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Judith Dale: Los Alamos – Town of Two Land Grants
Literary Corner

Judith Dale: Los Alamos – Town of Two Land Grants

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The present-day community of Los Alamos is a historical microcosm of the development of our area. Like all towns in the Santa Ynez Valley, it originally was the site of large Chumash settlements along a creek or river running from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The town was formed from two Mexican land grants: Rancho Los Alamos and Rancho Laguna.

Like Los Olivos, it was a stagecoach stop and later a railroad station. And like Buellton, Highway 101 ran through it, causing it to become a town of service stations and restaurants catering to the new mode of transportation — the automobile. 

Chumash villages

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Los Alamos Valley was home to four large Chumash villages along San Antonio Creek (The creek originates in the Solomon Hills 10 miles east of present-day Los Alamos and runs through Vandenberg Air Force Base to the Pacific Ocean). The Chumash enjoyed a rich environment of seeds, grains, acorns, wild game and deer.

The first contact with the Spanish was on Aug. 31, 1769, when the Gaspar de Portolá Expedition camped near the San Antonio Creek and noted the large population of Chumash. The Los Alamos Chumash were allowed to stay in their villages until the 1787 establishment of La Purisima Mission in what is now Lompoc.

By the early 1800s, all the Chumash villages along the creek were abandoned and the inhabitants moved to the mission. As was true in other mission settlements, the Chumash suffered greatly from the newly introduced diseases for which they had no resistance. An outbreak of smallpox in the mid-1840s took such a severe toll on the Los Alamos Chumash that, within the next 10 years, only eight Los Alamos Chumash were left in the valley.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and in August 1833, the government secularized all of the missions and their valuable lands. This opened the door to the beginning of the Mexican governors of Alta California giving huge land grants of former mission lands to individuals.

Land grants of Los Alamos

In 1839, Jose Antonio de la Guerra received the 48,803-acre Rancho Los Alamos land grant from Alta California Governor Juan Alvarado. The town of Los Alamos (meaning the cottonwoods) developed out of this and the later adjoining Rancho La Laguna land grant. Jose Antonio de la Guerra was the son of José de la Guerra y Noriega, who was commandant of the Santa Barbara Presidio from 1815 to 1843. The elder de la Guerra was a huge landowner in his own right, having been granted or purchased over 1/2 million acres in present Santa Barbara, Ventura, Marin and Sacramento counties. These land grants included Rancho Simi, Rancho Las Posas, Rancho San Julian and Rancho El Conejo.

Rancho La Laguna was the second land grant that made the town of Los Alamos. In 1845, Governor Pio Pico granted Octaviano Gutierrez, a former soldier at the Santa Barbara Presidio, 48,704 acres that adjoined the Los Alamos land grant to the east.

Los Alamos is born

In the early 1870s, Thomas Bell along with his nephew John S. Bell, and Dr. James B. Shaw (all from San Francisco), purchased acreage from Rancho Los Alamos and neighboring Rancho La Laguna. Both families allocated a half square mile from each of their new ranches to create the Los Alamos town site.

In 1874, the stagecoach route was shifted from Foxen Canyon Rancho to run through the Los Alamos Rancho. The stage company put up a stable and dining establishment there. Shaw and Bell, seeing the future possibilities of their lands, began selling off portions to attract settlers. In 1876, they hired surveyors to lay out a townsite on the border between their two ranches. The town was one square mile with individual lots measuring 50 by 200 feet. Los Alamos continued to be a popular stagecoach stop until 1901.

At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

In the town’s 1876 plan, the street running north and south was named Centennial, in honor of the nation’s 100th birthday. The street running east and west was named Bell after one of the founders. To this day, the two main streets in town are named Centennial and Bell streets.

A man named A. Leslie built the first residence and store in 1877 and a school district was formed. The town soon boasted a blacksmith shop, post office and saloon. A butcher shop, flour mill, restaurant and more saloons followed. In 1880, J.D. Snyder, the local Wells Fargo agent, built another store, which he soon transformed into a hotel to serve overnight travelers. The building burned in 1893 and was later rebuilt and is known today as the Union Hotel.

In 1882, the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway arrived, opening the town to the coast at Port Harford near San Luis Obispo. Los Alamos became a major shipping point for the area’s agricultural products, which included vegetables, fruit, grains and dairy products. By spring 1883, 450 people were living in the town.

Oil was discovered at the Orcutt field in hills north of the Valley in 1901, and in the Purisima Hills south of the Valley at the Lompoc Oil Field in 1903, providing more economic prosperity. The first well drilled in the area, named Esperanza, was sheared off its casing in the 1902 earthquake; the pool was never relocated.

The best-known strike was well No. 3, Old Maude, just west of Los Alamos. It came in as a gusher and hundreds of visitors came to see it. The discovery of oil brought wealth to Bell and other landowners, as well as provided growth and jobs to the area.

In 1927, Highway 101 was routed through Los Alamos on what is today’s Centennial Street. With Highway 101 came gas stations, restaurants and hotels to serve the automobile traveling public. Los Alamos went through a post-World War II growth boom.

Los Alamos today

I fondly remember in the early 1950s my family, who were farmers in Buellton, would occasionally stop at Los Alamos for dinner after a day of shopping in Santa Maria. This was a special treat as we did not eat out very often, or go shopping for that matter.

Today, Los Alamos is a small town with lots of historic charm. Even though the stagecoach stopped in 1901, the railroad rerouted from inland to a coastal route in 1940, and Highway 101 bypassed Los Alamos in 1958, the town remains a vibrant community. In fact, residents like that their town is not a thoroughfare but a small town in which residents know each other and appreciate the small-town atmosphere. 

I highly recommend an afternoon outing to visit the excellent wine-tasting rooms, eat in the fine-dining establishments, visit the antique stores, and soak in the historic atmosphere of original adobe buildings, the Union Hotel and the last-standing Pacific Coast Railroad Station. And, if you let your imagination wander for a moment, look to the hills above the town, which served as a hideout for the highway bandito Solomon Pico, whose escapades were popularized by the character Zorro.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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