Highway 101 Revisited
by Thomas K. Arnold
(c) 2001 San Diego Magazine
The long stretch up the coast is less traveled these interstate days, but Highway 101 still holds charm for many.
Driving north on Old Highway 101, coming over the Torrey Pines grade as the sun sinks into the Pacific to my left, is one of those moments I wish would last forever. I try to keep my eyes on the road ahead of me, but the fuzzy orange ball over the glassy sea always distracts me. I feel like shutting my eyes on the vision in hopes it will be forever frozen in my brain. For as long as I can remember, I have loved this narrow, sinewy coastal route—and of all the spots along the way, this is my very favorite.
In these days of concrete superhighways and road rage, it’s difficult to imagine a kinder, gentler era when the road was not simply a way to get from here to there in the least amount of time. Your car was not a comfortable, isolated cocoon that shielded you from the smoking smog beds of an overcrowded freeway. Your car was a part of you, an extension of yourself, that carried you on an adventure wherever the old two-lane would lead. And there was always one magical, mystical road that tugged at your heartstrings more than the others, that inspired and fulfilled your pressing wanderlust.
For many San Diegans a generation or two back, the magical, mystical roadway of choice was Highway 101. For more than half a century—from a decade before its official designation in 1925 until June 21, 1966, when the final 24-mile stretch of Interstate 5 was opened between Carlsbad and Balboa Avenue in San Diego—Highway 101 was the primary north-south artery linking San Diego with Los Angeles, and the rest of California with the Mexican border. It was part of a larger, grander coastal highway that ran the entire length of California and continued north all the way to Canada.
“Just as Route 66 is the mother road of the country, Highway 101 is the mother road of California,” says local preservationist John Daley, who co-owns the 101 Café in Oceanside.
Today, most north-south traffic through San Diego County follows Interstate 5, a superhighway that is almost always congested. Most of Old Highway 101 has been obliterated and relegated to memory, as foggy and hazy as the actual road. In the South Bay, much of the old highway is beneath the Mile of Cars. In San Diego proper, where the highway’s route has always been circuitous, its original path is almost undecipherable, except for a strip just north of downtown now known as Pacific Highway.
But in North County, it’s still easy to trace the route of Old Highway 101. Between Torrey Pines and Oceanside, much of the highway remains unchanged. It is used by locals fed up with the traffic on I-5, and by commuters as an aesthetic alternative to the big freeway a mile or so east. And thanks to road worshippers like Daley, the old route is finally getting some respect, with the state legislature granting all of Highway 101 historical status in 1998. North County cities responded by erecting vintage road signs modeled after the ones the Automobile Club of Southern California originally installed in the late 1920s.
“Transportation is the reason we are here in California,” Daley says. “And California grew up around 101. The urban areas sprung up all around 101—and very little off 101 was significant until the 1950s, when the freeways came. Trains could carry everything people wanted in terms of goods, but what brought people down from Los Angeles was the road.”
The origins of Highway 101, at least the portion that runs through San Diego County, date back to the early years of the 20th century, according to published accounts—including an excellent report on the history of transportation by local historians Kathleen Flanigan and Leland Bibb. In November 1902, California voters gave the legislature the power to establish a state highway system, using existing roads or building new ones. The automobile was still in its infancy, but its potential was not lost on Californians, most of whom had come to the Golden State from points east by train or stagecoach.
In 1908, the San Diego County Road Commission was formed, with instructions to build 1,250 miles of county roads. Members included such prominent city fathers as J.D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps and A.C. Spaulding. Petitions circulated around the county about road priorities, and the sleepy coastal town of Oceanside, with a population of less than 600, requested a highway be developed along the coast from San Diego to Orange County.
That seemed like a good idea to the bold men of the San Diego County Road Commission, who had long championed a more refined link between San Diego and Los Angeles than the coast-hugging series of dirt roads, rarely even graveled, used by travelers of the day. In January 1909, the commission finalized its report on road construction throughout the county. Among the most ambitious projects were two highways: one running from San Diego along the coast to Orange County, another from San Diego to Escondido.
