What’s 100 and 75, as of Wednesday, June 27? It’s one of the world’s most beautiful, fragile and slip-prone byways, the Cambria-to-Carmel stretch of Highway 1. It’s 100 miles long and 75 years old, if you mark its birthday as being the date the narrow road was formally opened by (then) Gov. Frank Merriam. Early that morning, he and his entourage headed north from the Cambria Pines Lodge.
According to a Cambria Historical Society report compiled by Kathy Charbonneau from a bunch of reliable sources, we and the world have this gorgeous, unlikely stretch of pavement thanks to the determination of two men: Dr. John L.D. Roberts from the Monterey area and State Sen. Elmer S. Rigdon of Cambria.
In April 1894, after the S.S. Los Angeles ran aground near Point Sur Light Station, Dr. Roberts made the laborious 3.5-hour trip from Monterey to help the injured. He quickly realized that the area needed a coastal road, all the way to San Simeon (where, by the way, Sen. George Hearst had bought the 48,000- acre Rancho de la Piedra Blanca nearly 30 years earlier).
In 1897, Roberts studied the full route during a trip on foot, and later proposed the road’s construction to Rigdon, who eventually, successfully, promoted the project based on military defense rather than scenic beauty and tourism potential.
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Roberts estimated the job would cost about $50,000.
World War 1 delayed the project, but a bond issue was approved in 1919 (at a projected cost of $1.5 million) and “construction began in 1922, the same year Rigdon died,” Charbonneau wrote.
The dangerous work was grueling. The area’s steep cliffs studded with massive chunks and boulders of rock are prone to landslides (as all of us know all too well!). Heavy rainfall in the Big Sur area added to the danger and erosion.
Supply deliveries were difficult to the remote area. Prison camps provided convict labor that worked three shifts a day. Blasts from tons of dynamite helped carve the road bed out of the rocky precipices.
Narrow escapes and accidents were frequent. It took until 1937 to complete the 100-mile portion and
its 32 bridges, including the difficult and spectacular Bixby Bridge, an open spandrel concrete arch built on a curve about 13 miles south of Carmel.
As Charbonneau’s report says, “Actual cost of the construction was around $10 million … a bit over Dr. Roberts’ original $50,000 estimate” and the congressional approval.
The “Roosevelt Highway” or “Carmel-San Simeon Highway” was incorporated into the state highway system in 1939, becoming part of California Highway 1. Later, the state officially nicknamed the scenic roadway “Cabrillo Highway,” after the explorer.
In 1965, this part of Highway 1 was declared a State Scenic Highway. And in 1996, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration granted our segment of Highway 1 the rare scenic byway declaration of “Great American Road.”
We all have many fond memories of Highway 1, of drives north or south, Hearst Castle visits, elephant seals by the highway, visits to Piedras Blancas Light Station. We barely kept our bakery business alive following a massive landslide in 1983 that kept the highway closed for 13 months. For the reopening and ribbon-cutting ceremony (which I cochaired) we even made a 52-foot-long, 350-pound carrot sponge cake in the shape of a ribbon with a big bow.
But for some among us, Highway 1 memories go much further back.
Shirley Bianchi said her first trip north was probably in 1946 to Piedras Blancas to visit Ray and Lena Evans, along with their handsome son Bruce, who was in Shirley’s class in high school. (Bruce became Shirley’s steady during their senior year, but was killed in a freak accident right before graduation.)
Bill Bianchi recalls stories from his uncle, Al Call, who “was part of the crew when they were building the road. He was a ‘rod man’ for the surveyor, crawling all over the rocks.”
Bianchi also remembers “fishing for abalone and bullhead off the rocks” near San Carporforo in the 1940s.
Betty Fiscalini tells of traveling up the highway with her family in 1939 “in a big Hudson car when I was 12. We had a big tent and our clothes in the trunk and other stuff tied onto the back of the car. We came through Cambria,” and the young girl from Santa Barbara “thought it must be the end of the world.”
Her family was taking the long way ’round to drive Grandma Dora Ventioner to Montana to visit the sister she hadn’t seen in 23 years.
They camped in Big Sur. Fiscalini recalled, “Our dad kept telling us the bears were going to get us.” She and her sister Pat Bowser (Knox) “were scared to death, so we slept in the car.” The next morning, “It was really frisky cold outside.” But mostly, “I remember how beautiful it was up there.”
Happy birthday, beautiful highway!
The Cambria Historical Society has a display on Highway 1’s history at the Cambria Historical Museum, Burton Drive and Center Street, open from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday. To read the society’s report on Highway 1, go to http://cambriahistori calsociety.com/history_high way1.html. Email Kathe Tanner at ktanner@the tribunenews.com.