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    Campus Lagoon Through 1950: From a Haven for Whalers to WWII Naval Base

    By Edward Mackie, Daily Nexus, April 29, 1974

    This is the second part in a series about the [UCSB] Campus Lagoon.

    Captain Van Dorous was impatient. The wood was running out. Since 1870, Van Dorous and his crew of Jamaican Blacks had decimated the oak groves around Campus Point to fuel their iron blubber kettles. The Captain had established a profitable whaling station at the present location of Goleta Beach.

    Successors of Nicolas Den (owner of the property) continued ravaging grove after grove. His sons, Gus and Alphonso, were willed by Nicolas a 15,000-acre tract encompassing the Campus Lagoon.

    But Gus had been born mentally retarded and in the division of his father’s inheritance, he had been allotted the most worthless portion of all. Surprisingly, the area proved rich in asphalt and Gus died a wealthy man. (The main asphalt shaft was sunk beneath the present-day Speech and Drama building, where it remained an eyesore until 1952.) To tide over mining operations, crews had floated in log booms from the ocean and carried the timbers ashore.

    A row of cypress and eucalyptus trees separating Gus and Den’s Ranch from that of his brother still marks the boundary between Isla Vista and the University.

    During the Twenties, a group of subdividers latched onto central portions of the ranch but no one could give away the campus lagoon.

    Decades of erosion had worn deep gullies into the slopes of the lagoon. Mountains of asphalt tailings crowded about the current site of the UCen. Alone stood a ranch house, a barn, and the asphalt mine shaft house.

    San dunes had developed in two areas around the lagoon — those arms once connected to the sea. At most, a foot of standing water filled the lagoon, and during dry months, the basin turned into a salt marsh.

    In 1941 there was a new note of menace. The attack on Pearl Harbor signaled a momentous change for the entire Point. In the latter half of 1942, the Navy moved onto campus — ushering in a crash program of construction for the war effort. Chapels, mess halls, post exchanges, and theaters sprang up overnight. Twenty-nine barracks (enough for 1800 enlisted men and 250 officers) rose on the barren mesa. In all, 103 temporary outbuildings were completed by the end of ’42.

    Of interest to aquatic buffs was that an Olympic swimming pool was constructed. Naval personnel dismissed civilian charges of the pool’s being an unnecessary “frill.” After all, it was 12 feet deep and hadn’t officers used it for simulated ocean rescues? Years later, one end of the pour was raised to accommodate dainty University coeds who complained about the deep water.

    A marine aircraft group was activated on the mesa in August 1944. Nearby squadrons practiced rocket firing, torpedo runs, glide bombings, and instrument training. Guards stood watch in the gunnery tower perched on the main island of the lagoon. Jutting out from the very tip of Campus Point are still the rusted remains of a naval gunnery emplacement.

    The most dramatic deaths on the lagoon must have occurred on Jan. 2, 1945 when two torpedo bombers crashed head-on over the Point. Four pilots died in the mishap.

    Bulldozers ate away two slopes of the lagoon for use as paving and earthfill. Contractors built a dike across one neck of the lagoon (opposite present-day San Miguel Hall).

    Oilmen sank slant oil wells on the central lagoon island, reaching down then outward to sea. Little remains of the diggings today.

    In 1946, the Marine air base was deactivated as the war ground to a halt. The lagoon lay dry and hallowed by pits as mice overran the Olympic pool and rabbits took over the mesa.

    All Naval-Marine facilities were subsequently turned over to the War Assets Administration. Then in 1948 the Regents of the University of California were offered (and accepted) the base for use as a college campus.

    (More on the lagoon later.)

    (Daily Nexus photo)
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