January 25, 2019

Photo Essay: A Rustic Stagecoach Stop, Bypassed By a Freeway and a Giant Bridge

Time may march on but here at the Tavern we do our best to stop it.
Menu from Cold Spring Tavern, Santa Barbara, California

No one really has to travel the San Marcos Pass anymore. But you'll want to divert off Highway 154, if only just to visit the old stage stop of Cold Spring Tavern, just 15 miles north of Santa Barbara in Los Padres National Forest.

Along what is now known as Stagecoach Road, Cold Spring Tavern was a stagecoach stop starting in 1868, while the old stagecoach route was still being built by the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Turnpike Road Company (under the leadership of Llewellyn Bixby)...

...and the Chinese immigrants it employed (and housed in the Road Gang House, still located on the site).

Beside the Gang House, there's a old ore car that was used at a silver and gold mine from the early 19th through the early 20th centuries.

Construction on the route was completed by 1870—and the horse-drawn stage line once carried both passengers and mail between Santa Barbara Mission and the mission's farm in Rancho San Marcos, now known as the Santa Ynez Valley. But once motor vehicles took over—and the pass had been paved—the stage line ceased operation in 1901.

Nowadays, this former stage stop is a time capsule of the late 19th century—between both its original structures and some relocated ones, like the Ojai jail, built in 1873. It was relocated to Cold Spring in 1959 after the City of Ojai wasn't interested in keeping it as a historical artifact. So, the two-room pokey was trucked over the Santa Ynez Mountains and parked here (making it "the only jail that ever crossed a mountain," according to Ripley's Believe It Or Not).

Several railroad packing crates were bought in 1941 and brought here as well—including one that was used as a tavern from 1942 to 1947, until the owner at the time decided to move in and use as her residence. She named it "Blisshaven"—which loosely translates as "safe harbor" or "peaceful home."

Completing the compound are relics from the ghost town of Gopherville, which got plowed with the widening and shoring up of the Gaviota Pass, a popular route through the Santa Ynez Mountains that led to the Santa Inés Mission.

Whatever was left of the town's buildings were relocated here after 1951.

Although there are some original structures, much as changed over the years—either from trees falling or annexes being added on as the use of the property changed from restaurant to rest stop to hotel (1893-7) to restaurant, with some ownership changes and vacancies in between.

The antiques/gift shop used to be a bunkhouse for the "mudwagon" drivers, who usually had to stop to switch out their horses.

The San Marcos Pass was so steep that every stage stopped at the tavern (then known as the "Cold Spring Relay Station") to add two more horses to the team.

Near it outside, there's an old piano of unknown origin or date...

...played only perhaps by the black-and-white cat who roams the roadhouse grounds.

If you want to go back to the earliest days of Cold Spring Tavern, people have guessed that the oldest original structure might've been built back in 1860.

Although no one really knows, every effort has been made to run and maintain the tavern in a historical state. It helps that members of the Ovington-Wilson family have been in charge continuously since 1941.

Old West blacksmithing and artifacts abound—even if they came from somewhere else.

The tavern still uses gas lanterns...

...even though it's had electricity since 1954 (which you can see illuminating the buggy wheel chandeliers).

To fully understand the undertaking that making this journey once was, you've got to take a side trip to Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge—by going a bit further down Stagecoach Road to view it from below or crossing it while driving on Highway 154.

Constructed for $2 million in 1963 as a “shortcut” to span 700 feet across the gorge below and circumvent the sharp curves of the old route, the welded steel bridge was cheaper than the original CalTrans plan to build Highway 154 by burying the Tavern under 125 feet of dirt.

At 400 feet above the canyon floor, it’s the highest arch bridge in the country and the highest of any bridge in California.

Standing under this massive marvel, you can see its reinforced concrete foundations up close and gaze up at the clean, geometric lines of its girders, trusses and arches. The result is a bridge that’s efficient, structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.

And yet after it opened to traffic in 1964, so many motorists ended up bypassing Cold Spring Tavern altogether. Now it takes a special trip, instead of just pulling over on impulse.

But the detour is worth it.

Photos above from both 2017 (sunny) and 2019 (overcast).

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Along the Old Stagecoach Pass
Photo Essay: Chasing Phantoms in Malibu Creek State Park
Photo Essay: The End of the Old West at Gilman Ranch
Photo Essay: The Healing Powers of Highland Springs

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