“Why don’t you Californians have straight streets the way we do in the Midwest?”
As the nation’s weather improves, tourists arrive each spring. I was trying to guide a motorist from our main San Luis Obispo Post Office to French Hospital Medical Center. She found my explanation of Madonna Road to Higuera Street; Higuera to High Street; High Street to Buchon Street; Buchon to Johnson and then taking the right lane curving below the railroad underpass a bit confusing.
She had a point! Almost every driver has been frustrated by the street plan of one or more of California's cities and towns.
California is famous for some of the most crooked roads in the world. These range from short sections of roadway such as San Francisco's Lombard Street to our own Highway 1 north of Ragged Point.
These lanes, back roads and highways are a cinch when compared to the street plan of some of our cities. I recall my frustrations as a novice driver trying to find my way across San Francisco’s Market Street.
The Continental Congress’ Northwest Ordinances of 1784 and 1787 prescribed a grid plan with 1-mile-square sections. Roads and streets of the new frontier towns were to be aligned with these straight lines. Such plans worked on level land, but not in the more mountainous west.
While these can be found in many San Luis Obispo neighborhoods, the Broad Street-Santa Barbara Avenue axis defies the comprehension of many tourists to our county seat.
There are offending streets elsewhere. Santa Barbara's State Street, La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, Washington Street in San Diego and our own Broad Street-Edna Road were well-used cow trails long before the first surveys were made. The surveyor had to confirm prevailing usage.
William Rich Hutton, the first surveyor in our region, had a great deal of experience in relating cow paths to a grid plan. Two years before starting his work in San Luis Obispo County, Hutton served as assistant to Lieutenant Ord in laying out the streets of Los Angeles.
Edward Otho Cresap Ord, a West Point graduate, came to California during the war with México with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The now repurposed Fort Ord was named for him. Both his son and grandson followed him in becoming distinguished generals.
Hutton wrote of his experience in Los Angeles, "We commenced (the survey) last Monday, & have gone from the (Old Plaza) church to the last house on main street, about 1 ½ miles."
The last numbered street to the south of the grand pueblo of Los Angeles was Eighth Street, but Ord's map went out into the pasture lands as far as Pico Boulevard and as far west as La Brea ("Tar Street") and La Cíenega ("Swamp Street"). What is now Figueroa was called Calle de Los Chapules ("Street of the Grasshoppers").
In the dry years, the locusts would leave the cíenegas and move toward the El Aliso vineyards of Señor Jean Louis Vignes just east of what is now Union Station on Alameda Street.
Just as critical boundaries have been drawn in recent times for the Asian citrus psyllid and the Mediterranean fruit fly and other invasive insects, so too was Calle de Los Chapules the line at which early Angeleños began to worry about the fate of future vintages from California's first commercial winery.
Ord’s work in Los Angeles made William Rich Hutton a veteran surveyor of Mexícan pueblos by the time he came to survey San Luis Obispo and its surrounding ranchos in 1853.