LeBaron: Redwood Highway's rich, winding backstory

The construction of Highway 101 north from Sonoma County began before 1920. There are motorists who travel it today who would suggest that 90 years later, it isn’t really finished.

We’re talking here about the Willits bypass, which has been a front-page story, off-and-on, for the past two years as a pyramid of protests have attempted to stop it.

Plans for that bypass have been in the state highway department’s to-do book for decades. If it had been built 50 years ago, when the original highway was improved, we’d be sailing right by the old cowboy-and-timber-town as fast as we pass Cloverdale, the previous bottleneck that made motorists grumpy.

But the road damage done by the devastating Eel River floods of the ’50s and ’60s made the highway through Humboldt County a priority instead.

So today Willits has the distinction of having the last stoplights on 101 between San Francisco and Eureka - unless you count the temporaries for the never-ending construction on that weather-impacted route. Traffic crawls through the heart of town. Ask any trucker.

IT HAS BEEN stop-and-go as well on the construction project. Since work began in January 2013, protesters who have deemed the bypass unnecessary, ugly and a danger to the surrounding wetlands, have tallied several dozen arrests.

In addition to tree sitters in the native trees, at least one bypass naysayer occupied a 100-foot construction tower for more than a week, tended by an Earth First supply line.

Other work stoppages have been caused by the concerns of the area’s Pomo leaders about drains damaging Native American cultural sites.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended the wetlands permit for several days. At last report, the permit had been reissued and work was once again underway.

I don’t know why anyone would be surprised. Wetlands and Indian lore and trees are surefire stoppers for any public project nowadays.

But way back when the Redwood Highway was built - in what some would say were “the good old days” and others the “destruction of the planet” - none of these issues got so much as a mention.

DIANE HAWK, in her two volumes called “Touring the Redwood Highway” - one about Mendocino, the other Humboldt - tells of the struggle, even without protesters, to build that road.

In the early years of the 20th century, progress was spotty and sporadic. But each new section was celebrated.

To understand why, we have to look at the way it was in 1910.

The road to Eureka in those days offered a choice at Willits. The traveler could either head west to the coast and follow the Mattole River or risk the road known as Mail Ridge Road to the east. That path, for it was little more than that, passed through remote areas like Island Mountain and Bell Springs, ascending to 4,500 feet, with precipitous trails along the Eel River Canyon. It was definitely a road for strong men on strong horses.

Hawk writes that, in 1911, it took three days to get from San Francisco to Dyerville and the best part of another day to reach Eureka.

(For those unfamiliar with the disappearing communities of Humboldt County, Dyerville is/was where the south fork of the Eel joins the main river. Runners know it as the start and finish line of the Avenue of the Giants Marathon.)

A four-day trip sounds pretty good compared to the legendary adventure of Harvey Harper and his family. Bent on establishing a Ford franchise in Eureka, Harper undertook a “road trip” from San Francisco to his new home in January 1912. Ignoring the warnings of those who knew that old horse-trail Mail Ridge Road, he packed his wife and kids into a Model A touring car and set out for the north country. The trip took six weeks. At least. Accounts differ.

Harper’s adventure, told and retold, is a lively subject for Stuart Nixon in “History of the Redwood Empire.”

Harper was not only lucky to still have his Ford when he reached Eureka. He was lucky he still had his wife.

“On the hillsides north of Willits,” Nixon wrote, “Mrs. Harper was delegated the dubious honor of holding the Ford to the incline with a rope so it would not slide into the river below while Harper walked ahead with a shovel to make a path for the wheels.”

It was the rainy season, as anyone who has ever spent January in that area can tell you, and the wheel slipped and slid in ankle-deep mud.

The Model A broke down regularly, and stops, both long and short, were made for repairs. When they finally arrived in Bridgeville on the Van Duzen River near Ferndale, the residents were incredulous. It was a widely accepted fact that no automobile would ever make it over the Mail Ridge Road.

The Harpers reached Eureka on Feb. 25. By September, Harvey had sold 32 Fords.

IT WAS 1920 before there was a (barely) passable road from the Golden Gate to Eureka. Before that, a relatively comfortable journey from the Bay Area to Eureka was by sea on one of the many schooners, most carrying lumber as well as passengers, or by train car, when the Northwestern Pacific Railroad was completed from Willits. The construction of those 141 miles through the river canyon was among the most difficult railroad builds in California.

The NWP was completed in 1914. (I expect our many railroad historians are gearing up for the centennial of that Gold Spike ceremony, which will be in October.)

Meanwhile. the automobile was becoming firmly established as the smart, new efficient means of transportation, bent on changing all the travel patterns in the country.

The opening of the Redwood Highway was the signature project of the 1920s. With it came a new importance and a new designation for the counties the road passed through. Everything from Sausalito to Grants Pass, Ore. became - and has remained - “The Redwood Empire.”

The parent of this tourist-luring designation was a new organization known as the Redwood Empire Association. To get the word out that there were wonders to be seen, the REA hired a nationally known publicist named Charley Pyle to preside over the ballyhoo. Pyle staged a couple of “Indian Marathons” that kicked off the new road, pitting coastal California Indians against the famed Zuni runners from New Mexico. (It should be noted that both races were won in something over seven days by Karuks from the Klamath area - Mad Bull and Flying Cloud.)

Pyle’s ploy drew crowds along the way and, more to his point, garnered hundreds of inches of type in the nation’s newspapers. The REA would become a regional political organization that would weigh in on everything from saving redwood trees to bridging the Golden Gate.

The days when the wonderful Redwood Highway, a miracle of engineering and perseverance, ran proudly through the heart of every town in its path are over. Other bypasses, multiple-lane freeways and towering bridges over wooded ravines, have replaced the wandering roads we know now as Old Redwood Highway, north or south, Even the most cautious Santa Rosa driver can be in Eureka in five hours.

Harvey Harper would drop his shovel in amazement.

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