The Goleta Slough is a shadow of its former self.
Today the slough is a series of small channels and wetlands meandering from the Santa Barbara Airport to the ocean at Goleta Beach. While largely forgotten or ignored by passersby, the estuary attracts birds and wildlife, including rare species.
But three or four centuries ago, this was reportedly the most heavily populated place in California, the only deep-water haven from today’s San Diego to San Francisco.
A large Indian village stood on a hill overlooking the slough. Nearby native villages were so numerous that the earliest Spanish visitors considered the spot as a likely location for a proposed Santa Barbara Mission. Ships of early explorers anchored in its deep-water bay. Briefly, this was a shipbuilding center.
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Long a meeting place of waters, the slough drains a series of creeks falling from the Santa Ynez Mountains, with names that ripple off the tongue — Atascadero, Maria Ygnacia, San Antonio, San Jose, San Pedro, Carneros, Tecolotito.
That geography proved the first step in the slough’s undoing. An amazing succession of rainstorms in the winter of 1861-1862 formed a lake stretching from today’s Coal Oil Point to Turnpike Road. As the waters receded, they left a generous amount of silt, creating a vast salt mash. Gone was the bay.
Almost a century later, government engineers filled in much of the remaining marsh to build a Marine Corps air base, now the site of Santa Barbara’s airport. For part of the fill, engineers leveled a handy source of material — Mescalitan Island, once the home of the Indian village.
Today’s slough slumbers peacefully. Its mouth, between More Mesa bluffs and a popular beach, is closed once again by sand. This is a bird lover’s paradise — teeming with egrets, herons, ducks, ospreys, gulls, pelicans, shorebirds — even swans. Upper reaches of the slough spread onto airport property, and the site of an ecological preserve.
Light planes soar overhead. Children’s laughter peals from a nearby beach. An artist paints. But all is still in Goleta Slough.
Roadside Attractions is a weekly chronicle of sights along the Central Coast’s highways and byways. Sally Cappon can be reached at email@example.com.