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Gaye LeBaron: The 'Heritage Roads' plan that led to a dead end

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Roads were a hot topic this past week. On Tuesday, Sonoma County’s supervisors agreed to spend $36 million to fill potholes and mend damage to 51 miles of county roads, secondary roads, the roads less taken.

Getting places has always been a hot topic here, definitely worth some bits of history, old and new, so … a little travelin’ music, maestro, please.

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First, a story from Annie Johnson, born in Bodega in the 1880s, a tale of slogging through the mud up O’Farrell Hill on her family’s trips “to town” in the 1890s.

The road from the coast passed through Freestone and went for 2 miles, maybe a little more, straight up and down the hill named for the surveyor Jasper O’Farrell, who owned the original land grant. If the family’s spring wagon was full or the rains had made the dirt road mud, everyone got out and walked — so the horse could pull the wagon up the hill.

Hence, a trip to Santa Rosa from the family’s Murray House hostelry in Bodega meant a stopover at a Sebastopol hotel room to clean up because of mud in winter and dust in summer.

Annie’s son knew the story and passed it on every time he drove an “outlander” up or down that hill.

His daughter, son and grandson know and tell it often. It speaks to that elusive “sense of place” that poets and storytellers seek.

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The road up O’Farrell Hill has grown and changed along with its county. Today, it is Bodega Highway, the well-traveled route to Highway 1 and the Sonoma Coast, sweeping down into the Freestone Valley on wide, swinging curves. It has been widened, paved, repaved, and well-tended — because it carries considerable traffic. No more mud — although, if you’re looking, you can still see water from a spring underneath seeping through.

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Nobody’s complaining about the 100 years of improvements to O’Farrell Hill, but there are people who worry about some of the far-less-traveled routes in the county that shout out their history to all that pass their way.

“Wagon roads,” is what the late, great Don Head called them. Head, a Petaluma native who ran the county’s public works department for four decades, respected those old byways and suggested more than once to county officials that there should be a special category for them and that “We ought to leave them alone.”

Head didn’t mean neglect them. He meant respect them — don’t widen or manicure them or change their routes. In the 1970s, he said as much to his Petaluma high school classmate, then-Supervisor Bill Kortum.

Kortum, the county’s acknowledged environmental leader for half a century, kept that notion in his head and, in the first decade of the new century, when the county’s General Plan was being revised, brought it forth again.

In 2002, Kortum and his sidekick, John LeBaron (my husband), began to identify and photograph Head’s “wagon roads,” labeling their project “Heritage Roads” and submitting it to be part of the new plan.

That didn’t happen. Although eight years later, after LeBaron’s death and just months before Kortum died, Supervisor Shirley Zane took interest. A video version of the photos ran on a loop in the supervisors’ lobby for a time. Planners dutifully “looked into it” and found that in the entire nation there was only one similar road protection plan (in Vermont) and that — no surprise here — there was no room in the budget.

There are 33 photographs of roads to be, as Head suggested, “left alone.” It was good to see in last Wednesday’s news story that only three of them are on the published list of roads slated for repairs. That leaves 30 out there, that may well be in need of upkeep, but are not slated for anything major — not yet.

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Some of these Heritage Roads were stage routes — roads that made young Annie’s O’Farrell Hill look like a freeway. Early newspaper editors, constant critics always, referred to the county’s roads in general as “adobe quagmires” and “swimming holes.”

But stages were the “rapid transit” of the years before the automobile. Even after railroads came to the county in the 1870s, stages raised dust on roads that had once been pathways, the shortest navigable distances between two points.

Jim Clark had a livery stable in Santa Rosa in the 1870s and a stage line with routes east to Calistoga, stopping at important places like Mark West Hot Springs, and west to Guerneville “by way of Forrestville,” which is the way it was spelled in those days.

The stage that navigated O’Farrell Hill from Santa Rosa west to Bodega Bay and then due north to the county line at the Gualala River was Lew Miller’s “Coast Line.”

Lew was not only a skilled driver on the area’s most precipitous roads, he also was a constant critic of the county supervisors for their lack of attention to road conditions.

To illustrate his complaints, in 1871, he invited the members of the board, the sheriff, the district attorney, the county commissioner, three guests and a reporter for a two-day road trip up the coast to Stewarts Point and the county line.

Early on, just after Sebastopol, Miller answered a passenger’s question about speed with so many people aboard. He whipped his four-in-hand team and left a pair of fast horses pulling a buggy in the dust and the occupants of his stage shaken.

Once they recovered, the trip was a learning experience. Officials got a good look at Wright’s Ferry at Jenner where passengers had to wade through mudflats when the tide was out. And they saw the forests that accounted for the tiny coastal settlements, like Seaview, where they stayed the night, or Louisville, or Fisk’s Mill and other “doghole” ports along the ocean shore

Miller wasn’t the first of the hero-drivers. That honor goes to John Rudesill, whose stage carried passengers north from Rudesill’s Landing on Petaluma Creek. Pioneer editor Alpheus Russell praised him in the 1850s for “never failing, rain or mud, to faithfully and punctually deliver the mails — except when prevented by impossibilities.”

The most famous of the “locals,” Clark Foss, welcomed all “impossibilities.” He drove his stage to the Big Geysers and was credited with being as much of a tourist attraction as the geysers themselves. The excursion from his Knights Valley stage station, with Foss whipping his six-horse team up the long, steep ridge called the Hog’s Back (or Razor Back, depending on who writes it) to careen straight down into the steam and roar of the Geysers Canyon, was known to put timid women on the floor of the stage and make strong men quail.

Finally, there was Bloomfield’s George Washington Gilham. He drove a two-horse team from Petaluma on a cross route from Stony Point to Tomales until the day in 1882 that, according to historian Tom Gregory, “Wash” Gilham’s team “tramped solemnly into Bloomfield at a slower pace than usual,” and the townspeople found “Wash” dead in the driver’s seat, the reins in his hand.

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As for the Heritage Roads proposal — well, I suppose you could say, at this writing, that to those whizzing by in climate-controlled vehicles with Pandora playing from the dashboards (Do they still call them dashboards?) — it looks as dead as old Wash Gilham.

But, who knows? The county has just found $36 million to fill chuckholes. There may be people out there willing to take the reins and drive home an idea that seems to have been “prevented by impossibilities.”

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