Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

By Samuel Strait – Reporter at Large – March 28, 2022

Have you ever wondered how the Highway South of Crescent City ever came
to be?  In this age of mind numbing regulation, endless environmental
reports, geologic surveys, and construction engineering, the task would
have been overwhelming.  Most locals aren’t even aware that the original
road began on Endert’s Beach Road, wandered through over ten miles of
sharp curves on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean before connecting to
Last Chance Grade then on down to Wilson Creek.  Before the completion
of the Crescent City-Requa wagon road in 1895 there was no real road
south from Crescent City.  In 1889, the Klamath Valley had grown to the
point a road was felt needed to effectively join Del Norte County with
the rest of California.  Up to that point traffic south was by water,
often subject to weather and tides.  The Del Norte County Board of
Supervisors, at the urging of local residents, began the process of
constructing a road to connect with a private road from Klamath to
Wilson Creek.  It was completed not without great difficulty and delay
in 1895.

The original road was carved out of the mountainside above the Pacific
Ocean for most of the route and “paved’ with redwood planks milled from
the trees cut to clear the roadway.  It was said that an effort, even at
this early date, to save as many trees as possible and to use those that
were cut for construction of the road surface and embankments.  For the
next twenty eight years, this was the only way south out of Crescent
City.  In winter the road became nearly impassable from the mud, summer
it was a cloud of dust.  Finally in 1910, California passed a Bond
Measure for highway improvement through out the State.  In 1919 money
was allocated to improve the current alignment of what was known as
State Route One, the future US Highway 101 in Del Norte County, and
construction began in 1920, to be completed in 1923, except for the
Klamath River Bridge, 1926.  An amazing feat for the time, in only three
years  Crescent City to Klamath, a ferry, then on to Arcata in Humboldt
County.  Three years later Crescent City to Arcata over the new bridge
in Klamath.

It wasn’t long before it was determined that the original cliff side
route from Crescent City to Wilson Creek was prone to numerous
landslides.   The State was lobbied for a new alignment to bypass the
original route by creating a new alignment on the ridge above, at least
as far as Last Chance Grade.  As what seems to be the case even now,
money for the construction was slow in coming.  It wasn’t until 1930
that construction began at the base of Crescent Hill to begin the nine
and a half mile bypass which has become Highway 101 South in its present
location.  The total cost for the 9.52 mile section of new road was a
bit over $700,000.  The opening ceremony took place in the Spring of
1935, but the road officially opened in August of 1934, a mere four
years after commencement of the work.

In the process of clearing the new roadway, nearly 800,000 board feet of
redwoods was cut to provide space for the two lane road. Corners were
reduced to thirty eight over the course of the new alignment, nearly two
hundred less that the old road boasted.  In spite of what would now send
environazi’s wild, even then there was consideration to minimize the
impact on the forest the new road passed through.  Now, the road would
have unlikely to have ever taken the path chosen as regulation and
religion would have stopped it dead in it’s tracks.

As time has passed even the new alignment south of town has proven to be
a problem.  Not only at Last Chance Grade, but at numerous other
locations before reaching the slide prone stretch, have other
instabilities been revealed.  Much of the slope above the Pacific Ocean
is composed of easily shifting material that when undermined by the
Ocean is sensitive to downward movement. Winter weather, water, and
unstable composition of the mountain side make it ripe for slides in
quite a few locations going South.  This situation will never improve
and at some point Last Chance Grade will become a memory….

Throughout its nearly  century and a quarter of existence Highway 101
South has been a trial for all involved.  If it were located in say,
Orange County, the issues would have been addressed one hundred years
ago.  Sad to say, but Sacramento barely recognizes we are part of
California.  Money for road issues of significant size are relegated to
the bottom of the list.  Currently we are told that the new alignment
for the Highway South will be completed in 2039, yet there is no money
to satisfy the steps leading up to the project’s commencement.  Maybe in
another hundred years of the highway’s history…

2 thoughts on “The History Of Highway 101 South”
  1. Sam, that was an excellent history of the highway. California is a big, populous state. The big fish rule the ocean. No matter how serious, Last Chance Grade is small potatoes. I think once all the slide walls are completed, the strategy will be to bring out the dozers and move dirt once slides occur. It will be a way of life (but not the best way).

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