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