Home Safety Apparel FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: California’s SR 1 opened in Big Sur

FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: California’s SR 1 opened in Big Sur

Overview

Today, California’s State Route 1 (SR 1) is a major north-south state highway that primarily follows much of the Pacific coastline of the state. At just over 656 miles, it is the longest state highway in California, and the second-longest in the United States after Montana Highway 200. 

Along its length, there are several sections of SR 1 that are designated as either Pacific Coast Highway, Cabrillo Highway, Shoreline Highway or Coast Highway. SR 1’s southern end is at Interstate 5 (I-5) near Dana Point in Orange County, while it ends in northern California at U.S. Route 101 (US 101) in Mendocino County. Along its length SR 1 also runs concurrently in places with US 101. The most notable places this occurs is a 54-mile segment in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, as well as when the two highways cross the Golden Gate Bridge.

The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. It carries SR 1 north and south over San Francisco Bay. 
(Photo: inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com)
The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. It carries SR 1 north and south over San Francisco Bay.
(Photo: inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com)

Prior to the construction of I-5 (which was built further inland), SR 1 was the major north-south highway in California. Now it provides a scenic alternative to reach a number of cities, towns and attractions along the coast. It also serves as a major thoroughfare in the greater Los Angeles area, the San Francisco Bay area, as well as a number of other coastal areas. SR 1 has been designated as an All-American Road.

SR 1 was built in stages, and sections of its route had multiple names and numbers over the decades as additional segments were completed. In 1964 the California Division of Highways renumbered highways across the state and at that time the entire route was officially designated as SR 1. Although the highway is a popular alternative to I-5 because of its scenery, frequent landslides and erosion along the coast have caused a number of segments to be closed for repairs for lengthy periods, or re-routed inland.

The route of California's State Route 1 (in red) is shown on this map. (Image: simple.wikipedia.org)
The route of California’s State Route 1 (in red) is shown on this map. (Image: simple.wikipedia.org)

History

California’s third highway bond issue passed prior to 1910. What became SR 1 was first recommended in World War I, but planning and construction for that section of SR 1 took about 18 years. It was one of the state’s most difficult routes to build. The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, along the Big Sur coast, to connect that area to the rest of California in 1919. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds. Then New Deal-era funding from the federal government was provided during the Great Depression in order to finish the road. 

To build the road San Quentin State Prison established three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labor for road construction. One camp was near Little Sur River, another was at Kirk Creek and a third was later established in the south at Anderson Creek. Inmates were paid 35 cents per day and had their prison sentences reduced for their work. 

The route was built through difficult terrain. For about 72 miles – from San Carpóforo Creek to Malpaso Creek – the road winds and hugs Big Sur’s cliffs. It now passes a number of coastal parks that were established over the decades. SR 1 leaves the coast for a few miles and passes through a redwood forest in the Big Sur River valley. 

A logging crew felling a huge redwood tree in 1906. (Photo: folksinging.org)
A logging crew felling a huge redwood tree in 1906. (Photo: folksinging.org)

In the rugged terrain along its route, 33 bridges needed to be built, and some of them are now historic. The Bixby Creek Bridge is a reinforced concrete arch with a 320-foot span that passes over the Bixby Creek gorge. It is the longest bridge in this section of SR 1. In addition, six more concrete arch bridges were built between Point Sur and Carmel, including the Rocky Creek Bridge and the Big Creek Bridge.

Six of the 29 bridges built along the Carmel–San Simeon Highway during its construction. (Counterclockwise, from upper left) Lime Creek, Torre Creek, Dolan Creek, Burns Creek, Mal Paso Creek, Bixby Bridge. (Photo: Public Domain/wikipedia.org)
Six of the 29 bridges built along the Carmel–San Simeon Highway during its construction. (Counterclockwise, from upper left) Lime Creek, Torre Creek, Dolan Creek, Burns Creek, Mal Paso Creek, Bixby Bridge. (Photo: Public Domain/wikipedia.org)

The paved two-lane road was finally completed. When it opened, the road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway (and was also known as Route 56), but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

In the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, California’s highways were named (such as “Pacific Coast Highway”) or given a route number. Route numbers were used by state highway planners and the California Legislature from 1915 until 1964 – but were not posted on highways nor used on maps. Therefore, different sections of SR 1 have been posted and/or referred to by various names and numbers over the years. The SR 1 designation was first assigned to the new coastal highway in 1939. 

Signs designating California State Route 1 were erected in 1964. Photo: cahighways.org)
Signs designating California State Route 1 were erected in 1964.
(Photo: cahighways.org)

The first section of SR 1 opens

So after nearly 20 years of planning and construction, the first section of what became State Route 1 was dedicated on this date 85 years ago (June 27, 1937). California’s central coast was finally accessible to cars and trucks of the era.

The setting for the dedication was the picturesque Big Sur region. Thousands were at the ceremonies, which were held at what is now Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in Monterey County.

The highway segment opened what had been a generally isolated area of California between the city of Carmel and the town of San Simeon. 

A postcard promotes "the Coast Highway." (Image: Amazon.com)
A postcard promotes “the Coast Highway.” (Image: Amazon.com)

Once the section of highway was completed, the headline of the California Highways and Public Works magazine’s article on SR 1 was “A Dream Comes True.” In the article, its author wrote, “The opening of the Carmel-San Simeon link of the Roosevelt Highway on June 27th between Carmel and San Simeon brought to a successful culmination the dream of many far-sighted men who, in spite of opposition and lethargy, have carried through the fight to open up to the people of California and of the entire United States this section of coast country which is outstanding in its beauty and scenic grandeur.”

In another article about the new highway and its opening festivities, the Madera Tribune reported on the difficult logistics involved in building the highway. “The road, 150 miles long, was hewed out of the side of cliffs of the Santa Lucia range, which drops from the mountains to the Pacific.” The newspaper continued, “The dedication of the road, which opens a region that heretofore had been inaccessible to motorists, was unusual [in] that the customary speeches were replaced by an historic pageant.”

The pageant referred to by the newspaper had actors dressed as various individuals, including the Native Americans who once lived in that area. Another dedication highlight was when California Governor Frank F. Merriam and Earl Lee Kelly, California’s public works director, “operated a bulldozer to remove a large boulder – symbolizing all of the obstacles encountered in building the Carmel-San Simeon link – from the new road.” On June 28, 1937, this segment (the first) of State Route 1 was opened to traffic.

The Bixby Creek Bridge along SR 1. (Photo: dynamic-media-cdn/tripadvisor.com)
The Bixby Creek Bridge along SR 1. (Photo: dynamic-media-cdn/tripadvisor.com)

The route

Except for certain urban areas and areas where the topography is either too fragile or too difficult, SR 1 runs parallel to the coastline (and usually very close to it). However, there are other areas where the road does move several miles inland to avoid “several federally controlled or protected areas such as Vandenberg Space Force Base, Diablo Canyon Power Plant and Point Reyes National Seashore.”

As well as connecting coastal cities and communities along its path (and many of the smaller communities were quite isolated before the road was built), SR 1 provides travelers access to beaches, parks, and other attractions along the California coast. Popular with tourists, SR 1 adds several billion dollars to the state’s tourism industry annually.  Various segments of SR 1 are now urban freeways; others segments in rural areas are simple two-lane roads. In addition, under the California Coastal Act, those sections of SR 1 that run through the rural sections of the protected California Coastal Zone are prohibited from being widened beyond a two-lane road.

Redwood trees very near to SR 1 in Big Sur. 
(Photo: bigsurcalifornia.org)
Redwood trees very near to SR 1 in Big Sur.
(Photo: bigsurcalifornia.org)

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