The Chapala Street Wharf

The Chapala Street Wharf
by Neal Graffy XNGH
November 8, 2009

“Back in the day” there were basically two ways to get humans and cargo to Santa Barbara. You either tossed it overboard and let it float ashore – an act generally reserved for lumber not people – or it was loaded into small boats and rowed ashore. A popular story tells of the sailors stopping just where the waves were beginning to roll under the skiffs and asking the passengers for a tip. If insufficient gratuities were presented there was a good chance that the boat would “accidentally” turn sideways in the waves and you and your luggage would get drenched. As far as the sailors were concerned they were going to get wet anyway so it didn’t matter to them.

At the foot of what would become Chapala Street, the shoreline retreated forming a small cove and this was the preferred spot to land the boats. (Map by David Banks Rogers from his 1928 book Prehistoric Man of the Santa Barbara Coast).

Coincidentally, all of this is why Chapala Street is where it is and why it has that name. For years, I’d always heard two different explanations of its origin. One stated it was “named after a town in Mexico, from which some of the early emigrants came to this place.” Another account credited the name to the prison at Chapala where Governor Manuel Micheltorena “recruited” some of the 300 convict troops he brought to California in 1843. However, as a result of the research for my street names book, I dismissed both. A review of the Spanish and Mexican census records of early Santa Barbara did not reveal any settlers from Chapala, and as for Gov. Micheltorena’s convict troops, they were so despised by the populace it seemed unlikely they would honor them with a street.

Chapala certainly wasn’t in any Spanish dictionaries (1850 editions or current) and as it turned out there was a good reason for it. It is a New World word. That revelation was given to me by a young man from Central America who said the word means “to splash” or “to paddle about”. Further investigation added the possibility of “to wade” to the list.

Now it all made sense. Naming the street “Chapala” had everything to do with its starting point at the beach where, as it was the usual landing place, “wading”, “splashing” and “paddling about” was all part of Barbareño daily life.

A plan to end all of that splashing and paddling came about in 1865 when the Santa Barbara Wharf Company was organized by Dr. Samuel B. Brinkerhoff, Dr. James Barron Shaw, Captain Martin M. Kimberly, and former otter hunters Isaac Sparks and Lewis T. Burton with the bright idea of building a wharf for the safe transition of passengers and freight. It took a couple of years to get enough investors but finally, in 1868 Santa Barbara’s first wharf opened at the foot of Chapala Street.

It almost served the intended purpose. Extending only 500 feet from shore – a little more than a city block – it was too shallow for the coastal steamers to tie up. Instead, passengers and goods were rowed to the wharf where a ladder provided access to the deck. If it was calm it wasn’t too bad, but if the sea were even a little choppy it was quite a challenge. But rough seas or not, certainly no self-respecting woman would climb a ladder with a sailor peering up her skirt!

Newcomer John Peck Stearns, who owned a lumber yard, offered to invest in the wharf and extend it further out to sea but was turned down. So, a block away at the foot of State Street he built a 1600 foot wharf, which opened in September, 1872 and literally opened the door to Santa Barbara leaving the “chapala” as a leisurely activity for children and tourists.

The Chapala Wharf slowly began to rot away and was finally destroyed by a violent storm on January 14, 1878. Heavy seas and high winds were already taking their toll, when the wreckage of one or more ships, pulled from their moorings, slammed into the wharf. In turn, the combined wreckage floated over to Stearns Wharf causing considerable damage there too. (Photo about 1877)

The picture above, c1928 and prior to the building of the breakwater still shows the remnant of the “cove” indentation at the foot of Chapala Street. Over 400′ of sand now separates the boulevard from the ocean. The little bend on West Cabrillo is all that is left to remind us of what was once there. In the distance, yet another short lived pier extends out into the ocean and beyond that we see Castle Rock, located at just about where the twin pillars mark the entrance to the breakwater today. We’ll be visiting both of those long-gone landmarks in the future.

Photos courtesy Neal Graffy collection
Except 1928 aerial photo courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum

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