The Building of Highway One

The building of California State Highway One along the Big Sur coast can be traced back at least to April 21, 1894 when the S. S. Los Angeles ran aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles south of Carmel.

When Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a medical doctor living on the Monterey Peninsula, raced to the scene in his horse-drawn wagon taking 3 ½ hours to make the trip, he became convinced of the need for a road along the coast all the way to San Simeon. At that time, just a few settlers in the area were able to reach the outside world by boat or over pack trails that connected with roads. Most of the coast trail wound along the face of steep cliffs sloping abruptly to the ocean.

In 1897, Dr. Roberts made the trip from Monterey to San Simeon on foot and estimated the cost of a road to be $50,000. Although he promoted the road for access to the spectacular scenic beauty of the region, he was also a land speculator and entrepreneur, and recognized the business aspects of tourist travel.

Roberts gained a powerful ally for his proposal in Elmer S. Rigdon, Cambria's State Senator and a member of the California Senate Committee on Roads and Highways. Rigdon finally succeeded when he promoted the road for its military value in the defense of California, rather than as a scenic highway. This change paved the way for the appropriation being included in the "Military Highway Bill". A $1.5 million bond issue was placed on the ballot, but the intervention of World War I delayed its approval until 1919. Construction of the road began in 1922, the same year Rigdon died.

Laborers and engineers quickly discovered the major challenges with constructing the highway. The steep terrain was difficult to penetrate; remote and dangerous conditions deterred most workers; and accidents and earth slides were common events, frequently damaging expensive equipment.

Determined road builders met each challenge: Supplies and equipment were brought in by boat, and steam-powdered donkey engines were used to lift the materials up to the level of the new road. Tons of dynamite was used to blast the canyon hillsides and carve the steep terrain. And, San Quentin Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide convict labor.

The crews worked four large shovels two and three shifts per day. The March 1, 1923 Fresno Bee reported that scarcely a week went by without accident to at least one of the shovels and narrow escapes were numerous: A falling boulder would smash the controls vacated a few minutes before by the shovel man. A slide from beneath the shovel would leave it hanging 300 feet above the ocean with only a few inches of earth under one end of the outer tread to keep it from toppling in. And the shovel man, oblivious to what had happened, continued to work. More frequently, the shovels were unable to move quickly to avoid sudden slides and were crushed and buried, requiring complete rebuilding.

It seemed an impossible feat…
but they did it!

The 100-mile portion of California Highway One between Carmel and San Simeon was built between 1921 and 1937 and the ruggedness of the terrain required 32 bridges. The first bridge was a small timber structure across Salmon Creek about 19 miles north of San Simeon and opened in 1928.

The largest, most famous and certainly most photographed is the Bixby Bridge, about 13 miles south of Carmel. This was also the most difficult to build. It has an open spandrel arch (with open space between the deck and the arch) and a 356-foot-long deck about 260 feet above the creek. The arch is supported by two concrete abutments anchored to the sheer rock walls 140 feet above the creek bed. The length of the bridge is 716 fee, and when completed on November 23, 1932, the Bixby Bridge became the largest arched highway structure in the Western states. It is also unusual because it is built on a curve.

A similar, but smaller, open spandrel concrete arch bridge was constructed across the mouth of Rocky Creek. This graceful bridge has an arch span of 239 feet, and the 497 feet of total deck length carries the roadway 150 feet above the creek. Along another few miles, similar reinforced concrete arches of shorter spans were built across Granite, Garapata, and Malpaso creeks, and another arch bridge consisting of three short arch spans crosses Wildcat Creek about five miles south of Carmel

The seven concrete arch bridges between Point Sur and Carmel were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

On September 18, 1934, convict labor from two camps working towards each other met, and the final barrier was removed. A few official cars drove the entire distance from San Simeon to Carmel for the first time, although much of the road was still under construction and was only one lane wide in places. Many of the bridges had yet to be completed, so these vehicles had to traverse steep detours into some of the canyons, crossing the streams on temporary bridges.

On the morning of June 27, 1937, a caravan departed from the Cambria Pines Lodge led by Governor Frank Merriam's car. The caravan arrived at San Simeon and the dedication ceremonies began there. Mrs. Rigdon dedicated a silver fir to her husband's memory and officers of the Grand Parlor of the Native Sons dedicated two sequoias.

Later that day, a gala celebration was held at Pfeiffer Redwoods State Park to commemorate the opening of the highway, with Governor Merriam, Dr. Roberts, and Public Works Director Earl Lee Kelly in attendance. A boulder was symbolically pushed off the road to formally open the highway to traffic. It was called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway in honor of the President. Actual cost of the construction was around $10 million, a bit over Dr. Roberts' original $50,000 estimate.

This portion of Highway One from the Carmel River to Cambria was incorporated into the state highway system as California Highway 1 (1939), declared a State Scenic Highway (1965), and designated as an All American Road by the US Government.