SANTA CRUZ ISLAND: LAND OF MANY USES

Morning Press, 22 July 1893: “The sloop Restless was expected today from Santa Cruz Island with a party of pleasure seekers who have been there for two weeks. Mr. Reed (Santa Barbara photographer between 1887 and 1917), Mr. and Mrs. Kittredge, and others compose the party.”

All summer long in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the local papers announced the comings and goings of Montecitans and Santa Barbarans who went camping at Santa Cruz Island. Camping, either on the islands or in the mountains, was enormously popular in those days and entire families, from grandmothers to babies, often spent two to six weeks sleeping in tents.

One young citizen longing to go camping in the early 1900s was Edward Selden Spaulding, who later became founder of Laguna Blanca School. He was inconsolable when he learned that his older sister Bertha was to go camping on Santa Cruz Island with a group of friends and he was not included. In his reminiscences, Spaulding relates, “I had been told, however, that there was a species of fox over there, a little, gray fellow that made one of the best pets; and so I asked my sister earnestly if she would try to catch one for me.”

Bertha brought Spaulding his cherished pet. “I carried it about in my arms when I was able to do so, and when I was at my desk in school or was in my bed at home, I kept it in a small cage,” he wrote. Spaulding was not the only citizen who claimed Santa Cruz fauna as a pet. In 1893, one young lady had a seal on a leash at the beach in Santa Barbara.

When Spaulding was finally deemed old enough to go camping on Santa Cruz Island, he went with a group of 15 other young people chaperoned by a Mrs. Voorhees. Spaulding says, “Two Chinamen, as cook and cook’s assistant, accompanied us; and so did Coert Voorhees’s fox terrier, Sport.” For some unremembered reason, Sport was put into the rowboat that was being towed behind the boat. Besides the rolling of the waves and the whip action of the tow rope, the “engine exhaust poured out evil-smelling fumes directly into his face. In a very short time, he became sick as a dog, literally.”

Sport was not alone in his agony. Spaulding remembers, “Ed Gilbert, very gay and debonair in his well-pressed sports clothes and his stiff-brimmed straw hat,” emerged from the cabin green-faced. Unable to reach the side of the launch, “he was forced to use his new straw hat with its colorful band as a basin.”

When asked what had caused his sudden bout with seasickness, he replied, “Why, you should see those damned Chinamen! They are stretched out on the floor, with the bucket between them; and they are filling it up just as fast as they can do!”

The eventual arrival at Fryes Harbor calmed the queasy stomachs and the party spent their days fishing and swimming in the warm water, exploring the canyons, searching for Indian relics, hiking up Mount Diablo and rowing along the shore exploring sea caves and marine gardens.

Camping in Style

Camping at the turn of the 20th century had style. Camp clothing consisted of well-pressed flannel trousers and white starched shirts. Women were never without their petticoats. Most Santa Cruz Island campers brought crates and crates of gear with them. Wooden cots and wooden chairs, ceramic pottery, cast iron skillets, wooden tables and benches, and, most luxuriously of all, servants.

In 1909, Cameron Rogers, owner of the Morning Press, brought a party of family and friends to camp at Dick’s Harbor for five weeks. They erected a small village of colorfully striped tents. Brightly colored grass rugs and lounging chairs sat on the porches, and two white iron cots furnished each of the tents. On the beach, tent cabanas held card tables and chairs. Breakfast consisted of omelets and toast; dessert was lemon pie, all cooked by the hired couple.

Horace Sexton’s trip to Dick’s Harbor in 1922 shows another side of camping. He and his friends learned the hard way the dangers of leaving one’s tent flap open during the day. They had to resort to smudges to remove mosquitoes and patience to await the departure of island skunks. In a similar manner they learned to avoid the yellow jackets’ nest.

Island of Many Uses

Many campers came to Santa Cruz to hunt. Some came equipped to hunt whales. Most, however, thought feral pigs, island sheep, and even foxes were fair game. The Caires became so annoyed at the slaughter of their sheep that they closed the island from time to time and only allowed campers with permits to visit. Scientists, both amateur and professional, came to hunt artifacts and information. Birds were counted, eggs collected, and animal species captured and preserved by the taxidermist. Indian artifacts were collected and plant species pressed and identified.

Others used Santa Cruz Island for their livelihood. In 1869, Justinian Caire from San Francisco along with nine others created the Santa Cruz Island Corporation and purchased the island. Caire eventually became sole owner and developed a ranching compound in the central valley as well as many outposts. Besides sheep and cattle, the Caires developed a vineyard and winery. Fields of oats and alfalfa supported the island stock of horses.

The Caires retained ownership of most of the island until 1937 when they sold their portion to Edwin Stanton.

In 1909, Gordon Forbes, writer and father of Wilson Forbes of Montecito, was so eager to visit the islands that he signed on as a crew member with Captain Colis Vasquez, who was commissioned by Captain McGuire of Santa Barbara to capture 50 seals to be shipped back East for a circus. In his diary, Forbes described the process. Apparently, a net was stretched around the mouth of a sea cave that contained seals. A shot was then fired so the seals would jump into the water off their rocky perches. The men then lassoed the seals about the neck and then another rope was thrown around their tails. The seals, of course, were not willing participants in this sport and fought like mad, biting and roaring and thrashing until they were secured in their crates. The seals sold for $50 a piece and kept many Santa Barbara fishermen in the black for the year.

Most fishermen lived in camps on the island until they had caught a full load of smelt or mackerel and returned to Santa Barbara. By far the most profitable enterprise, however, was gathering abalones. One group, the Chinese, had been employed in this enterprise since 1855. The Morning Press of November 1896 said, “A number of [C]hinamen in the employ of Son Luog & Company [Sun Lung Company] merchants of this city may be seen leaving the wharf with large quantities of rice on which, together with the abalones they catch, they live for four months at a time.

“The abalones are hunted at low tide and are found under the large boulders,” the article went on. “The meat is extracted and boiled for two hours and then dried on trays in the sun, after which it is shipped to San Francisco and thence to China. It sells from four to five cents a pound.”

The reporter stated that the shells, however, were the really valuable product and were made into buttons, knives and jewelry. Raw shells were worth between $30 and $40 a ton, but the buttons, most of which were made in Germany, sold for $2 per dozen. In 1896, State Street had a small factory where abalone buttons were made.

Still others made their livelihood in less salubrious ways. The sheltered bays of the island were perfect for transferring shipments of opium, which made its way to Stearns Wharf in the dead of night, according to an intrepid reporter for the Morning Press in 1896. He had followed the smugglers after they unloaded their contraband in Santa Barbara but lost them after they had traveled up Bath Street a ways.

During Prohibition in the 1920s, the caves at Santa Cruz Island became the site of secret stills, and fishermen found a way to supplement their incomes by running rum into Santa Barbara. Ira Eaton was caught twice by revenuers, but managed to escape prosecution.

Today, the island belongs to the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service who are working to protect the native flora and fauna and to restore the island to a more healthful and natural state.

(Sources: Santa Cruz Island Anthology edited by Marla Daily; “Santa Barbara – 1898-1925 – as seen by a boy” by Edward Selden Spaulding; “Diary of a Sea Captain’s Wife,” by Margaret Holden Eaton; contemporary news articles.)