Construction of the coast highway was to be financed through bonds issued by the county and by the city of Oceanside. But there wasn’t enough money to do everything at once. In 1910, the Oceanside Blade Tribune editorialized, “The coast road really needs immediate attention and should not be delayed longer than the time necessary to get teams and workmen on the ground. The approaches and fords of the Santa Margarita [River] are in an impassable condition and should be improved without delay. … Friday morning three autos stuck in the Santa Margarita River, and the occupants, some of them ladies, were compelled to walk to Oceanside at from 2 to 4 o’clock in the morning in quest of shelter and warmth.”
Eventually, the state stepped in, setting aside $18 million for a system of state highways to be constructed and acquired in accordance with the 1902 law. The coast highway was considered a top priority. Still, construction continued to be bogged down by financial woes, and while advertisements promised the highway would be completed by the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, visitors driving south from Los Angeles to attend the fair still had to endure a 5-mile detour.
This did not deter the hardcore motorists. Even before construction of the highway had begun, speed demons and their “mechanics” would race up and down the coastal route. There were organized rallies like the Los Angeles–to–Phoenix Road Race but many more impromptu contests—and plenty of accidents. An Oceanside Blade Tribune article in July 1911 reported on a gruesome accident in which a racer and his mechanic “came to grief on the grade leading to the south Oceanside slough” while making a turn. “The general opinion is that the two injured men merely got what was coming to them as they were breaking the law at the time and had been practically every mile of the way from Los Angeles,” the paper reported.
By Thanksgiving 1915, the coastal road was officially complete. It was classic two-lane blacktop, 15 feet wide and 4 inches thick, paved with macadam (layers of small broken stones held together by tar) on a concrete base. There were no shoulders or subgrades.
To celebrate the coast highway’s completion, the Automobile Club of Southern California, which had been established in 1900, sponsored an official “Thanksgiving Auto Run” between Los Angeles and San Diego. Exposition officials planned a “Motor Day” at the fair. When the great day finally arrived, it was reported that 500 cars smashed through a celebratory banner at the northern entrance to San Diego County.
The joy was short-lived. In January 1916, the most destructive flood in San Diego history wiped out several of the bridges along the coastal route. World War I delayed reconstruction, due to a federal embargo on all cars suitable for hauling materials used to make roads. The embargo was lifted in mid-January 1918, and within months the coast highway was completely paved, through Oceanside.
Traffic grew steadily, particularly after the enactment of Prohibition. America’s infamous ban on booze took effect on January 17, 1920, and before long the highway was rumbling with Model A’s and runabouts as dry Los Angelenos scurried to the Mexican border for the bars, dance halls and gambling dens of Tijuana. A September 1922 article in the Oceanside Blade Tribune commented on the exceptionally heavy traffic flow one holiday weekend:
“Everybody with the price, and lots without it, took a vacation, and during Saturday, Sunday and Monday, automobiles passed through Oceanside in a continuous stream bound for San Diego or returning. It was calculated that at times the cars passed at the rate of 700 or more an hour, and during the three days probably 10,000 or 15,000 autos passed through Oceanside. Hundreds of these stopped, going or coming, and the result was that the hotels, restaurants and rooming houses were swamped, though as far as known, everyone was fed and cared for sooner or later.”
As traffic increased along the road, officially designated U.S. Highway 101 in 1925, so did the number and variety of roadside businesses. Lone gas pumps gave way to service stations and repair garages. Auto courts and motels sprang up. Cafés and diners dotted the roadside, catering to hungry travelers. Some of these establishments are still in business, including the Leucadia Beach Motel in Leucadia and the 101 Café in Oceanside, both opened in 1928 and largely unchanged in looks today.
In August 1936, Bing Crosby, a partner in the just-completed Del Mar Race Track, was fined $35 for speeding through Oceanside at 55 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone. Two years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt motorcaded down Highway 101 from Long Beach to San Diego to dedicate the new San Diego Civic Center (which is now the County Administration Building). He rode in a seven-passenger car owned by famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille.
In 1939, an ambitious highway beautification project was begun, led by San Diego merchant and philanthropist George Marston. Horticulturist Kate Sessions was hired as a consultant.
