Many students don’t know that our campus used to be a military base: the Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara. But, for those who do know of our campus’s past service, there is an even greater secret: an allegedly massive underground tunnel system beneath the University. Allegedly, these tunnels are a holdover from our campus’ days as a base, relating to the base’s operations and functions.
Having a secret tunnel network is not as unusual or secret as one might expect, even at University of California campuses. For example, UC Irvine alumna Nelli Ghazaryan wrote of her experiences exploring a series of tunnels underneath her campus not only as a way of exploring new places but also new perspectives. UCLA published a piece about their own underground tunnel system and how it connects to the various parts of campus, such as their theater department.
That being said, it always helps to get the facts straight. When asked about some secret underground complex sprawled beneath the campus, Associate Campus Architect Dennis Whelan balked at the idea, calling such rumors “misinformed” and “delusional.”
Nevertheless, Whelan was quick to help me set the record straight. Being no stranger to tunnels, Whelan visited the aforementioned access system at UCLA during his time as a graduate student. Whelan was able to clarify that, yes, there are indeed tunnels at UCSB. However, they are not military tunnels. In fact, as he revealed, they predate the military base that became UCSB by a good 60 years.
Following a lead provided to me by Whelan, I began to dig deeper. The tunnels, as it turns out, are the remnants of an old mining system. A website dedicated to Goleta’s history, Goleta History, notes that the asphalt mines were an integral part of 19th century Goleta’s economy. Built in 1890, the mines were constructed and ran by the Alcatraz Asphalt Company and provided asphalt as far away as New Orleans. By 1898, however, the mines were closed and operations moved elsewhere. Nevertheless, while the business may have left, the mines remained.
While Goleta History does mention the mines’ presence underneath UCSB, little mention is made of where they actually are. To that end, a photo from UCSB’s Mapping and Image Library revealed the location of a couple of the on-campus mine shaft entrances. Remnants of the old mining system can be found across campus, particularly north of the lagoon. One such example can be found directly behind the Art Museum. Beneath the foliage of a large square overrun by ivy you can feel an artificial structure: a gate meant to keep curious stragglers out.
Unfortunately for any future cave explorers, the mines these days are inaccessible. Then again, it’s probably better that way. For safety reasons, the mine shafts have been filled. While investigating the lagoon-side entrance, I found the entryway blocked by a fence, high enough and thick enough to dissuade any curious students from clambering over. Even if you wanted to get in, you couldn’t.
As Goleta History writes, the mines were fraught with danger. Reaching 550 feet at their deepest point, the air was often polluted and toxic. Additionally, the mines were subject to flooding due to their close proximity to the lagoon. Couple the internal dangers as well as 100 year old wooden architecture and it’s evident that a trip down the shaft would be one way.
Hidden parts of history are everywhere; they merely require finding. While the lack of accessible tunnels may prove a disappointment to urban exploration enthusiasts and adventurous souls, the mine’s contribution to early Goleta history cannot be denied. The transformation of the legend from mine to secret military installation makes us take pause and wonder what is the truth behind many of the things we have heard.