California Road Trip

California State Archives

Motoring Through California's Past

California Road Trip: Motoring Through California's Past
California’s “car culture” began in 1895, when the first automobile entered the state.  Automobiles rapidly replaced horse and rail traffic as the premier method of transportation.  More than 6,500 autos were registered in the state by 1906, increasing to 365,000 by 1918, and 1.9 million by 1929.  The Golden State’s ever-growing mass of motorists required the expansion and improvement of the state’s roads, culminating in the extensive highway system we travel today.  Cars provided mobility and flexibility to anyone who could afford them, allowing people to settle in suburbs miles away from the city centers where they worked.  Californians also drove their autos on “road trips” to visit the state’s numerous natural wonders, sparking a tourism trade that flourishes still in roadside businesses and attractions.  The following exhibit takes you on a journey through the development of California’s car culture in the first few decades of the twentieth century.  Enjoy the trip!
California's First State Highway
On March 26, 1895, California's State Legislature authorized securing the title and right-of-way for the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, providing funds not only for purchase of the roadway, but also establishing the position of a commissioner to survey and improve the route. This former toll road subsequently became the first state highway in the Golden State. Running from Placerville east to the California-Nevada border, the road is now part of U.S. Highway 50.

The Lake Tahoe Wagon Road in El Dorado County was composed of five different private toll roads: Wiley Toll Road, South Fork or Pearson Toll Road, Johnson Toll Road, Swan Toll Road, and Kingsbury & McDonald Toll Road. El Dorado County purchased the route in 1886, declaring it a public highway. The county subsequently deeded the route to the State of California on February 28, 1896.

After acquiring the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, California began the long process of improving its first state highway. These photographs show a 1907 survey party along the route, recording data on the condition of the road in preparation for future work. The party traversed the route using the carriage shown at the bottom right. Future California Secretary of State Frank M. Jordan, a member of the survey party, wields a shovel in the upper right photograph.

In addition to authorizing the purchase of the first state highway, the 1895 State Legislature also created the Bureau of Highways, first predecessor agency to the current California Department of Transportation. Governor Budd appointed R.C. Irvine of Sacramento, Marsden Manson of San Francisco, and J.L. Maude of Riverside as the Bureau's first Commissioners. This June 19, 1895 entry in one of the Bureau's Minute Books details the schedule of a proposed road inspection tour to be undertaken by the Commissioners.

Over the following year, the three Bureau of Highways Commissioners drove 16,830 miles by buckboard wagon across the state. They visited every county in California, surveying roads and mapping out a proposed highway system. Commissioner Irvine's pet Gordon Setter, Maje, made the entire trip. Irvine later declared that Maje "has a bone buried in every county in the state."

Early Road Hazards
Motorists who wished to travel any distance from home in the beginning of the twentieth century faced poor road conditions and other dangers.  The following images depict just a few of the hazards that early drivers encountered along California's roads.  

Motorists who drove over sharp puncture vine burs not only risked tire damage, but also unknowingly helped to spread the seeds of this invasive plant. A 1932 University of California Agricultural School Bulletin stated:

Among the various weeds that are contributing to agricultural losses in California, the puncture vine has rapidly become one of the most harmful. In certain counties it is causing enormous losses, and rendering almost worthless large acreages of valuable land. Moreover, it is spreading, the agencies responsible for its dissemination being many and difficult to control.

The vine's burs feature sharp points that can harm animals and people alike, and cause damage to bicycle and auto tires. The California Department of Agriculture issued this informational poster regarding the puncture vine in 1929, in an effort to educate Californians to the dangers of the plant.

Numerous tire blowouts plagued early motorists, caused by puncture vine burs, nails, stones, and other sharp objects on the mostly unpaved roads of the time. Some enterprising individuals developed products to either prevent or treat such mishaps. Robert Tuffley registered this trademark for one such "tire tonic" in 1916.

The State of California continued to explore options for state highway routes in the early twentieth century, refining the plan developed by the 1895 Bureau of Highways Commissioners. The conditions encountered along the proposed routes often heralded the difficulties that would face the road builders when the time came for construction. This scene was recorded in February 1913, showing snowy conditions in the Tehachapi Mountains of northwest Los Angeles County, near a school house on the road between Gorman and German.

Snow was a significant danger to early motorists, as can be seen in these photographs taken near Bailey's Ranch in the mountains north of the City of Los Angeles. Winter tires were not developed until the 1930s, so early automobiles often slipped and slid in the slushy mud of unpaved roads in the winter. Furthermore, many early autos featured an open top, making driving in inclement weather a trial for both the driver and passengers.

Motorists in the first few decades of the twentieth century commonly shared the roads with horse-drawn vehicles like the buggy shown here. Automobiles often spooked skittish horses, particularly in situations such as this blind intersection along the Lincoln Highway in Placer County. Signage prompting motorists to slow down and announce their presence with a "Toot Toot" made this underpass beneath the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks in Auburn a bit safer for all travelers.

Most roads were unpaved in the early twentieth century, meaning that a storm could rapidly turn a previously sound route into a mire of mud and clay. This automobile is trying to force its way through such a bog on a road in San Diego County, in about 1915.

Not all vehicles successfully navigated muddy conditions along California's early roadways. These two trucks, stuck in muddy, deep ruts along a Los Angeles County road, belonged to Lee Moor Construction Company, a contractor often used in the 1910s by the state for road construction.

This circa 1915 photograph shows the result of a flood in southern California that deposited four inches of silt on the Del Mar Highway. The concrete highway beneath the mud was fortunately undamaged, but that fact does little good for this stranded motorist.

As the number of automobiles rose, California drivers became increasingly familiar with an issue that continues to plague the state today: traffic jams. This 1924 photograph shows traffic backed up as a result of a rail crossing in Los Angeles.

