HS Essays, Papers, and Poetry
Look at That!
Our Notable Past
Golden Gate Bridge
Historic American Engineering Record, courtesy National Park Service
Ventura County on Coast Route State Highway
Bixby Creek Bridge
Big Sur, CA
Dept. of Transportation
Dept. of Transportation
Arroyo Hondo Bridge
Santa Barbara County
Photo by Robert Pavlik
Elmer Rigdon Fountain
Highway 1, Big Sur
Rock retaining wall
Pt. Mugu Sycamore Canyon Beach
Pt. Mugu State Park
An Historical and Geographical Overview
Pacific Coast Highway, California
|by Robert Pavlik, Associate Environmental Planner/Historian, Caltrans (Paper presented in the session, “Pacific Coast Highway: An Engineering Feat,” at the Preserving the Historic Road in America conference, March 5-8, 1998, Los Angeles, California)
Overland Travel north and south along the California coastline is a relatively recent phenomenon (given that humans have continuously occupied the region for 9,000+ years). The native Californians traveled with the terrain and not against it. Their trails and migratory paths enabled them to trade with their neighbors to the east, exchanging coastal resources (abalone, olivella shells) for inland resources (most notably obsidian). Their horizons were relatively proscribed, and their movements north and south limited.
Beginning in the 16th century the Spaniards began exploring the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida, Texas, Mexico and California, looking for gold but at first finding only disappointment and resistance from the first peoples, thereby curtailing their overland expeditions.
However, they did not give up entirely. Working on the commonly held notion of a Northwest Passage, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo set sail from Mexico in 1542 looking for the Strait of Anian. They sailed into San Diego Bay and North along the coast, but did not land north of Pt. Conception. Cabrillo landed his two ships on San Miguel Island, where he succumbed to an infected broken arm and was buried. His ships returned to Mexico and sailed into the history books as the first European explorers of California.
50 years later an Englishman, Sir Francis Drake, plyed the Pacific coastal waters, outraging the Spanish crown with his piratical antics, but posing little threat to Spain’s tenuous claim to Alta California.
In the 1590s Spain acquired the Philippines as its newest colony, and so their interest in locating a port along the California coast increased along with their shipping trade. In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino mapped the California coast and discovered Monterey Bay; despite his lavish praises, the bay did not draw the Philippine merchant ships, and California languished for more than 150 years.
The hunting expeditions of the Russians and Aleuts along the northern California coast (searching for sea otters) inspired the Spanish to begin colonization of their holdings in Alta California in the mid-18th century. The crown sent Franciscan missionaries, led by Fr. Junipero Serra, to establish a system of missions based on the system that the Jesuits had established in Mexico and Baja California (the Jesuits having been expelled from the Spanish dominions in 1767 by decree of Charles III).
The overland expedition to establish the missions, presidios and pueblos in Alta California was led by Gaspar de Portola, who along with Serra began their northward trek in 1769. Following the coastline, they named many of the landmarks along the way, including Gaviota (named for a seagull one of the soldiers shot there) and Oso Flaco Lake. They met the great wall of the Santa Lucias at San Carpoforo Creek, in northern San Luis Obispo County, turned inland and crossed the range and continued north along the Salinas River valley (which they thought was the Carmel River). They failed to recognize Vizcaino’s Monterey Bay and went on to discover San Francisco Bay. Thus was established El Camino Real, literally the King’s highway since all real property in the colonies belonged to him.
In 1775-76 Juan Bautista de Anza and a party of 240 immigrants followed the path blazed by Portola on their way to establish a pueblo and presidio at Yerba Buena. Instead of struggling over San Carpoforo’s summit they left from the newly established Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and walked up San Luis Canyon and over Cuesta Pass, forging an inland route for El Camino Real.
Throughout the Spanish and Mexican eras El Camino Real remained an important link among and between the far-flung outposts of civilization on the West Coast. It was the only bonafide overland “highway” in the region, and with continued use it was gradually widened to accommodate not only those on foot or horseback but carretas as well.