The outbreak of World War II marked the beginning of the end of Highway 101’s glory days. In March 1942, it was announced that the U.S. Navy would acquire the grand Santa Margarita y Las Flores Rancho, which separated San Diego County from Orange County, for a Marine Corps training facility that would house 20,000 men. Construction began immediately, and a month later the base received its official name, Camp Pendleton, in honor of the late Marine Major General Joseph H. Pendleton.
Parking and driving restrictions during the war kept civilian traffic along the coast road light, but when the war was over, traffic swelled. The troops came home, and a veritable population explosion occurred in the coastal regions of Southern California.
Lloyd O’Connell, 76, a retired teacher and school principal who has lived in Encinitas since 1955, recalls driving down to San Diego from Oakland in 1945 to visit his girlfriend (now his wife). “I ran into trouble right there at Leucadia beach,” he says. “It was still a two-lane road, although in some spots it had three lanes—and those spots were called slaughter alley because cars tried to pass each other on those roads, and unfortunately they were coming from both sides. It was very dangerous. I made it, but it was bumper-to-bumper, and that’s the way it was all through those little small towns, up and down the coast.”
Oceanside was hit particularly hard by this post-war surge in traffic. The portion of Highway 101 that ran through town along Hill Street was known as a “death trap.” Engineers suggested either widening the highway or building a new route.
In 1947, talk first surfaced of an express highway from Oceanside to Rose Canyon in San Diego. Plans were subsequently scaled down to a 10-mile, four-lane “bypass” that would veer inland at the San Luis Rey River and shoot straight south through Oceanside and Carlsbad before meeting up with Highway 101 again after crossing the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Concerned for their business districts, North County leaders balked at the idea, but state highway officials, led by engineer E.E. Wallace, were determined to build the new road and ultimately prevailed.
The opening of the bypass in 1953 revived talk of an express highway all the way down to San Diego. At the time, the federal government was already well on its way toward establishing a nationwide network of highways, as called for by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944.
The Korean War interrupted that effort, but when the conflict was over, President Eisenhower made the interstate highways one of his top priorities. His vision was realized with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the expenditure of a whopping $25 billion in federal funds for highway construction between 1957 and 1969. A numbering system and the red, white and blue interstate shield were unveiled in 1957, and work began almost immediately.
In San Diego County, the last stretch of Interstate 5 was completed on June 21, 1966. Its 24 miles linked the existing express highway through Oceanside and Carlsbad with a previously completed section of freeway that ran through San Diego and points south, much of it following the route of Highway 101 East (the old highway had been split in the late 1930s at Torrey Pines, with a circuitous western route along the shore through La Jolla and Pacific Beach and a more straightforward eastern route on the other side of Mission Bay, along what was then called Atlantic Avenue).
A San Diego Union story at the time noted that “the impact was immediate. Old Highway 101, the street On the Beach, suddenly looked as if it were taken from the movie of the same name. Many service stations closed at once. Others lasted a week.”
Coastal towns renamed portions of the old highway to give it more of a local identity. In Del Mar, it became Camino del Mar; in Carlsbad, Carlsbad Boulevard.
Thirty years later, in the mid-1990s, the old road’s historical importance finally began to hit home. John Daley, who had purchased and renovated 101 Café in 1986, was on Oceanside’s historic preservation board when state officials suggested local groups such as his conduct contextual studies in preparation for the task of filing National Register applications.
“The context we chose was transportation,” Daley recalls, “and after the study was completed in 1997, we started reading it and realized just how important transportation, and the old highway, were to development of this region.”
He and fellow preservationists lobbied the state legislature, and in September 1998 lawmakers granted all of Highway 101 a historical designation. Meanwhile, Daley had been on several tours of Route 66 and launched a campaign to get similar heritage-honoring signs put up along Highway 101. Oceanside was the first community to install historical Highway 101 markers, erecting 16 signs beginning in October 1998. Other North County municipalities followed suit. Encinitas put up 12, followed by Carlsbad and Del Mar, each with half a dozen. Solana Beach recently installed its own signs, consisting only of a white shield with “HWY 101” written in black.
Farther south, historic Highway 101 markers are also scheduled to go up on portions of the road still extant in San Diego and National City, Daley says.
