Times Past

Cuesta Grade's journey from "Padre Trail" to state highway

West Cuesta Canyon Road after late April rains in 2012. The road was completed in 1877.
West Cuesta Canyon Road after late April rains in 2012. The road was completed in 1877.

My French car with its sewing machine-sized engine gave up on the Cuesta Grade. Soon I was rolling into Harry’s Garage in Santa Margarita for nearly a $1,000 worth of bearings and head gaskets in 1961 dollars.

I had fully experienced the true meaning of “Cuesta” — a “hog back” or steep, nearly impassable hill in Spanish.

The Cuesta divides our region in so many ways: Climatically, socially, politically and in terms of economic activity. Historically, it has been an obstacle for both communications and transportation. It accounts for much of the isolation that has hindered our regional economy.

The Cuesta remained a white knuckle obstacle for many of us until Caltrans completed construction of two additional lanes over the grade in 2003.

This is the fourth major change on the steep road since it was first traveled by missionary fathers during the 1770s and ‘80s.

Until 138 years ago, the road was referred to as the “Padre Trail.”

Journeying up the Cuesta was fraught with problems. You had to ford creeks many times. This made the road impassible during rainy seasons. The last 1,000 yards at the northern ascent were incredibly steep.

Despite these difficulties, by the 1820s and ‘30s, most travelers ascended the banks of San Luis Creek and went up the canyon.

This same Padre Trail became the route for mail carriers, stage coaches and supply wagons during the early American period when it was also known as “the Mountain Road” and “County Road One.” The county fathers were always tight with the purse strings. They were reluctant to spend any public funds improving the road.

The harsh winter of 1875-76 closed the route for all but the briefest periods over a four-month time span.

The arrival of mail was so infrequent that The Tribune’s Nov. 25, 1875 issue complimented the Coast Line Stage Company for bringing the mail through on several days. Mail was running one and two months late.

The paper observed that “had the Mountain Road been fixed before the storms set in, there would have been little delay . . . delays might have been avoided by following the suggestions of The Tribune . . . two months ago . . . The county missed the first stitch in this matter and must now pay for the nine.”

Crews were stationed along the road to extract coaches and wagons mired in mud and to build temporary bridges over the raging creeks.

That winter of 1875-76 got voters angry. Citizens decided to tax themselves to construct a new “high road” on the west side of Cuesta Canyon.

On May 6, 1876, The Tribune boasted that Charles Sutro of San Francisco had successfully bid on the purchase of $20,030 in Cuesta road bonds, adding that “This little incident shows us that the capitalists in San Francisco keep well posted upon the financial condition of the interior.”

Sutro was the son of former San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro and the builder of that city’s famed Cliff House and Sutro Baths.

On July 15, 1876 in the same issue that announced “General Custer Slaughtered” on the Little Big Horn, The Tribune announced that county supervisors had let the first construction contract. The firm of Lemon and Wing was granted the sum of $11,100 to begin carving a ledge along the west side of the canyon.

Lemon and Wing employed Ah Louis, a Chinese pioneer merchant, as labor contractor for Chinese crews to undertake the dangerous task of blasting out and digging a road on the side of the sometimes sheer slope.

This road served as the main road north until it was replaced by a state road, once again up the center of the grade beginning in 1915.

Readers can still travel the road along the west side of the canyon.

The completion of the West Cuesta Canyon Road in 1877 was both a tribute to the Chinese contributions to our infrastructure and a major shift in the attitude about public accountability for roads and highways.