While I was only a boy my father and family left Mexico and came overland from Mexico, following the coast as closely as possible. A cart with huge wooden wheels was used to carry my mother, who was sick, and when the squeak of the wheels became unbearable, we poured hot tallow onto the wooden axles. Those of us on horseback who were riding ahead could hear the squeak of the carts for miles. San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo were the only villages or habitations between the Gulf of California and Monterey. We arrived in Monterey in 1846, and it was just like the sleepy village we had left in Mexico. Nothing worried or disturbed the people, and life was just one fiesta to another. Game of all kinds could be killed in the pine woods back of town, and the swamps swarmed with ducks and water fowl, so eating was an easy matter.
Following the War with Mexico and California’s admittance into the United States in 1850, the need for good overland transportation was readily apparent. California had no reliable road system prior to the war; the population of the state was very small, and the need to convey people, mail, raw materials and information long distances with any frequency and/or regularity was limited. The self-sufficient rancheros were more dependent on oceangoing ships than overland wagons for the delivery of goods from the outside world. As the state’s population increased and its industry and commerce expanded into a complex network spanning the state, the need for a system of interconnecting roads grew accordingly. The railroads filled part of this need, and created an even greater demand for a reliable road system.
In 1895-96 two members of the newly appointed Bureau of Highways made a 7,000 mile reconnaissance of the state, preparing a report to the governor recommending a system of state highways. These roads would traverse “the great belts of natural wealth which our state possesses, connecting all large centers of population, reaching the county seat of every county and tapping the lines of country roads so as to utilize them to the fullest extent.”
The nationwide interest in good roads was not initially the result of automobile enthusiasts, however, but bicyclists. It is to their credit that a concerted effort to improve the nation’s road system was instigated, long before the horseless carriage coughed and bumped its way down the roads originally intended for horse-drawn and human-powered vehicles. Cycling advocates were primarily urban based, but their cause soon spread to the rural areas of the country, when ranchers and farmers took up the cause. They felt justifiably isolated from their markets and ruthlessly controlled by the railroad trusts, and views the good roads movement as a way to support publicly funded, constructed and maintained roadways for everyone’s benefit. To the farmer and the rancher, public roads offered an appealing alternative to the expensive and unfair monopoly of the railroads.
The Pacific Coast Highway
Against this background, let’s look more closely at the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH.
We’ll begin in Santa Monica, where Route 66 touches down at the Santa Monica Pier after (or before, depending on your direction of travel) crossing the continent. PCH runs through Malibu, between the friable bluffs and an occasionally tempestuous ocean, past the current and former homes of movie stars, insurance executives and computer software moguls to May K. Rindge’s former estate, the Rancho Malibu. May and her husband, Fred Rindge bought the 16, 350 acre ranch in 1892. They used the great rolling hills and coastal terraces to run herds of cattle and sheep, and planned on building a baronial palace on the property. Fred died before that could be realized, leaving the property to his wife and three sons. According to the WPA/Federal Writer’s Project 1939 Guidebook California, “his widow began a 30 year series of bitter lawsuits, violence, and strategy to prevent the building of railroads and highways on her vast property. She hired armed, mounted guards to patrol her boundaries, built high wire fences with barred and chained gates, plowed county-built highways under, turned droves of hogs upon cuts for new roads or planted them with alfalfa; and during 1915-17 when her gates were systematically smashed and her guards overpowered every week by crowds of farmers and travelers trying to get through to Santa Monica, she dynamited her roads. Her battle with the State against its plan to run the coast highway through her beach land was carried to the Supreme Court, where she lost. Her son brought her into court with the charge that her fights were dissipating the estate at the rate of more than 1 million dollars a year. “ (p. 416). On a positive note, May Rindge did found the Malibu Tile Pottery in Malibu, producers of beautiful arts and crafts tile and ceramics found throughout some of the state’s finest residences and public buildings, including the Adamson House on PCH.
Continuing up the coastline we come to the ten mile stretch between Sycamore Canyon and Pt. Mugu, where the road was blasted out of solid rock using surplus World War I hand grenade powder and other explosives. Steam shovels were ferried in on ocean scows (some from as far away as Hawaii) and put to work building the roadway. This portion of road, built in 1924/25 entailed more than one million cubic yards of excavation, 75% solid rock. The road continues across the flat Oxnard Plain, through Ventura and past the oil piers and Rincon Point to Santa Barbara.
