Gaye LeBaron: Project seeks Santa Rosans input on the saga of Highway 101

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Sometimes I think the world would be an easier, safer place if we had skipped the automobile entirely — so sorry, H. Ford and E. Musk — and just kept making trains better and faster and sleeker and more comfortable and connectable.

That’s what is known as wishful thinking — which, like so many frustrated motorists, takes us nowhere.

Highways are on our minds. There was a news story last week about the extensive proposals to unclog Highway 37, indicating we may be heading backward — to the toll road it was until 80 years ago.

And another freeway project, this one now “ancient” history, is ready for public participation.


Called by its full name, the Santa Rosa Neighborhood Heritage Mapping Project compiled by Sonoma State University’s social scientists seems daunting.

But stripped to the essentials, it is a very clear picture of just how Highway 101 through Santa Rosa came to be.

Dr. Margaret Purser, an SSU professor of historical anthropology, is the guiding light of this study which, in layman’s language, traces the history of 101’s route through Santa Rosa and then, as I understand it, broadens to invite all neighborhoods to join in with recollections.

The aim, of course, is to obtain and retain historical, anthropological, statistical and anecdotal information about the town.

A brief preview of the project last week at the Chroma Gallery on South A gathered some of the storytellers.

Harry Emery was there, with his sisters. Their parents owned Emery’s Saddle Shop on the corner of A Street and Sebastopol Avenue when Sebastopol Avenue went right on through — all the way to Sebastopol.

The Emery clan gathered to remember the butcher shop and grocery on the opposite corner, which is now the Spinster Sisters restaurant, and everything else in that tidy, busy neighborhood before Highway 101 cut a swath through town.

The new road in 1948 blocked several streets but was workable for businesses like Emery’s. There was a stoplight half a block to the east but it was still the way to Sebastopol until the 1960s when the bypass became a freeway — elevated and widened, with ramps on both sides. More land was cleared, bigger changes came to the neighborhood.

Sebastopol Avenue ended abruptly, half a block from Emery’s store. They moved the shop to Coddingtown as business around their old corner began a rapid decline. Happily, the area reinvented itself in the next half century as an “old part of town,” worthy of respect.


Highway 101’s path through Santa Rosa is a two-part story that begins in the late 1930s when Santa Rosa had 12,000 people, plus a thousand or so more with Santa Rosa addresses who called themselves residents of Rincon Valley or Roseland or points north and south.

This vaunted tourist route known as the Redwood Highway was the main coastal route from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon and beyond — all the way to Canada, really. There were billboards inviting motorists to “Follow the Birds to Victoria,” a memorable British Columbia tourist campaign.

The highway came north from the beautiful new Golden Gate Bridge, with its promise of tourism riches, following right up the main drag of the towns along the way.

When motorists hit Santa Rosa, some were surprised to find quite a large courthouse in the middle of the road.

Young people or “newbies” who have only known the 1960s version of 101, which is wider and higher than the first bypass and has no stoplights, have a hard time believing that the designated coastal highway from the ’20s through the ’40s was Santa Rosa and Mendocino avenues with stop signs and right and left turns required to maneuver from one to the other just to get out of town.

Sometimes travelers would stop for a while midway around as a string of handcuffed prisoners was led across the one-block Hinton Avenue from the county jail on the corner of Third Street to face a judge in a courtroom.

It gave Santa Rosa its early tourism identity. It became, rather than “Gateway to the Redwood Empire” as it aspired to be, the town with the big gray courthouse in the middle of the road.


After a decade or so, one finds the newspapers were filled with grumbling. This was, after all, still a farm town and there were accounts of trucks overturned on the courthouse lawn or dumping everything from prunes and eggs to squawking chickens while swerving to avoid a confused tourist who had turned the wrong way (right, left, left, right, no matter which direction).

With the Golden Gate Bridge opening in 1937, the issue moved to the forefront for city fathers.

Proposed routes came thick and fast. Discussions were far-reaching. One of the first proposals for a route came in 1938 from pioneer stockbroker Leonard Talbot who lobbied for an “eastern route,” the old Southern Pacific right-of-way (which did eventually become Montgomery Drive) along North Street to reconnect somewhere around Lewis Road, to Mendocino Avenue.

That, and others were rejected. So was the most sensible route.

In ’39 state engineers offered an official proposal to build a new 101 to the west — way out, halfway to Sebastopol — along Wright and Fulton roads, a straight shot across the Santa Rosa Plain. This involved an area with small farms of a few acres, maybe with a cow and a couple of hogs to supplement Dad’s working wage. The impact would be minimal.

City fathers were aghast, insisting it was too far out, that travelers would go by too fast and not stop to shop. Downtown property owners insisted on a route close by. They prevailed and surveys began of the present day route.


The war stopped all construction plans. And when they resumed, another controversy presented itself. Col. John Skaggs, the state engineer assigned to the project, acquiesced to the demand to keep it close to town but made a revolutionary proposal based on new engineering that it be a “freeway,” a comparatively new term meaning limited access and no stoplights or signs.

City fathers again were horrified. They certainly didn’t want a “highway on stilts” like San Rafael was doing or a giant viaduct like Santa Barbara proposed, the two closest examples of bypass highways in the state.

They opposed any suggestion that impeded traffic’s ability to get off the road and come on downtown. The citizenry seemed to know better. Letter writers pointed out that Santa Rosa was bucking the trend, which was to build roads around towns, not through them.

The clever ones used sarcasm to good effect, suggesting that they leave the highway where it was and move the courthouse. (This was just a couple of decades too early. Wait 20 years and the unimaginable happens.)

At the end of 1948, with the new road’s seven stoplights blinking off and on, the Press Democrat’s year-end summary referred to “The year they sawed the town in half.”


Back to Purser’s map project. There is a wealth of information, obtained from Caltrans’ archives, about what used to be where the highway is now.

There is an extensive explanation available online at

However, I worry that the very people the mappers hope to reach cannot or will not use a computer to see what it’s all about. People who don’t tweet or Twitch (well, perhaps they twitch at the very mention of the internet) will hesitate to join the conversation. Purser describes the project as a “citywide selfie” and even that may be internet gibberish to some of the elders it’s aimed at.

Purser assures me that these people will be heard.

“People who don’t use computers themselves,” she says, can participate in a “Neighborhood Mapping Party. “They are being organized all over the city on an as-requested basis between now and the end of the year. “People from a particular neighborhood can get together to talk about what places and stories from their neighborhood belong on the map,” she promises.

More in-depth stories will be heard one-to-one by SSU students and faculty involved in the project. Maybe Dr. Purser herself.


That’s what I want to see and hear — stories that come straight out of those ghost houses, from former residents, property owners, merchants and just people who remember, or have been told, what was there before the bypass and then the freeway took it away.

It would be great to have the few who are still with us, who walked quiet streets to high school (there was only one) in the late ’40s, who remember the best apricot pie in town in the ’50s from the Western French Bakery, or a Depression-era visit to the rummage sales in the old macaroni factory, which was — too briefly — on the National Register of Historic Places.

Let’s find a truck driver, or the son of one, who has heard talk of the aggravation (and danger) of seven stoplights when hauling prunes from Healdsburg to a San Francisco freight wharf on a tight schedule. Let’s hear them all, from all the other neighborhoods, all the stories.

As I said at the outset, it’s daunting. But what a treasure it will be.

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