What’s in the old highway’s appeal? Well, first of all, it’s the scenery. Old Highway 101 creeps along the county’s oceanfront edge, affording incredible views of the blue Pacific.
Then there’s the rich history, the heritage of the old highway, in a portion of the country that doesn’t have an abundance of either attribute.
But perhaps the most significant factor in Old Highway 101’s appeal, opines the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Logan Jenkins, who calls it “one of three signature roads in the old West,” is personal imagery.
“To me, it’s those drives I took when I went to Los Angeles to play tennis when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Jenkins recalls. “I remember the old Torrey Pines grade, the ocean, the sunsets—and I think it’s that way for many of us who have lived in San Diego all our lives. It’s a very personal imagery that the road contains,” he says.
“I’ve used the phrase ‘We San Diegans talk about 101 with nostalgia bordering on illness,’ because every time I speak to groups about the highway, their eyes glisten as they remember the cars they used to drive and the experiences they used to have along the road. To paraphrase Charles Kuralt, you can drive cross-country on the freeways and never see a thing, but on the old highways it’s a completely different world.”
Proof of the Past
The steamroller of progress has flattened many of the original buildings and businesses that dotted Highway 101 during its heyday from the Roaring Twenties through the mid-Sixties. But not all such roadside attractions have disappeared. South to north, here are 14 highway landmarks that remain more or less unchanged, many built in the years immediately following the road’s official designation as 101.
Del Mar Library, 1309 Camino del Mar: This Craftsman-style building was constructed in 1914 as St. James Catholic Church and for years was the only house of worship between San Diego and San Clemente. Parishioners included Jimmy Durante and Desi Arnaz; Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien served as ushers. In 1966, the church moved to Solana Beach, and the old building became home to various businesses before being sold to the city of Del Mar in the early 1990s to be restored as a public library.
Stratford Square, southwest corner of Camino del Mar and 15th Street: This imposing building is constructed in the same English Tudor style as the old Hotel Del Mar, which, until it was razed in 1969, stood across the street. Originally called the Kockritz Building, it was completed in February 1927 and hailed by the Coast Dispatch newspaper as “one of the finest structures between Los Angeles and San Diego.”
Surf Cleaners, 760 South Coast Highway: One of the oldest businesses in North County, Surf Cleaners began cleaning locals’ clothes and drapes in 1947, according to a clerk.
Daley Double, 546 South Coast Highway: This no-nonsense cocktail lounge—all right, bar—has been serving libations since 1934, having opened a few months after the repeal of Prohibition as The Village Rendezvous. Legend has it that original owner Maurice DeLay augmented his earnings with an illegal poker parlor he built upstairs. DeLay sold out in 1942, and the bar became the Grand Café; in 1957, it was sold again to an ex-hockey player named Frank Daley, who renamed it the Daley Double. It’s been in the Daley family ever since and is currently run by Frank’s daughter, Nancy.
La Paloma Theatre, 471 South Coast Highway: This beautiful Spanish-style theater was built in 1928 and, unlike so many other old movie houses, continues to show films. La Paloma is also a hotbed of live entertainment, having hosted hundreds of concerts and other stage productions over the years.
Leucadia Beach Motel, 1322 North Coast Highway: Spruced up with gray paint and fresh trim, the cabins around a horseshoe-shape courtyard don’t look their age. But this vintage auto court—typical of myriad others that dotted the old highway from San Diego through Oceanside—was built in 1928, three years after the highway was officially designated as 101. It achieved a fair amount of infamy in 1939 when a pair of lovebirds were found asphyxiated in their room due to a faulty gas heater. At the time, the motel’s name was the ominous-sounding Journey’s End. (The gas heaters, in case you were wondering, are long gone.)
Log Cabin Apartments, 1660 North Coast Highway: Another remnant of auto court days, this little roadside village of red cabins was built in 1935 and ever since has brought some mountain flavor to the coastal route. Famous guests, it’s said, have included Sammy Davis Jr. and Sr., both of whom were regulars in Cabin No. 5 during the Del Mar racing season in the 1960s, and a honeymooning Desi Arnaz Jr. The cabins are now apartments.
