Among the world’s most famous thoroughfares is the 100-mile,two-lane blacktop that snakes along the Big Sur coast from Carmel to Cambria. It offers up some of the most stunning views anywhere, regularly popping up on travel writers’ bucket lists and at the head of top driving destination lists. Its official name is the Big Sur Coast Highway, but it was originally the Carmel-San Simeon Highway when dedicated in 1937. This inspiring marvel of early-20th century engineering technology draws 21st century tourists in ever-increasing numbers. They marvel slackjawed at the raw beauty it affords and appreciate the access it provides to both rugged back-country adventure and pampering at the region’s unparalleled accommodations, restaurants and spas. And, we owe its existence to a sawbones, a State Senator and a shipwreck.
The road designated as California Highway 1 takes many forms and carries several, sometimes confusing names during its mostly Pacific-hugging route along the West Coast of the Golden State from the intersection of I-5 at Dana Point to its terminus at Leggett in Mendocino County. According to the California Department of Transportation, down south it’s known as the PCH (for Pacific Coast Highway), while from the Golden Gate north through Mendocino County it’s the Shoreline Highway, interrupted by a section through Sonoma County called the Coast Highway. The Cabrillo Highway actually comprises two sections: from US 101 near Las Cruces to Lompoc in Santa Barbara County and from the Santa Cruz County line to Half Moon Bay. The route was also conceived as part of the Roosevelt Highway, a road that was to trace the West Coast of the US.
Sometimes it goes underground, subsumed by and running concurrently with other roads such as US Route 101. As evidence of the dissimilarities between northern and southern Californians, the manner in which the road is identified by number differs: in the south, it’s “the 1,” while northerners simply call it “1.” It’s always identified by the numeral, never spelled out.
When he arrived in Monterey in August of 1887, Dr. John L.D. Roberts was a 24-year-old freshly minted physician, eager to make his mark on medicine and the world at large. He soon purchased 160 acres of coastal land to the north of Monterey, subdividing them to create the present day town of Seaside. By all accounts, the Father of Seaside was a fine doctor and a community pillar, serving as postmaster of Seaside, spending 36 years on the Monterey School Board, and 20 years as a Monterey County Supervisor.
The weather on the evening of April 21, 1894 was the stuff of happy sailors: though visibility was a bit hazy, seas were calm and there was just a puff of breeze. Not that the wind mattered to the SS Los Angeles. She had been converted to steam propulsion 20 years previously and was now plying the waters between San Pedro and San Francisco, carrying 49 passengers, 36 crew and mixed cargo. What should have been a routine passage was interrupted when a navigational miscalculation put the ship on the rocks, ironically within sight of the newly commissioned Point Sur Light Station.
Workin’ on the Chain Gang
It’s no secret that convict labor was used in constructing California Highway 1. By law, skilled tasks were to be performed only by free men, leaving the backbreaking, rock-schlepping toil to the jailbirds. Although this was hard, soul-numbing work done in sometimes appalling conditions, it was perhaps preferable to idling away in a stuffy San Quentin cell.
This practice dated back to 1915. There was no compensation for the prisoner laborers until legislators passed a bill granting wages. The pay for work on Highway 1 was $2.10 per day (equivalent to less than $30 in 2014). Meals, clothing, transportation, medical and dental care, camp management, tools—even their own guards’ salaries—were deducted. Of that $2.10, each man was allowed to pocket a princely maximum of $.75, “provided he could save that much.” Tough to do, especially considering that upon arrival, each prisoner was issued clothing, bedding and tools—immediately putting him $30-40 in debt.
As the only physician around, Dr. Roberts hastened to the scene to lend aid to survivors. He
made it by horse and buggy in 3 ½ hours, astonishing given the fact that the only path led
around the unbridged rivers, creeks and canyons that define the Big Sur shore. According to a report in the July 1937 issue of California Highways and Public Works, “There was a narrow, winding, steep road from Carmel south… approximately 35 miles to the Big Sur River. From that point south to San Simeon, it could only be traveled by horseback or on foot.”
A light bulb lit above Roberts’ head (Edison had patented that marvel just 15 years previously). “Why not,” he thought, “build a road linking the Monterey Peninsula with the Big Sur coast?” His motivation was twofold and altruistic. In her book, “Big Sur, A Wild Coast and Lonely”, Rosalind Sharpe Wall wrote: “He (Dr. Roberts) felt that a highway would not only make life easier for the inhabitants of the region, especially those around Lucia, but would make this scenic landscape accessible to everyone. As it was, no one knew its beauty save those who lived there. It belonged, he felt, to the state, the nation, the world.” Roberts walked the route from Carmel to San Luis Obispo in five days, mapping a route and returning convinced that such a road could be built. He severely underestimated its cost at $50,000— the final cost hovered near $9 million.
The doctor found a powerful ally in State Senator Elmer Rigdon (and member of the Senate Committee on Roads and Highways) of Cambria, who saw the economic benefits of such a road to his constituents. After the citizens of the Golden State approved a bond issue, construction began in 1922. It would take 12 years to build a passable road through this treacherous terrain and finally, on Sept. 18, 1934, workers working toward each other from the north and south met. A few official cars, led by a proud Lester Gibson, the engineer who led the road’s initial survey team, drove the entire distance from San Simeon to Carmel. Much of the road was still under construction and was only one lane wide in places. It wasn’t until 1937 that Governor Frank Merriam ceremoniously bulldozed a final boulder and declared the road officially open. California Highways and Public Works gushed: “The work on the 93 miles between Carmel and San Simeon has presented one of the most noteworthy pieces of highway engineering accomplished on the West Coast in recent years and has given to the traveling public a modern ocean shore highway of unparalleled beauty with superb views of the Pacific.”
Superb indeed. A drive south along Highway 1 on a sunny afternoon is something even the most jaded Peninsula local can’t take for granted. It’s one of the few places where getting stuck behind a poky VW Microbus or motorhome is no cause for concern—just a handy excuse to slow down and enjoy the view. And for that, we can thank Dr. Roberts, Senator Ridgon and the hapless SS Los Angeles.