Along the Santa Barbara Coastline the highway runs west and east paralleling the railroad tracks as far as Gaviota Pass, where the road turns northward (inland) and the railroad continues along the coastline past Pt. Conception and through Vandenberg AFB. Highway 01 leaves off again at Las Cruces (a true crossroads) and heads for the flower fields of Lompoc.
In 1862 William Henry Brewer wrote in his journal, “We were at Nipomo Ranch when I last wrote….After leaving Santa Barbara County the roads were again horrible—no road, in fact, but a mere trail, like a cow path, hardly marked by the track of wheels, and often very obscure. We crossed gulches down almost straight on one side, then ‘ker-chug’ in the bottom, then up as steep on the other.” Sixty years later things hadn’t changed all that much in some places.
In San Luis Obispo County the road leads through Morro Bay, where the Gibraltar of the Pacific stands silent watch. Julia Morgan, architect of Hearst Castle reported to William Randolph Hearst in January 1920 that it took five and one-half hours to travel between San Luis Obispo and San Simeon, and five hours for the return trip. She later characterized the county road as a “bog” and the Los Osos road as a “continuous skid.” In a 1922 letter she described the road conditions as being nearly impassable, but that “a mile of new highway shows how delightful the trip will someday be.”
Improved roads could also be an asset to public health and safety, and funded under the guise of national security. Such was the case of the Carmel-to-San Simeon Highway. In 1894 the S.S. Los Angeles wrecked off Point Sur; Dr. John L.D. Roberts of Monterey raced to the scene in a buckboard in 3/12 hours, a remarkable feat given the existing road conditions. As he performed his ministrations to the injured and dying on that terrible April day, he was convinced of the importance of an improved road in the rugged country known as Big Sur. He later made a trip on foot from Monterey to San Simeon in 1897, and estimated the cost of constructing such a road at fifty thousand dollars.
The importance of tourist travel along this scenic and pristine coastline was not lost on Roberts, who was a land speculator and entrepreneur responsible for platting the town of Seaside, a hoped for rival to nearby Pacific Grove. Roberts convinced State Senator Elmer Rigdon of San Luis Obispo of the need for a through road along Big Sur’s coastline. Rigdon arranged for the appearance of Roberts before a joint meeting of the California Legislature. It was there that Roberts presented a convincing program to the lawmakers, who approved of a bond act that included $1.5 million for the construction of a highway from Carmel to San Simeon. California voters approved the bond act in 1919 (under the guise of a military highway) and construction began in 1922, the same year that Elmer Rigdon died.
Work crews were located near Piedras Blancas lighthouse and on the Big Sur River. Both laborers and engineers quickly discovered how difficult and expensive the project would prove to be. Work ground to a halt in 1924, and was not resumed until March 1928, when convict crews were pressed into service. The isolation of the site, combined with the threat of returning to prison, along with a fine chargeable against the wages of one’s fellow convicts, tended to discourage escapes. “One of the many stories about the convicts tells how, one winter night when slides had blocked the road, the word spread that the wife of a man in the freeman’s camp, about to give birth to a child, needed a doctor; of their own free will, men from both camps poured out to work in pouring rain and pitch darkness, blasting open with dynamite a road to the Community Hospital.”
“At the curve around Limekiln Point, 163,000 yards of rock had to be excavated in 1,000 feet; one blast of 70,000 pounds of dynamite moved 95,000 yards, blowing 75,000 yards into the sea 300 feet below.” And permanently fracturing the rock of the point, causing Caltrans a continuous safety and maintenance problem to this day.
One June 27, 1937 a gala celebration was held. Governor Frank Merriam, Dr. John Roberts, Division of Highway officials, and others were in attendance. With the help of a bulldozer Governor Merriam symbolically pushed a boulder out of the highway’s path, and the road was officially open to the public. In addition, a commemorative plaque honoring the late Sen. Rigdon was unveiled at a roadside park, overlooking the ocean.
One more story; recreation has long been an important industry in Big Sur. The best known story is that of John and Florence Pfeiffer. John welcomed numerous guests to their home, much to the chagrin of his wife. One day, while ruminating over her family’s precarious financial status, she decided to charge her husband’s guests for room and board when she became upset with one of the tenant’s treatments of a mule. Therefore, a jackass is to thank for bringing the tourist industry to Big Sur.
