The Stories of San Marcos Pass

by Ewan J. Kummel

Ewan Kummel wrote this research paper in 1992 when he was a 6th grade student at Dunn Middle School. It is reprinted here with a few changes and additions. Ewan lives with his family on San Marcos Pass. Ewan is now a senior at Dunn School in Los Olivos, and has probably forgotten all about this paper. -Dad.

The Geography of San Marcos Pass
The First People
John C. Fremont's "Great Battle"
The Stagecoach Days
The Pass Today


San Marcos Pass has been in more countries than I have. It's been a part of the Chumash nation, Spain, Mexico, the California Republic, and the United States of America.

The first inhabitants of San Marcos Pass were the Chumash people. They left many signs of their life behind. I've lived here all my life. My parents have lived here for 20 years. I chose San Marcos Pass for my research topic because I live here, and also because I am part of its history.

When I was born, we lived in a 100 year old cabin that was built by Chinese laborers in the 1800`s. The apple orchard in front of our old cabin on Kinevan Ranch may have been a Chumash village, or perhaps a place for worship.

The house I now live in sits below Fremont Ridge, which was named after Col. John C. Fremont, one of the great western explorers. Our driveway was part of the original road to the Painted Cave community. Many other interesting things have happened here, as you will find out.

The Geography of San Marcos Pass

Santa Barbara is located along the Pacific Coast of California. It sits at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Stewart Edward White described the view of these mountains:

The ridge, ascending from seaward in a gradual coquetry of foot-hills, broad low ranges, cross-systems, canyons, little flats, and gentle ravines, inland dropped off almost sheer to the river below. And from under your very feet rose, range after range, tier after tier, rank after rank, in increasing crescendo of wonderful tinted mountains to the main crest of the Coast Ranges, the blue distance, the mightiness of California's western systems. The eye followed them up and up, and farther and farther, with the accumulating emotion of a wild rush on a toboggan.... It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed. (White, p. 4.)

The Santa Ynez Mountains are as striking as he describes them. The Santa Ynez mountains form a steep mountain wall along the south coast of California that runs from east to west. There are only three routes out of Santa Barbara to the north that cross these mountains: Gaviota Pass, Refugio Pass, and San Marcos Pass. San Marcos Pass is the most direct route of these three.

The summit of San Marcos Pass is 8 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. I live about one mile east of the summit. The Painted Cave community is about four miles east of us up East Camino Cielo Road. Kinevan Canyon along San Jose Creek is just below the summit. The Trout Club is around two miles below the summit. Kinevan Orchard is located about two miles west of where I live.

The First People

The first people to live on San Marcos Pass were the Chumash. Their name for this place was "Malames". (San Luis Obispo, p. 35.) Some Chumash lived by the sea, others lived in the Santa Ynez Valley, and some may have lived on San Marcos Pass. The apple orchard in front of my old house may have been a village or worshipping place. In this orchard there's a shady place surrounded by boulders where cave paintings, faint but still visible, are found.

The Chumash are now gone, but their rock paintings can still be found in many places here on the Pass. Many people have tried to interpret these paintings. One man, who said he had met a former Chumash chief, thought that the paintings represented death and the dead being carried off to the spirit world. (Hudson, p. 18.) If the Chumash worshipped here, maybe they thought the spirits of the dead would come to the place where paintings of themselves were.

Near the cave painting in the orchard is a rock filled with many mortar holes. Mortar holes usually had pestles or grindstones with them. They were used for making acorn mush and other foods and to grind and mix paint pigments. It is still possible to find Chumash stone tools here. We have found a few arrowheads and spearpoints. But this place is not listed as a Chumash village site. (San Luis Obispo, p. 47.) It is strange that so many mortar holes would be made around a place that wasn't even a village.

When I lived in the cabin I always felt like someone was watching me. One day when my mother was out walking, she saw a little naked brown-skinned boy. She said, "Hey!" Then the boy disappeared. She thinks he was an Chumash spirit. (Julie Kummel.)

Painted Cave is another Chumash site near our house. Like the one in the orchard, Painted Cave is full of colorful paintings, protected by an iron gate. It is shown on the map.

The Chumash were among the first inhabitants of this region. Their presence is still strongly felt.

John C. Fremont's "Great Battle"

California belonged to Spain in the early 1800's. When Mexico broke away from Spain in 1837, California became Mexican territory. In the 1840's American pioneers started moving into California. They wanted it to be an American state. A war of independence was started between the United States and Mexico over California. Col. John C. Fremont, "The Pathfinder," was one of the American officers who fought in the war.

