Cold Spring Cañon

“Stop! There’s something in there,” said Pam as I was scrambling up the shale slope toward Barker Tunnel. “I hear something,” she added.

I stopped and listened; nothing. A light mist was falling and the mouth of the adit yawned wide in the center of the dripping hillside greenery. Carefully, I crept closer and then I heard it, the music of water passing through a cistern below and entering the giant pipes that lined the trail which had led us to the aged tunnel.

Then, silence, until another surge of water entered the chamber, its gurgles and splashes echoing tunefully, like pebbles cascading over a xylophone. Entranced, we stayed a while and listened to the tunnel tunes for a cave-in prevented us from exploring further.

We were luckier, I suppose, than the group of hikers who trudged this trail 110 years ago, also in search of Cold Spring Canyon’s water tunnels. Reporting on the April 1897 outing in the Morning Press, one hiker advised, “Ladies will find a stout stick or ‘alpenstock,’ or even a closed umbrella, of great assistance in climbing.” (Considering that the ladies were wearing cumbersome long skirts, sticks were essential.)

When the party reached the Barker Tunnel, the cabin, tent and tunnel itself were deserted. Two of the boys had been told that the tunnel contained carbonic acid gas which could easily be detected by a lighted candle extinguishing itself (or exploding!). They conducted a chemical experiment and lit candles and entered the tunnel. Not until they reached the very end did their candles go out. When they remerged, they were somewhat let down by the seemingly uneventful adventure until they discovered that the coins and keys in their pockets had turned black as had a watch completely wrapped in a leather chamois case.

“Imagine their consternation,” wrote their companion, “when they learned of the workman who was overcome, and had to be dragged out, and that it was considered so dangerous that those most familiar with it would not enter longer than a few minutes.”

In fact, James Barker did not resume work on the tunnel until June of 1897 when a series of mirrors reflecting the sun were installed to provide light and the ventilation system was improved. Despite those efforts, in November, Thomas Curran and Fred Ware, two workers, suffocated on the fumes. When the tunnel reached a depth of 1,250 feet in 1898, it was declared complete. Today, Barker Tunnel water supplies Westmont College and an adjoining estate, La Bergerie.

The City Tunnel

Pam and I, minus alpenstocks, continued to follow in the footsteps of the 1897 hikers. Up trail aways, the little cabin they found “in a charming nook” has long since returned to the elements and the hubbub of the miner’s camp has given way to a quiet rocky glade strewn with russet-colored sycamore leaves. At a bend in the trail we reached the concrete faced adit, looking more like a gated mausoleum than the entrance to a water tunnel.

Begun in January 1896, the nearly mile-long City Tunnel came into being when the Santa Barbara City Council, dissatisfied with the private water company that supplied the city, got into the water business on its own. Council members were encouraged by Eugene F. Sheffield, who donated his interest in land in Cold Spring Canyon and by Charles Frederick Eaton, who donated his land but retained the right to one and a half miner’s inches of water for his estate, Riso Rivo (today’s El Mirador).

When the 1897 hikers reached the City Tunnel, cabins and tents, stacks of supplies and equipment, horses, mules, rail tracks, stores of dynamite and piles of rubble from the excavation greeted the excursionists.

“No one can realize,” said the Morning Press reporter, “until they have seen for themselves, the amount of discomfort and hardship and even danger the men work in who are endeavoring to give Santa Barbara an adequate water supply. Breathing the foul air; clothing, from head to foot, saturated and dripping with muddy, cold water; suffering agony, with eyes blood-shot, and inflamed, until one wonders if nature can completely restore or if the eyes may not be permanently injured. There seems to be no way by which the effect on the eyes can be entirely overcome, for no matter how good the system of ventilation, workmen at the rear wall of the tunnel must come in contact with the seeping gas which every new removal of earth or rock opens up, before it enters the pipe arranged to draw it off.

