A collapsed bridge, mudslides and storm after storm. The combination has cut off Highway 1 north of Ragged Point and sliced the Big Sur community in half.
Here we are in 2017, eight decades after the 93-mile stretch of what was then called the Roosevelt Highway opened between San Simeon and Carmel, and all the improved technology in the world still isn’t a match for Mother Nature.
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I remember thinking as a child that Highway 1 must have been the first highway built on the West Coast (probably because of its prime number and prime location). The fact is, though, that U.S. 101 was in place long before the coast highway was complete. It was a charter member of the first federal highway system back in 1926, more than a decade before the ribbon was cut on the Carmel-San Simeon section of the coast route.
That’s largely because Highway 1 was built on the edge of the world, and the edge of the world is a dangerous place to be — especially where mountains plunge at impossibly steep angles into the Pacific Ocean.
It was easier to build early roads through mountain passes than over a sandy beach or hanging off the edge of a cliff.
The Rincon Road
The earliest version of the coast route jogged inland between Ventura and Santa Barbara for just this reason, but the primitive road that wound back through the mountains made traveling so treacherous that it was decided to build an alternative along the coast.
As anyone who’s traveled that section knows, there’s precious little space between the mountains and the sea. So the decision was made to build a series of three wooden causeways, each 20 feet wide and, respectively, 2,000, 400 and 4,000 feet long, over the sand. How close was it to the ocean? So close that the surf at high tide came roaring in under the causeways, which were raised up on eucalyptus pilings.
The entire project, which cost $47,000 (about $1.2 million in today’s dollars), opened in 1912, but it didn’t turn out to be a permanent solution. The pounding surf took its toll on the pilings, and nails repeatedly came loose from the causeways, sticking up and puncturing tires. Just 12 years after it opened, the wooden road was replaced by a paved highway laid over earthen fill.
To Cambria and beyond
Pavement on the section of the coast highway didn’t come until later. Voters approved a $1.5 million bond in 1919 to complete the highway between Monterey and San Simeon, but it would be nearly two decades before the work was complete. Workers — some of whom were San Quentin State Prison inmates working for 35 cents a day and a reduction in their sentences — began paving the section between Morro Bay and Cambria in 1926.
They didn’t finish that section until two years later, but the road was gravel and dirt farther on and ended altogether about eight miles north of San Simeon at one of the inmate work camps.
The biggest challenge in completing the road was north of Ragged Point, on precisely the stretch of coastline that’s creating havoc right now. Before it was built, Charles Bixby — a landowner for whom the famed Bixby Creek Bridge was named — had to rely on ferries and a mechanism that hoisted goods up from ships at anchor just to stay supplied.
This is not the stablest region in California.
Caltrans engineer R.J. Brown on Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, in a 1998 interview with the Associated Press
Today, it will take months to reopen a road damaged by mudslides and, more importantly, the failure of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. So imagine what it would have taken to build it in the first place. Workers needed to build 30 bridges from scratch, and the Bixby Creek Bridge alone cost $200,000 — the equivalent of about $3.4 million today.
Storms damaged equipment during the rainy season, and in one case, earth gave way underneath a steam shovel, which miraculously remained suspended some 300 feet above the ocean with barely any soil remaining to hold it in place.
Workers from the north and south met in the middle in 1934, but the road didn’t officially open to travelers until three years later.
Closures are nothing new
It didn’t always stay open.
The Tribune reported on Jan. 15, 1952, that the highway had been closed from seven miles north of San Simeon to Big Sur “due to numerous heavy slides.”
Storm-caused mudslides in 1983 lopped off the same segment of highway that has been closed this year, with the road closed 33 miles south of Carmel and about 50 miles north of San Simeon.
Heavy rains in 1995 — which also flooded Cambria’s West Village — closed the highway again, with mudslides covering the highway from Big Sur south to the San Luis Obispo County line.
Then, three years later, El Niño-spawned rains washed out 40 sections of highway between San Simeon and Carmel, causing what the Associated Press called “the most extensive destruction in the 60-year history of the world famous scenic route.” The cost of repairs: $16 million.
“This is not the stablest region in California,” Caltrans engineer R.J. Brown told AP then.
And that’s the point. The same breathtaking geography that draws visitors from all over the world to travel the scenic highway is keeping them away now. There’s a price to pay for beauty, and every now and then, Mother Nature calls in the debt.