In 1846, John C. Fremont lead 300 American Troops through Foxen Canyon. He camped about a mile from Benjamin Foxen's ranch, near the present town of Sisquoc, in the hills east of Santa Maria. Foxen told Fremont about a short cut over the mountains to Santa Barbara. You've probably heard this story: Foxen told Fremont that the Mexican Army in Santa Barbara was lying in wait for him in narrow Gaviota Pass, ready to roll rocks on him and the soldiers. This story is false. The Mexican Army was in Los Angeles with General Pico's Army. Besides, Gaviota Pass was closed due to floods. (Tompkins, 1966, pp. 39-48.)

Foxen did tell Fremont about a short cut through the mountains. The troops left on Christmas Eve, 1848. It was raining hard, and the mud was slippery as they made their way up the narrow ridge over San Marcos Pass. Fremont lost 150 pack mules that night, but not one human life. (Tompkins, 1966, pp. 39-48.)

Fremont and his men were going to Santa Barbara to fight the Mexican Army, but the Mexicans were in Los Angeles. The only enemy left in Santa Barbara was Augustin Janssens, a ranch owner who was loyal to Spain. He only had fifteen cowboys fighting for him. He knew he'd lose the battle. He also knew knew that Fremont's men needed new horses. To make sure Fremont didn't steal any of his horses, he rounded them all up and hid them near the Santa Ynez River exactly where Cachuma Lake is now. Of course Janssens lost the fight. (Tompkins, 1966, pp. 39-48.)

Fremont hid one of his cannons in the brush because the mules pulling it had died. He was able to pull the rest of the cannons with horses. On December 27, 1846, the soldiers returned and couldn't find the hidden cannon. Captain McLain's journal described the cannon being hidden deep in the brush. No one ever found it, and I doubt they ever will. (Tompkins, 1962, p. 62.)

The cannon was hidden in a canyon near our house. My dad has looked for it. He says he's waiting for a brush fire to burn the chaparral. "We won't have a house, but I might find the cannon!"

Ten days after Fremont crossed the Pass to Santa Barbara, General Pico surrendered to him rather than suffer the casualties of war. (Tompkins, 1966, p. 48.) The California war was over. San Marcos Pass became part of the California Republic, and it became part of the U.S. in 1850.

The Stagecoach Days

There is no way out north of Santa Barbara without crossing the Santa Ynez Mountains. The shortest way over the mountains is San Marcos Pass, so a stagecoach route was built. In 1868, Chinese workers started on both ends of the proposed route, following stakes put in the ground by road engineers. (Tompkins, 1962, p. 89)

The original stagecoach route started near Kellogg Avenue in Goleta. A half mile above Rancho del Ciervo, the road turned into a steep slope of sandstone, where the horses slipped and could not get up the rock. The Chinese workers had to chisel deep grooves into the rock so the horses could climb up. This section was known as Slippery Rock or "Slippery Sal." The road went on to Kinevan Ranch where the stagecoaches stopped and changed horses. From there, the road went over the summit and on down to Cold Springs Tavern. Then the stagecoaches went to Felix Mattei's Hotel in Los Olivos, now known as Mattei's Tavern, and on to Santa Maria. (Tompkins, 1962, p. 89.)

Stagecoach drivers often left the gate open at the bottom of Slippery Rock, and the ranchers complained. In 1892 a new road was built. San Marcos Road ("The Old Pass") follows that route today.

Patrick Kinevan owned the land on top of the Pass. He was the toll collector and really charged a lot. Most toll booths today don't charge as much as he did. He charged:

1 horse and wagon$1.00
2 horses and wagon$1.50
4 horses and wagon$2.50
6 horses and wagon$3.50
horses and cattle$0.25 each
sheep or goats$0.05 each

Patrick Kinevan's wife Nora sold meals and let people stay overnight for a bit of money. (Tompkins, 1982, p. 68.)

The Pass was filled with fearful bandits. Many stagecoaches didn't make it over the Pass without being robbed. The bandit problem was the worst during the 1850's. There were fewer sheriffs, and most bandits weren't caught. The favorite targets of most bandits were cattle buyers. They usually had their saddle bags filled with gold. (Tompkins, 1962, pp. 73-79.)

One of the greatest robberies happened in the 1850's, when a stagecoach was robbed on its way to the bank. The two bandits took a box filled with gold coins and ran into the hills with it to hide from the sheriff. A few days later the bandits were found. One was shot, the other was put in jail. Neither of them had the box of gold. While in jail the bandit got sick. Right before he died he told the sheriff that the box was buried in front of a tree where two streams come together. He died the next day. No one ever found the treasure, and I doubt they ever will. One day, a long time later, one of the descendants of Patrick Kinevan found a gold coin in the orchard near where we used to live. It was an unusual coin because of its octagonal shape, the same sort of coin that vanished in the robbery. He gave it to a priest from the Mission who shipped to to the Pope. (Tompkins, 1989, p. 122.)

