Scorpion Ranch House

historic two story building at night with lights on
Scorpion Ranch House

Tim Hauf,

Quick Facts

Audio Description, Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Information

The Scorpion Ranch house was constructed in 1886-1887 and was rehabilitated in 2004-2005. In 2008, exhibits were installed and it was opened as a visitor center.

According to early unpublished maps and diaries, the ranch at Scorpion was in full operation by 1885 with a work force of 8 to 12 men. Scorpion Ranch played a significant role in the development of Justinian Caire's island-wide enterprise:

"Early maps depict many buildings, sheds and other structures at the Scorpion ranch including a residence, wood sheds, carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop, baking ovens, wool sheds, a bakery, a granary, a general storage building, a matanza, a butcher shop, tallow furnaces, a garden store, barns, stables, corrals, a wagon shed, a chicken yard, wells, windmills, a water tank, water troughs, and a concrete reservoir..... [and] vineyards and large vegetable gardens." (John Gherini, Santa Cruz Island: A History of Conflict and Diversity , p. 97)

The first reference to the still standing two-story ranch house was made in 1887, by the company foreman, when he wrote in his diary that there is "work on the attic of the new house." Although often referred to as an "adobe," ranch staff built this building of rubble masonry, using island rocks held together by a lime and cement mortar. Only part of the interior walls are constructed of adobe blocks. Gherini describes the bread oven as one of the most prominent features of this building:

"...located on the west end of the building in a small room...(the oven) was used to store flour, bake bread and keep the finished bread. Margaret Eaton (in Diary of a Sea Captain's Wife) observed that the large oven was made of white bricks and had a large iron door. With a four-foot-long wooden spatula, the cook put the loaves into the piping hot oven which could bake twenty-five loaves at a time."

Although this room is no longer used for bread making, it still has an important role in providing the appropriate environmental conditions (temperature, light, access, etc.) for a maternity roost during the spring and summer for Townsend's big-eared bats. With the species in decline in general, and with recent documented loss of maternity colonies in California, maintenance of this colony and protection of the roost site at Scorpion is important for conservation of the species in California.

This historic ranch house has been rehabilitated with special efforts made to protect this roosting site. The downstairs is now open as a visitor center.

More Ranch History: Preserving the Past
While the isolated island offered ranchers several advantages over the mainland, including no predators and the world's best fence (the ocean), it created special challenges as well. Supplying such a remote outpost was probably the biggest challenge. The transportation of supplies and stock onto and off the island was always an adventure-the distance to the mainland, rough seas, and expense made it very difficult. However, as former ranch superintendent Clifford McElrath wrote in his memoir On Santa Cruz Island, ranchers would adapt to the difficulties of isolated island life through self-reliance and by "learning to make do with what [they] had." Pier Gherini, former owner of the eastern portion of the island, wrote a humorous story in "Island Rancho" about the self-reliance of Joe Griggs:

"Joe could do most anything, except write. An expert rider, huntsman, and general ranch worker, Joe also was a mechanical whiz. He once took a 1915 Waterloo Boy tractor that had been "mothballed" because the early workmen wouldn't touch it, and used the parts to make a sawmill. The fact that we didn't need a mill in no way detracted from the ingenuity and skill that went into its making. All of these people had one common characteristic. They knew and loved the Island. Each in his own way was rugged and self-reliant. They took its beauties and hardships in stride."

Although livestock ranching on Santa Cruz Island began in the 1850s, it was under the direction of Justinian Caire beginning around 1880 that a variety of agricultural and ranching endeavors were developed in an effort to create a self-sufficient operation on the island.

In California's Channel Islands, Marla Daily writes that, "Buildings including several ranch houses, bunkhouses, barns, wineries, a chapel, mess hall, blacksmith shop, and saddle shop were constructed. Wherever possible, native island materials were used. Kilns were built for the manufacture of bricks and limestone mortar. Stones were quarried and cut to shape on the island. A resident blacksmith forged wrought-iron fittings, railings, and hinges used on many of the buildings. Employees included masons, carpenters, dairymen, team drivers, vintners, a wagon maker, cobbler, butcher, seasonal grape pickers and sheep shearers, a sea captain and sailors to run the company's 60-foot schooner. Hay, vegetables, and over a dozen varieties of grapes were grown, in addition to almond, walnut and other fruit and ornamental trees. Sheep, cattle, horses, and pigs were raised."

Since the island was too large to manage from the one main ranch in the Central Valley, other facilities, or out-ranches like the one at Scorpion, were developed. Completed in 1887, the two-story Scorpion ranch house, and later, the wooden bunkhouse (ca 1914), were home to ranch hands who tended the flocks of sheep and cattle and the crop fields on the broad plateaus and rich black soils on this eastern end of the island. Known as the "granary of the island," the Scorpion and Smugglers ranches were the bases that supplied much of the food and hay for the island operation.

Sheep ranching for meat and wool by descendants of Justinian Caire, the Gherini family, continued on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island between 1926 and 1984. The Gherini era ended in February 1997 when the National Park Service acquired the last interest from the family. Today, the National Park Service is preserving the historic area so visitors always will have the chance to remember and understand this unique part of the island's past.

Channel Islands National Park

Last updated: March 24, 2022