Army-Navy Academy, 2585 Carlsbad Boulevard: This impressive Spanish-style building has served as the headquarters of the Army-Navy Academy since 1936, nine years after it was built as the Red Apple Inn.
Neiman’s, 2978 Carlsbad Boulevard: One-half of the old Twin Inns, which was famed for fried-chicken dinners and large chicken statues on the roof. Built in 1887 as the home of Gerard Schutte, the “father” of Carlsbad, the gorgeous Queen Anne– style mansion and its adjacent sister structure were later transformed into a restaurant and became the Twin Inns in 1919. The early clientele was invariably bound to and from Caliente; the owner “would open up the kitchen at night if you were traveling and stopped by for something to eat,” says Stephanie Dunham, docent at the Carlsbad Historical Society. The other “twin” was demolished in 1950, while the former Schutte manse continued to be known for its chicken dinners until the 1980s. Today, it’s Neiman’s, a popular restaurant and bar that’s been in business since 1989.
Oceanview Cemetery, Coast Highway just south of Oceanside Boulevard: This small cemetery, now overrun with high grasses and weeds, was established in 1895 by the International Order of Odd Fellows. Many early Oceanside pioneers were interred here. The cemetery is also one of only seven in California known to be the final resting ground for at least one Confederate Civil War veteran.
101 Café, 631 South Coast Highway: A mainstay of the coastal route since 1928, when it was christened with the number of the newly designated Highway 101, this art deco–style building has been a diner ever since, under various names, with a brief stint as a drive-in the 1950s.
John Daley and a partner bought the eatery in 1986, when it was known as Randy’s Coffee Shop, and eight years ago restored the diner to its original name and look. The interior walls are covered with vintage photos of Old Highway 101 in its heyday, and the worn leatherette booths give the café that Happy Days feel many newer “retro” diners strive for but never achieve.
Dolphin Hotel, 133 South Coast Highway: One of the oldest hotels in North County, this modest two-story structure, with just 25 rooms, was built in 1927. It opened as the Hotel Keisker and has since changed hands—and names—several times. Manager Howard Pitzer says the hotel caters to a mix of locals and tourists.
Sunshine Brooks Theater, 300 North Coast Highway: When it opened in 1936 as the Margo Theater, it was the Cadillac of local movie houses. It was the first major downtown Oceanside construction project since the start of the Great Depression, and locals celebrated by catching such hot flicks of the day as The Gay Desperado, with Ida Lupino and Leo Carillo. But by the time the Oceanside-Carlsbad bypass was built in the early 1950s, the theater had fallen into disrepair; it ended up showing pornographic movies and was later converted to a karate studio.
The city of Oceanside now owns the theater—named after former owner Hattie “Sunshine” Brooks, who gave the city her majority interest—and has spent nearly $1 million to renovate it. Since its grand reopening in April, the theater has been used for a variety of live performances, including school plays from nearby Oceanside High.
Star Theatre, 402 North Coast Highway: The Star opened in 1956 as an opulent movie palace, its garish neon-lit marquee a sign of the times, when cars had fins and neon and chrome were everywhere. The theater, like so many single-screens in the era of the multiplex, soon fell from first-run grace and later abandoned movies entirely.
Saved from the wrecking ball by the city of Oceanside and a local group of performing arts angels, the Star is now home to all sorts of live stage productions, including recent performances of Grease and Fiddler on the Roof
“After perhaps an hour of dancing [in La Jolla], when the floor became oppressively crowded, they went for a moonlight drive up the coast, turning around and heading back at the city of Oceanside. The mounting waves of the night tide foamed with phosphorus. They came rolling in from the distant depths of the ocean, striking against the shore in a steady series of thunder-like roars. On the rocky outcrops of the shore, an occasional seal gleamed blackly.”
—Jim Thompson, The Grifters
“It was not so interesting driving at night. No dogs to see, only the highway lighted with his headlights. Doc speeded up to finish the trip. It was about 2 o’clock when he got to La Jolla.”
—John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
“It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state. … The road north is as monotonous as a sailor’s chanty. You go through a town, down a hill, along a stretch of beach, through a town, down a hill, along a stretch of beach.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye