Times Past: Weird roads? Blame state’s old cow trails

The streets of San Luis Obispo were originally cattle paths.

Labor Day marks the end of summer vacations by car. Even with GPS, most drivers who venture off the freeways are frustrated by the street plan of so many of California’s cities and towns.

City planning didn’t come easily to the communities of Gold Rush California.

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 Cayucos and north of Mill Valley in Marin County.

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 a way across San Francisco’s Market Street.

The street layout of many of the cities in coastal California is confusing to visitors from other parts of the United States. The Continental Congress’ Northwest Ordinances of 1784 and 1787 prescribed a grid plan with 90-degree intersections. While these can be found in many San Luis Obispo neighborhoods, the Broad Street-Santa Barbara Street axis defies the comprehension of many visitors to our county seat.

But we are more fortunate than other regions. The streets of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego frustrate even longtime residents. Many of the offending streets — such as Santa Barbara’s State Street, Market Street in San Francisco, La Brea in Los Angeles, Washington in San Diego, as well as our own Broad Street-Edna Valley Road — were well-used cow trails long before the first surveys were done. 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 Lt. E.O.C. Ord in laying out the streets of Los Angeles.

Edward Otho Cresap Ord, a West Point graduate, came to California during the war with Mexíco. He was a grandson of England’s King George IV by that scandal-ridden monarch’s mistress and later morganatic wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert.

Hutton wrote of the Los Angeles survey, “We commenced (the survey) last Monday, & have gone from the (Old Plaza) church to the last house on Main Street, about 1½ 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.

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 in 1853.

Hutton was drawn to the Central Coast by his close friend, Sen. Henry Tefft, who married into the family of Capt. William G. Dana. While a county resident, Hutton surveyed the Nipomo, El Chorro and Santa Manuela ranchos. All of these maps survive, as does his sketch of our mission done in 1851. Hutton’s survey of El Pueblo de San Luis Obispo became a basis for future maps, but the original was lost many years ago.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.