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UCSB Rests on Asphalt

By Dan Hentschke, Daily Nexus, October 6, 1972

UCSB’s Faculty Club is located almost directly above a large deposit of pure asphaltum. But don’t bother to dig your pick and shovel out of your closet and start a claim of your own because today this once rich deposit of black goo is worthless. Besides the mines have been closed for over 75 years.

Nevertheless, this now worthless deposit of asphaltum at one time became a bonanza for the property owner Gus Den. Asphalt from this mine was used to pave the streets of California’s golden gate city. It even made it so far as Louisiana where it went to pave the famous Vieux Carre, the historical French Quarter. Earlier Indians of this area used it for caulking.

Until the asphalt was discovered the site of today’s campus was a virtual wasteland of sterile soil and alkaline water supporting only a meager bean farm. Gus Den inherited the land from his father Nicolas A. Den who got the land from Gov. Juan Alvarado in 1844.

Gus Den had the misfortune of being mentally retarded from birth and his aggressive sister and his brother moved in and took the choice pieces of property of what was known as Los Dos Pueblos rancho. But in 1890 Gus’ parcel paid off.

A company who had been mining asphalt in Carpinteria and on the Sisquoc Ranch began their mining of Goleta tar near the lagoon on campus. The Alcatraz Asphaltum Company dug their first tunnel about 50 feet southwest of the corner of the Speech and Drama building.

Natural asphaltum is a viscous, molasses-like goo which would flow into the shaft making it impossible for the miners to keep it open. To solve their problem the men dug another shaft in the solid shale north of the first and bored tunnels at 50 foot levels to tap the gook. In all three, shafts were sunk to remove the tar.

After drawing the tar out of the holes the miners sent it to the Goleta Station of the Southern Pacific Railroad in wagons where it went by train to Gaviota where the old refining tanks can still be seen.

The mine produced 60 tons of asphaltum per day but it was apparently too expensive to run. After eight years of operation the Alcatraz Asphaltum Company abandoned the operation in favor of cheaper open mines in Carpinteria. So even today a large amount of liquid street lies buried 500 feet below the surface of this campus.

When the University first came to this campus the mines had largely been forgotten, but when expansion started and new buildings were being installed, in the late 50s, it was discovered that the existing maps didn’t pinpoint the exact location of the three shafts. Tailings from the mine were emptied into the lagoon, but when the campus was a Marine base most of these tailings were removed and used to cover an ammunition dump. Fortunately four local residents were around when the mines were in operation and with their help architects and engineers were able to find the holes.

These, up to 500 foot deep shafts were filled with scraps of construction and today are only recognizable as circles on a blueprint.

But still that stuff is down there and occasionally seeps to the surface. Since it becomes hard as it looses its volatile fluids and collects the dirt, sand and dust blown by the wind there is usually a natural cap on these seeps. Yet on a hot day these caps may melt and liquid asphalt may come to the surface and wait to stick to someone’s feet.

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