Times Past

A look back at the beginnings of Highway 101

Old Conejo Pass Highway in 1930.
Old Conejo Pass Highway in 1930.

Mrs. Lucy Levy’s mud-stained trousseau while traveling through Santa Barbara County in the 1880s was testimony to the fact that we live in a land of little rain until it rains.

On Presidents Day weekend, we were driving to a Mission Museums meeting in Solvang when a winter storm moved in. We suddenly realized there were many drivers on the road who might never have driven in a real rainstorm.

Until the modern freeway, El Camino Real was hazardous during the best of times. It could be a long and dusty trail that also abruptly became a windswept and mud-flooded plain.

Even today, first-time travelers along Highway 101, which follows the historical route of El Camino Real between Los Angeles and San Jose, are impressed by several steep grades, especially during wet weather.

Three precipitous passes block the old road going north from Los Angeles: Conejo, Gaviota and Cuesta. Together they form major obstacles along the coastal route. The Conejo grade is the farthest south.

The Spanish explorers and Mexican rancheros tended to avoid these passes by going through inland valleys. Their carretas, or wagons, would move slowly northward from the pueblo of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, which later became the city of Los Angeles. Travelers from the 1790s until the railroad era did not follow what is now the Ventura Freeway segment of Highway 101. Instead, the rancheros would journey along the old San Fernando Road, now Interstate 5, toward Mission San Fernando Rey de España.

After stopping at the mission, the horseback riders and wagon masters would climb the foothills toward Rancho San Francisco, one of the mission’s richest holdings (that later became Newhall Ranch). Going over the rugged Santa Susana Pass, they would go through Simi Valley and enter the upper reaches of the Santa Clara River that flowed down to the sea via the towns of Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ventura.

The present-day path of the Conejo Grade between Newbury Park and Camarillo was first laid out by William H. Brewer, principal assistant to Josiah Whitney in the Geological Survey of California. On Feb. 27, 1861, Brewer noted that his party:

“ … raised camp and went about 18 miles, first passing the lovely Trifuno Ranch, a large grassy valley surrounded by high hills. Then we crossed a high, rocky ridge and descended a hill about five or six hundred feet. It was terribly steep, but Peter managed the wagon with skill to be praised — all down safely. We then struck west a few miles in a valley by a stream near the Cayeguas (Calleguas) Ranch.”

Brewer’s route was slightly north of present-day Highway 101. It began at Moorpark and Olsen roads and then followed Santa Rosa Road down the steep slope into Santa Rosa Valley in Ventura County.

By the mid-1870s, Brewer’s route was recognized for its directness. Overland Mail stagecoaches used the road, which is labeled “Old Butterfield Road” or “Butterfield Grade” on old-time surveyors’ maps.

Butterfield Road did save time in good weather. But when the rains came, it was incredibly treacherous. Sixty-five years ago, an aged relation of the Camarillo family told me the story of how Ventura County’s renowned banker, Achille Levy, traveled down the grade during the early 1880s.

Levy was coming from Los Angeles with his newly arrived French bride. Mrs. Lucy Levy was in her silk finery. She expected to greet the leading citizens on her arrival at Port Hueneme. The late winter rains swelled the road. The coach was immured in mud. Mrs. Levy had to walk down the grade, her white gown covered with heavy California adobe.

Upon first impressions, Mrs. Lucy Levy was not at all happy with her new home along California’s Central Coast. Nevertheless, she raised four children in Port Hueneme before the bank moved to Oxnard at the turn of the 20th century.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.