Good Roads Movement
Early twentieth century automobile owners and manufacturers gave new life to the national "Good Roads Movement" begun by bicyclists in 1880.  These "Good Roads" supporters lobbied successfully for the passage of legislation and bond issues that funded the construction and improvement of California's roads.  

The national Good Roads Movement began in 1880 when bicycle enthusiasts met in Rhode Island to form the League of American Wheelmen. The Wheelmen lobbied for improvements to roads in both rural and urban settings.

At the turn of the twentieth century, interest in bicycles waned as the automobile enjoyed increasing popularity. Many activities of the Good Roads bicyclists were taken up by automobile drivers, like the members of the Inyo County Good Road Club shown here on a portion of Highway 101 west of Ventura in 1912. Good Roads supporters held conventions and public demonstrations advocating better construction methods and legislation to support the improvement of the highway system.

The Inyo County Good Road Club was an active supporter of the Good Road Movement in California. The Club organized several automobile road trips between 1910 and 1920, to publicize the need for better roads across the state. This 1916 photograph shows them parked along the Old Torrey Pine Grade near Del Mar, in San Diego County.

The 1916 California State Fair featured a concrete demonstration highway built under the direction of the California Highway Commission in cooperation with the Sacramento Good Roads Association. This educational work supported efforts to pass a bond issue aimed at improving Sacramento County roads.

The 1916 Good Road demonstration at the State Fair allowed visitors to watch workers use the latest equipment, materials, and techniques in road construction.

Activities such as this demonstration succeeded in bringing national attention to the Good Roads Movement. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act into law, providing the first federal funding for highway construction.

California initially financed its state highway system through a series of bond issues approved by voters in 1909, 1915, and 1919. One of the bonds from the 1919 issue is shown here.

As automobile traffic increased, however, it became apparent that even greater expenditures would be needed. In 1923, California's Legislature imposed the state's first gasoline tax of two cents per gallon, using the proceeds for construction and maintenance of both state and county roads.

Constructing California's Highways
The Golden State's varied terrain, consisting of mountains, rivers, deserts, valleys, and coastlines, presented unique challenges to highway engineers.  Road builders used some heavy machinery, but often early laborers toiled with pickaxes and shovels to complete highway construction projects.  

One of the first steps in road construction is to determine the route that the road will take. To this end, the State of California employed parties of land surveyors and civil engineers to map out and mark the routes of the state highway system. These parties worked under difficult conditions, scaling steep hillsides and contending with inclement weather (among other hardships) to mark the path that each new or improved state highway would take.

This photograph highlights the grueling physical labor entailed in constructing an early twentieth century road. Once the route had been established, teams of horses and plows were used to break the ground. More horse-drawn equipment then scraped the surface until it was either smooth enough for traffic, or ready for pavement. This team is breaking ground for a route in San Diego County, in 1914.

Carving highways out of California's mountainsides required the use of horse-drawn equipment as well. The teams shown here are scraping the so-called "Ridge Route" to provide an even surface for automobile traffic in 1915. The Ridge Route, also called Route 4, or the Castaic-Tejon Route, was the first paved road connecting the Los Angeles Basin with the San Joaquin Valley, via the Tejon Pass.

The limitations of early construction techniques, in tandem with cost and drainage concerns, made it necessary for early California road builders to work with the terrain rather than alter it. As a result, when completed the Ridge Route featured 697 curves and grades far steeper than modern motorists are accustomed to.

California's State Legislature passed a law in 1915 providing for the employment of inmates in the construction, improvement, and maintenance of the state highway system. Within three years, groups of inmates had worked on roads in Mendocino, Sierra, El Dorado, and Calaveras counties with "excellent" and "economical" results, according to the biennial report of the California Highway Commission.

The photographs here show a group of Folsom State Prison inmates and their guards working on roads in El Dorado County, in 1916.

Once the path of a route had been established and its surface properly prepared through scraping, compaction, and other techniques, early California road builders could then pave the surface of the roadway. These men are employed in just such an endeavor, hand-smoothing the newly-paved concrete surface of a San Diego County highway in 1914.

As the twentieth century progressed, engineers and contractors improved the techniques, materials, and equipment used in building roadways. These 1915 photographs show an early road paving machine in action along a route in San Diego County.

Massive construction equipment began to appear along California's highways in the 1910s, alleviating some of the backbreaking labor that had previously been required for road building and improvements. The Bucyrus Shovel shown here was put to work along the Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield in 1915.

By 1918, California's Highway Commission oversaw 2,300 miles of roads, including: 1,450 miles constructed under the Commission; 167 miles of paved highway taken over from various counties; and 683 miles of "mountain roads," like the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, which were under state control prior to the formation of the Commission. This map shows the resulting system of highways, as well as proposed routes still needing to be built (in red).

The Journey Continues
Within the first two decades of the twentieth century, the automobile went from a minor curiosity to a major transportation means for thousands of people.  In 1910, only 36,000 automobiles were registered in the Golden State.  By 1920, there were over 160,000 vehicles registered in Los Angeles County alone.  Only ten years later, in 1930, Los Angeles County boasted over 800,000 registered automobiles.  As dramatic as that increase is, these numbers do not compare to today's world: in 2015, there were over 34 million registered vehicles in the state.  Today, the California Department of Transportation (successor to the Highway Commission) administers over 50,000 miles of highway and freeway, serving the transportation needs of California's 38 million residents.  
Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives.

Curation of physical exhibit by Melissa Tyler and Jessica Herrick, with assistance from Juan Ramos and Kevin Turner (2007)

Digital adaptation by Jessica Herrick (2016)

Imaging by Jessica Herrick and Melissa Tyler

Editing by Rebecca Wendt and Bill Mabie

California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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