The reporter went on: “Neither may the horses be said to have an easy time. We met one laborious animal ascending the trail with a bale of hay strapped on either side, and it must be remembered that his is the only means of getting supplies to the camp, including railroad iron and the lumber necessary to support insecure places in the tunnel walls.”

The dangers of working in the tunnels should have come as no surprise. In February, a Morning Press headline blazed, “A SECOND TRAGEDY, Lang Ong the Chinese Cook, Meets a Sudden Death.” During a tremendous downpour at the end of January, an enormous boulder thundered down the hillside and completely demolished the storage shed in which the cook had been sleeping. The astonished reporter wrote, “His head was severed and the body fearfully mangled.” The very next month, the Press reported a landslide had covered the entire entrance to the City Tunnel, though no one was injured. Another time, gas temporarily blinded one of the workers.

Of the four water tunnels, or horizontal wells in Cold Spring Canyon – the Gallagher (begun circa 1900), the Eaton (1892), the Barker (1894), and the City Tunnel (1896) – only the latter two are still in use today.

The Trails

Today, Cold Spring Canyon has three trails. The oldest of these is the trail that ascends the north fork of the west fork and reaches the ridge. This trail was cut in 1878 when, according to the Morning Press, “Mr. Shedd and two men, two donkeys, and two mules came over from the Los Prietos (mercury) mines by a new trail in less than eight hours.” Shedd and companions cut brush down from the ridge until they reached the cattle trail in Cold Spring Canyon.

In 1897, Jose Dolores Ortega, a descendent of El Capitan, Jose Francisco Ortega of Presidio fame, claimed a homestead along this trail. Jim Blakley, backcountry explorer and historian, remembers that the 1964 Coyote Fire revealed this lost old trail and the remains from Ortega’s cabin and grapevine. Another canyon homesteader was William Joseph Chard, a Santa Barbara butcher. He and his family only lived there a short time as Chard lost out in a dispute over water rights with James Barker, and Chard’s wife, Dina, didn’t like living in a snake-infested area.

A 1904 guidebook says of the trail, “Old Cold Stream Cañon Trail makes a delightful ride… There are small but lovely falls, between two and three hundred feet high, half-way up the trail, and from a big rock directly above the falls, called ‘The Pinnacle,’ a wonderful view of the area is gained.” This trail disappeared for many years but has recently been recut.

The West Fork Trail, which reaches Gibraltar Road, probably had its start with the building of the water tunnels which lie along its route. It connects to Gibraltar Road, formerly the Chamber of Commerce Trail.

The East Fork Trail was built by the Los Padres Forest Reserve during 1902 and 1903. It crosses the ridge and drops down into Forbush Flats and continues on to the Santa Ynez River and up Mono Creek. It was intended to be the main trail to the pineries in the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Ranges. On the south slope, it crosses land which belonged to George H. Gould. In 1926, the Gould family donated these 367 acres to the city as a park.

Ferdinand Delbrook, uncle to the late George Delbrook of Montecito, packed in cypress and eucalyptus trees to plant on Arthur Ogilvy’s ranch in Mono Creek. He planted eucalyptus trees 2.7 miles up the East Fork Trail, providing a shady resting place. The story goes that Ogilvy’s Chinese cook used the trees as a landmark which he could see with his field glasses. When he saw the horses and mules clustered near the trees, he knew it was time to start preparing a meal.

Trail maintenance has always been a problem. In 1887, the Go-Ahead Club of Santa Barbara, a group of civic-minded young citizens who put together the 1886 Mission Centennial Celebration, appropriated $65 for the improvement of Cold Spring Canyon Trail. Then, for many years, forest rangers maintained the trails until budget and staffing cuts put an end to this service. Today, the Montecito Trails Foundation hires bonded, licensed companies to ensure that the trails are maintained for all to enjoy.

(Sources: “Montecito and Santa Barbara,” by David Myrick, the research of Jim Blakley, Barbara Goll and Maria Herold.)