Why is Highway 101 in the middle of Santa Rosa?

Some Santa Rosans in the 1940s thought the Highway 101 route could be placed around the town instead of through it.|

Having Highway 101 run north and south smack through the middle of Santa Rosa may be convenient, but the divide it creates between east and west is mostly unfortunate.

Some Santa Rosans in the 1940s thought the Highway 101 route could be placed around the town instead of through it and proposed routes further east or west, possibly along Fulton and Wright roads, to ease truck traffic in the city.

But some businessmen worried about potential customers being rerouted too far from shops lobbied to have it close to downtown, and ultimately the city council agreed.

“This year now coming to a close has seen the physical outline of Santa Rosa changed more than any other year in the city’s history,” Press Democrat reporter Howard Smith wrote in December 1948. “This is the year they ‘sawed the town in half,’ some will tell you.”

State highway engineers in the 1940s recommended a highway overpass, which was protested by Santa Rosans and was referred to in media reports as a “highway on stilts.”

“How would traffic, once hoisted into the air, ever find its way back into our business districts?” asked a 1941 Press Democrat editorial.

Public opinion trumped engineers’ opinions and on May 20, 1949, the ground-level Santa Rosa “freeway” opened to the public. It cost $2.85 million to build the divided, four-lane highway about 4.3 miles long, and around the Davis Street neighborhood, 92 houses were moved and 22 were wrecked to make room for it, according to the state highway commission.

Pedestrians fatally struck while crossing

The ground-level freeway intersected with several city streets, including some without stop lights, resulting in a series of accidents and pedestrians fatally struck while crossing.

By September 1950, a Press Democrat editorial described the Santa Rosa freeway as a “death trap” and “perilous bypass.” It suggested the 55 mph speed limit be reduced to prevent the “ghastly toll of accidents” at freeway crossings.

“We suggest — and we believe men far better acquainted with freeway conditions than ourselves will agree — that speed along the entire freeway should be restricted to 35 miles per hour,” the editorial said.

The accident rate continued, anyway. Finally, in 1968, Highway 101 through Santa Rosa was elevated after 2½ years of construction work and another $3.8 million spent.

See photos of the construction of Highway 101 in the gallery above.

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