Historic Highway 101

Take a nostalgic trip along scenic Highway 101. The history of the road really began shortly after the turn of the twentieth century in Oceanside and North San Diego County, when wagons and primitive autos competed for space on its narrow, bumpy, unpredictable dirt surface.

San Diego County, the State, and the City of Oceanside all financed the concrete and macadam road through north San Diego commencing in 1909 and terminating in 1918 with the pavement of the thoroughfare through Oceanside. Fifteen feet wide and four inches thick without shoulders and subgrades, this “improved” road did not last too long.

However the road was good enough to lure settlers from the nations hinterlands to the Golden State via Route 66 and other roads. And, locals took to the highway in droves, thanks to the more affordable and vastly improved automobile after 1918.

The coast road provided great entertainment. The famous, notable, and unique traversed its ribbon of concrete, including Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt and the Hollywood crowd. Even before the highway had been paved, speed freaks and their “mechanicians” raced up and down the thoroughfare attempting to break records. The Los Angeles to Phoenix automobile race ran south through San Diego County via the coast road, then east to Arizona, in 1911. The San Diego Motorcycle Club organized an endurance run to Corona up the inland route with the return down the coast in 1913. That same year, the Los Angeles to Phoenix road race roared through Oceanside and featured Barney Oldfield and Bad Bill Carlson driving Simplex autos. Both favorites lost that year to San Diegan, Olin Davis.

By 1922, the first of many repairs and improvements to the coast road began. In 1925, the route became officially designated U.S. Highway 101. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the American Club of Southern California, founded in 1900, the roads through this region were well marked. Lots of people, besides residents and visitors stood to gain from the development of the scenic Highway 101, which ultimately stretched from Canada to the Mexican border. The Road and automobile, through their symbiotic relationship, stimulated the rise of a totally new phenomenon, the “car culture,” which was epitomized in sunny Southern California. Garages, automobile dealers, gas stations, auto laundries, auto camps, hotels, motels, and cafes sprang up along the route celebrating and exalting the fusion of concrete and steel.

The coast road contributed mightily, because of its position, to national, regional and local historical events. It led visitors to the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. Special days were set aside for caravans traveling to this event, as well as days at the fair which just honored the automobile itself. It also provided the setting for a number of parades and local celebrations.

Highway 101 caught a lot of action during Prohibition (1919-1933) because it conveyed, in an expeditious fashion, Hollywood stars and common folk alike to Tijuana where booze flowed freely, horses raced continuously, and one could gamble and dance the night away. The Great Depression affected the road to the effect that individuals traveled it less often and growth of the auto -related business slowed down.

By 1942, with the U.S. firmly committed to World War II, Ranch Santa Margarita to the north of Oceanside, was converted to the largest marine base in the nation. This change brought wanted residents and businesses to a growth oriented, economically depressed region, but few realized at the time, the toll this population explosion would have on Highway 101; the road, in essence, was no match for the great military influx. It choked and congested and tied up automobiles in its two lanes with traffic lights and accidents day in and day out. A 1950 County report claimed that Oceanside possessed six of the ten most deadly intersections. Highway commissioners and local politicians basically sounded the death knoll for the scenic Highway 101 as the main north and south transportation artery. In 1953, the downtown route of the 101 was bypassed by a new four lane highway. Later, the highway became Interstate 5, and forever changed the character of the “Road.” Thankfully, Oceanside continued to maintain most of its buildings along the coast route which had been developed as a direct result of the ” Road”. And, through their varied architectural styles, visible evidence of the City’s car culture driven past is apparent for all to see and appreciate.