with the “mystery bridge” and the foundations of a long-gone ranch that are usually submerged under the waters of the lake.
Lake Cachuma is a man-made lake that had its beginning in 1939, when Santa Barbara News-Press publisher T.M. Storke, who briefly represented California in the U.S. Senate, lobbied his friend, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, for authorization to build a dam on the Santa Ynez River.
Storke had taken notice of the strategies that fellow newspaper publishers Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler had used in the fight to bring outside water into Los Angeles in the 1920s. Storke no doubt had hoped to successfully provide water to Santa Barbara, which would lead to population growth and increased circulation for his daily newspaper. Otis and Chandler had proven that a well-hydrated landscape is a prosperous landscape, when the Los Angeles Times owners profited handsomely by the controversial importation of water into the San Fernando Valley from the Owens Valley.
The Lake Cachuma Project was completed in 1956. In the process of creating the lake, many of the existing features of the terrain were sacrificed, including parts of an old stagecoach route, a ranch with its many structures, paved roads and concrete bridges that date from the Works Progress Administration era. We are only privileged to see the remains of these structures when drought conditions persist and the lake shore recedes to a level that is generally very alarming.
Like many others who travel Highway 154, we watched as the receding waters left the old highway at the lake bottom high and dry. Curious, we asked the folks at Lake Cachuma if we could get a closer look at the old bridge, roadway and other landmarks that are now exposed. We were graciously granted the opportunity to visit, by the Santa Barbara County Parks Department, and took a tour with Park Ranger Jeff Bozarth.
Our tour began just off Highway 154, through a pair of locked gates. Once inside, we drove past a forest of juvenile Valley oaks, which represent a project of reforestation of native plants along to shores of Lake Cachuma. After parking, we descended down a rocky embankment that is is usually the shoreline. The surface of the dry lake bottom had the eerie feel and appearance of an otherworldly place. The cracks in the mud were deep, and the dry surface was firm, but at the same time, wiggly. Fresh water clamshells littered the lake bottom.
Some of the notable features of the dry bed were the milk crates that are used as artificial reefs for fish, ghostly tree stumps that rise sporadically from the floor of the lake and a multitude of animal tracks (including turtle) that criss-cross the dried clay.
Most interestingly, we visited the still-intact, and very enduring, bridge and its roadway. We were stunned by the simplicity and beauty of the usually submerged 1930s bridge. We searched for a date, but it is most likely encrusted in silt. What we did find was a survey monument attached to the structure, but sadly the date is illegible. We endeavored to discern the date the bridge was built, but can only speculate that, based on its architecture, it was a WPA project of the 1930s. In any event, it is simple and really lovely.
On each side of the bridge, a silt-covered road extends in both directions. What surprised us is that the road is visible because the old roadbed provides an excellent habitat for freshwater clams. The now-dried clamshells create a contrast to the surrounding bed that accentuate the paved road on which the clams had made their home. This is fortuitous, because it allows observers to easily identify the otherwise covered road and easily survey the old stagecoach route/highway.
After wandering up the old road, our guide took us to what is usually an island in the lake. Arrowhead Island, named for its shape, was once home to a dairy ranch, complete with remnants of an adobe house, a dairy barn and various outbuildings. Bozarth was the perfect guide. With a background in construction forensics and a keen interest in the outdoors, he spotted many details of the architectural ruins and wildlife that we Urban Hikers would not have noticed. We were fascinated by their presence.
After looking at the ruins of a long-gone rancho near Arrowhead Island, we hiked through the the tule reeds to to ascend to the top of the island. There, in the tules, we passed through a mountain lion’s dining room, replete with the remains of a fawn and several other deer. We didn’t stop to photograph the scene, mainly because it was was too graphic, but truth be known, we were all a little nervous about the owner of the dining room returning unannounced.
On our descent from the top of the ridge at Arrowhead Island, we followed a deer path to the lake bed below and hiked back along the old road to a county parks vehicle. A 75-degree morning in December, the weather lent a peacefulness and stillness to magnificent surroundings. What had begun as sheer curiosity had developed into our profound appreciation of and fascination for a lake upon which we rely, but often take for granted.
Thank you to the county Parks Department for allowing the exploration of this fascinating and often unavailable site. Thanks especially to Liz Gaspar for arranging our tour and to Ranger Jeff Bozarth for being a patient and amazing guide on this expedition.
As always, we encourage you to go out and explore the neighborhoods, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and, above all, expect the unexpected.
[Noozhawk’s note: The Urban Hikers will lead a free walking tour of Santa Barbara’s Upper Eastside on Tuesday afternoon. Sponsored by Noozhawk, the third annual “Path of the Padres” tour will start at the Santa Barbara Mission and end up downtown around El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park. Click here for more details.]