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Highway 101 Revisited


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a surfer walking to the beach off highway 101Driving north on Old Highway 101, coming over the Torrey Pines grade as the sun sinks into the Pacific to my left, is one of those moments I wish would last forever. I try to keep my eyes on the road ahead of me, but the fuzzy orange ball over the glassy sea always distracts me. I feel like shutting my eyes on the vision in hopes it will be forever frozen in my brain. For as long as I can remember, I have loved this narrow, sinewy coastal route—and of all the spots along the way, this is my very favorite.

In these days of concrete superhighways and road rage, it’s difficult to imagine a kinder, gentler era when the road was not simply a way to get from here to there in the least amount of time. Your car was not a comfortable, isolated cocoon that shielded you from the smoking smog beds of an overcrowded freeway. Your car was a part of you, an extension of yourself, that carried you on an adventure wherever the old two-lane would lead. And there was always one magical, mystical road that tugged at your heartstrings more than the others, that inspired and fulfilled your pressing wanderlust.

For many San Diegans a generation or two back, the magical, mystical roadway of choice was Highway 101. For more than half a century—from a decade before its official designation in 1925 until June 21, 1966, when the final 24-mile stretch of Interstate 5 was opened between Carlsbad and Balboa Avenue in San Diego—Highway 101 was the primary north-south artery linking San Diego with Los Angeles, and the rest of California with the Mexican border. It was part of a larger, grander coastal highway that ran the entire length of California and continued north all the way to Canada.

“Just as Route 66 is the mother road of the country, Highway 101 is the mother road of California,” says local preservationist John Daley, who co-owns the 101 Café in Oceanside.

Today, most north-south traffic through San Diego County follows Interstate 5, a superhighway that is almost always congested. Most of Old Highway 101 has been obliterated and relegated to memory, as foggy and hazy as the actual road. In the South Bay, much of the old highway is beneath the Mile of Cars. In San Diego proper, where the highway’s route has always been circuitous, its original path is almost undecipherable, except for a strip just north of downtown now known as Pacific Highway.

red mustang in front of Highway 101 car shopBut in North County, it’s still easy to trace the route of Old Highway 101. Between Torrey Pines and Oceanside, much of the highway remains unchanged. It is used by locals fed up with the traffic on I-5, and by commuters as an aesthetic alternative to the big freeway a mile or so east. And thanks to road worshippers like Daley, the old route is finally getting some respect, with the state legislature granting all of Highway 101 historical status in 1998. North County cities responded by erecting vintage road signs modeled after the ones the Automobile Club of Southern California originally installed in the late 1920s.

“Transportation is the reason we are here in California,” Daley says. “And California grew up around 101. The urban areas sprung up all around 101—and very little off 101 was significant until the 1950s, when the freeways came. Trains could carry everything people wanted in terms of goods, but what brought people down from Los Angeles was the road.”

The origins of Highway 101, at least the portion that runs through San Diego County, date back to the early years of the 20th century, according to published accounts—including an excellent report on the history of transportation by local historians Kathleen Flanigan and Leland Bibb. In November 1902, California voters gave the legislature the power to establish a state highway system, using existing roads or building new ones. The automobile was still in its infancy, but its potential was not lost on Californians, most of whom had come to the Golden State from points east by train or stagecoach.

In 1908, the San Diego County Road Commission was formed, with instructions to build 1,250 miles of county roads. Members included such prominent city fathers as J.D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps and A.C. Spaulding. Petitions circulated around the county about road priorities, and the sleepy coastal town of Oceanside, with a population of less than 600, requested a highway be developed along the coast from San Diego to Orange County.

That seemed like a good idea to the bold men of the San Diego County Road Commission, who had long championed a more refined link between San Diego and Los Angeles than the coast-hugging series of dirt roads, rarely even graveled, used by travelers of the day. In January 1909, the commission finalized its report on road construction throughout the county. Among the most ambitious projects were two highways: one running from San Diego along the coast to Orange County, another from San Diego to Escondido.
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