Photos from the Vault

In 1983, another massive Big Sur mudslide blocked Highway 1 for a year

Gov. George Deukmejian, in hard hat, and Assemblyman Eric Seastrand are surrounded by press on March 13, 1984, during a tour of the massive Big Sur slide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Gov. George Deukmejian, in hard hat, and Assemblyman Eric Seastrand are surrounded by press on March 13, 1984, during a tour of the massive Big Sur slide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Telegram-Tribune

Hewn from the living rock of the Santa Lucia Range, Highway 1 exists at the whim of nature. Rain-saturated earth sags as gravity pulls the heavy hillsides inexorably to the ocean along with rocks and boulders.

The road between Big Sur and Ragged Point is a study in perpetual motion. What highway engineers build, nature tears down.

The wildest stretch of Highway 1 south of Big Sur took 16 years to build. Some of the original construction was done by prison labor. Three temporary camps of San Quentin inmates earned 35 cents per day and a reduction in their sentences doing hard rock labor. In addition the Works Projects Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and state and federal highway officials all played a role.

Locals worked on construction as well, and the Big Sur road officially opened June 27, 1937.

Before the highway went through, residents relied on trails or boats to maintain contact with the outside world. Ruth Lenger reminisced in a July 18, 1987, Telegram-Tribune column by historian Dan Krieger.

Lenger said, “I remember the fragments of cables to rocks on the cliffs above, and on these cables the ranchers had slid their (cattle) hides down to the waiting ships and pulled up in return such items as sugar and coffee.”

In 1983, the largest mudslide in California history sent the road plunging 700 feet down Sycamore Draw into the ocean just north of the entrance to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. An estimated 2.7 million cubic yards of earth gave way. Morro Bay man Ernest “Skinner” Pierce, 56, was killed when the skip loader he was driving was swept from the road and buried by a massive mudslide.

To see an aerial video of the slide area, visit

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The project was so big that even the governor visited, as seen in this Telegram-Tribune story by Dan Stephens from March 17, 1984.

Press out in force: Governor visits Big Sur slide

Gov. George Deukmejian got a bird’s-eye view Friday of the ground gained on an enormous landslide on Highway 1 near Big Sur.

The governor arrived by helicopter, landing on a shelf 100 feet above the football field-sized area where bulldozers were clawing through tons of earth.

Donning a hardhat labeled “Duke” and an orange Caltrans safety vest, the governor congratulated construction workers and chatted with Caltrans officials.

He then peeked over the cliff at an armada of earth-moving equipment, which looked like Tonka toys.

“One advantage of my coming to see this is to signify it will be opened so that Californians and visitors can use it,” the governor told a swarm of reporters.

Highway 1 is expected to open April 11, one year after mudslides buried parts of the road and crippled the tourist industry from Monterey to San Simeon.

This mudslide, several miles south of Big Sur, is the last one to be cleared.

During the year, Caltrans officials predicted several reopening dates for the road, but were unable to meet the deadlines.

Deukmejian told reporters another reason he visited the slide was to “find out how Caltrans is spending our money.”

The governor then praised workers from Caltrans and Walters Construction Co. of San Luis Obispo.

The road workers are said to be able to “walk on water,” according to one local who longs for the tourist’s dollar.

The hardhats’ efforts did not go unnoticed by the governor either.

“They’ve been at it seven days a week for a year. I think they’ve done a good job,” he said.

Republican Assemblyman Eric Seastrand of the 29th District was on hand, too.

“My hat is off to the engineers and operators who have worked so hard for so long to reopen Highway 1,” he said.

One of the men congratulated by the pair of politicians was Al Jorge of Morro Bay. He came out of retirement to work on the road.

Jorge said it’s not the biggest road project he’s seen, but it has been the most spectacular.

Up to 26 bulldozers have worked dawn to dust to cut benches in the slide to stabilize it.

Enough dirt has been moved to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum 11 times over.

And state officials have called it the largest mudslide in California history.

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Last April a Morro Bay worker was swept 700 feet to his death while driving a skiploader on a slide.

His body was never recovered.

When asked if this Highway 1 project will affect any other state road projects, the governor said, “Our administration likes highways, and were doing everything to improve the transportation network.

“We’re hopeful this will qualify for federal funds.”

Deukmejian said his five-year road improvement program includes 2,000 projects on highways and bridges at a cost of $13 million.

After citing those figures, the governor was stopped by Cambria resident Kathe Tanner who gave him a yellow toy bulldozer. (Editor’s note: Tanner, who is now a reporter for The Cambrian, owned a bakery at the time and baked a cake for the opening a few weeks after this story.)

With the miniature in hand, the governor edged up to the cliff to survey the flurry of work being done by the full-scale models below.

“Any Democrats you’d like to push over?” he was asked.

“Just make sure there are no Democrats behind me,” Deukmejian replied.

The governor was then whisked away in his helicopter to Monterey, followed by eight press helicopters in what resembled a military maneuver.

Editor’s note: This story appeared online in a slightly different form a few years ago.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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