My dad looked for the gold with a metal detector. Once while crawling under chaparral near the cabin, he found an old rock cairn and was sure he had it! But there was nothing under the rocks. I think the sheriff found the box of gold himself and didn't tell anyone in order to avoid taxes.

Runaways, a team of horses out of control, was one of the most feared dangers of crossing the Pass, much more scary than armed bandits. Although they were rare, it usually meant death for the stage driver and his or her passengers. A hornet's sting, a rolling tumbleweed, the buzz of a rattler, you name it. When one of the horses got spooked, the others followed, running like maniacs.

On one run over San Marcos Pass in 1897, young stagedriver Selin Carrillo had seven passengers: 5 drummers, a woman, and her six month old baby. As the stage was just about to reach Dead Horse Rock, the lead horse stepped on some barbed wire and got its foot tangled up. The stampede was on! Selin thought of jumping into the soft grass thinking the drummers would follow, but then he remembered the lady and her baby, how would they get out? He stuck with the horses and stage and was able to calm the horses down. No one was killed. Selin died in the early 1970's. (Tompkins, 1982, p. 50.)

"Thousands of years ago when Santa Barbara County lay under the Pacific Ocean, an amazing seismic convulsion caused the land to be rendered skyward to form the Santa Ynez Mountains." (Tompkins, 1987, p. 45.) A giant boulder about the size of a forty-foot high cube formed exactly where San Marcos Pass would be. The massive rock was called Hobo Rock because homeless people used to sleep in a cave under the rock. Stages staying overnight would camp there. Bandits also used to hide there to ambush passing stagecoaches. Hobo Rock is now gone because in 1963, when Highway 154 was built, the road builders had to blow it up. It would have been too hard to move. Engineers estimated it weighed about 640 tons. (Tompkins, 1982, p. 4)

The Pass Today

The stagecoach days were over. More and more people started living on the Pass. A highway was built in place of the old stagecoach road. Automobiles were driving over the Pass now. Eventually a bridge was built over Cold Springs Canyon.

The first car to drive San Marcos Pass was driven up in 1910. The driver was so mad at the price Patrick Kinevan made him pay at the summit that he left his car there and walked down. (Tompkins, 1989, p. 124.)

After the turn of the century, more and more people wanted to live on the Pass, and several communities were started. (Tompkins, 1989.) The Painted Cave community was started in 1896 by Johnson and Viola Ogram. Our driveway is part of their original road. The San Marcos Trout Club was built as a fishing retreat. It still exists today, though some houses were destroyed by the San Marcos Pass fire in 1990. Homer Snyder built Laural Springs as a resort in 1905. Later it was turned into a retreat for nurses from Cottage Hospital. For awhile it was a summer camp owned by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. Now it is for sale. Other communities were started at Rosario Park and West Camino Cielo.

San Marcos Road originally had 22 steep switchbacks, so the new settlers built another road for those who got carsick. (Tompkins, 1989, p. 131.) Cold Springs Bridge started construction in 1962. Using 5,094,000 pounds of steel the bridge was as tall as a 36-story building. The painters of the bridge used 2100 gallons of paint to cover the 180,000 sq. ft. surface. (Rassmussen, p. 18.) Today thousands of cars a day drive over Cold Springs Bridge.

My parents moved to the Pass in 1972. They have seen many changes happen. I interviewed my Mom, and she told me two stories about when she first lived here.

The first one happened before I was born. My mom was visiting a friend (who became my Dad) on Kinevan Ranch. Around dusk they saw a strange glow in the sky. Someone ran up and said that the Kinevan Toll House was on fire. The people that were staying in it were very careless. They fell asleep with candles and kerosene lamps going. One of the curtains caught on fire and the house burned down. Luckily the people staying there were able to climb out through the upstairs window, and no one was hurt. (Julie Kummel.)

The second story happened when I was about a year old, living in the old cabin. My mom and I were asleep. My dad was working at the Outdoor School. At about midnight my mom heard a loud CRACK! She woke up and stuck her head out the door. She noticed that everything was covered with about a foot of snow and more was coming down. There was a big old oak tree in front of our house with its branches almost touching the ground. There was one branch right over our house. Branches were cracking and breaking all around. It sounded like a war going on. My mom was sure it would break on our house. We spent the night under a doorway. Fortunately, the house survived! (Julie Kummel.)


San Marcos Pass is a place full of history. But history is being made every day. These are a few of its stories.


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Copyright © 1996 by Ewan J. Kummel