Not everyone in Big Sur felt that the new road was an improvement, however. This is an excerpt from Robinson Jeffers’ poem, “The Coast-Road:”
A horseman high alone as an eagle on the spur of the mountain
"Over Mirmas Canyon draws rein, looks down
At the bridge-builders, men, trucks, the power-shovels, the teeming
End of the new coast-road at the mountain’s base.
He sees the loops of the road go northward, headland beyond headland, into gray mist over Fraser’s Point,
He shakes his fist and makes the gesture of wringing a chicken’s neck, scowls and rides higher. "
Skirting Monterey Bay we come to Santa Cruz, originally a mission town and the location of Branciforte, “the Spanish government’s third, last, and least successful experiment in pueblo founding.” Today it is home to UC Santa Cruz, and is a laid back beach community for Silicon Valley denizens. In 1905 Santa Cruz was to be the southern terminus of the Oceanshore Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad planned to run from San Francisco to Santa Cruz for the purposes of developing summer cottages and suburbs along the San Mateo-Santa Cruz County coastline. Their advertising theme, “Oceanshore Reaches the Beaches,” could not have been more accurate when in 1906 the Great Earthquake sent the newly laid tracks off the cliffs and into the ocean. Work was resumed on the railroad, and in 1907 the train was in operation from San Francisco to Moss Beach. Small towns such as Moss Beach, Montara, Princeton, El Granada and Miramar sprang up along the way and building plots were laid out for cottages. The line eventually ran from San Francisco south to Tunitas Glen and from Santa Cruz north to Swanton, past the cement plant at Davenport. The 26-mile gap was bridged with a Stanley Steamer autobus. The railroad declared bankruptcy in 1920, the rails torn out in 1922 and the graded roadbed converted to a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway.
This is a rugged portion of highway, through the infamous Devil’s Slide south of Pacifica. The San Andreas Fault runs nearby, entering the ocean at Mussel Rock. The old highway runs north from Mussel Rock, past Woods Gulch and pops out at Skyline Blvd in Daly City. There is a tunnel through Mussel Rock, built in 1874 by the Tobin family to facilitate the passage of carriages along the beach from Pacifica to the Cliffhouse in San Francisco. The highway, which was built here in the mid-1930s, suffered from numerous landslides and rotational slumps, and was abandoned following an earthquake in March 1957.
Highway 01, which enters the city from I-280, follows 19th Ave through San Francisco, through the Douglas MacArthur Tunnel (under the Presidio of San Francisco) to the southern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the beginning of the Redwood Highway. Highway 01 diverges from 101 in Marin County and runs through the pastoral Point Reyes National Seashore. It skirts Tomales Bay, created by the San Andreas Fault. From Bodega Bay it follows the coastline very closely through Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The highway passes Fort Ross, the Russian settlement that was occupied until 1852; the road actually ran right through the middle of the fort until 1972 when the highway was realigned. The towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg, throughbacks to an earlier California, are traversed before the highway turns inland at Cape Vizcaino and intersects 101 once again at Leggett, just south of the Humboldt County line. From there 101 continues north to the Oregon border, through the great stands of Coast Redwoods that represent only 5% of the old growth forest still standing.
And that concludes our thumbnail sketch of California’s Pacific Coast Highway—
Copyright 2008 Robert C. Pavlik All Rights Reserved
Dr. Albert Shumate, ed., Boyhood Days: Ygnacio Villegas’ Reminiscences of California in the 1850s (San Francicso: California Historical Society, 1983), 15.
Francis P. Farquhar, ed. Up and Down California in 1860-64; the Journal of William H. Brewer, Professor of Agriculture in the Sheffield Scientific School from 1864 to 1903 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 79.
Julia Morgan Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
California: A Guide to the Golden State, Compiled and written by the Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of California (New York: Hastings House, 1939), 345.
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House, 1959), 581.
Clint Miller and Raymond Sullivan, “Historical Tunnel at Mussel Rock,” California Geology (January 1975), 18-19; Raymond Sullivan, “Geological Hazards Along the Coast South of San Francisco,” California Geology (February 1975), 27-36.