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Literary Corner

Judith Dale: Highway 101 and its history as our economic artery

  • Updated
  • 7 min to read

One of the significant factors in our area's history and economic development is Highway 101. Under various names and numbers (1, 101 and 5), it starts in San Diego and ends in Washington state at the Canadian border. Highway 101 is California’s longest highway and runs the entire length of the state.

Although Highway 5, which runs through central California, is now the preferred north-south route for speed and transporting goods, Highway 101 remains a scenic and popular coastal route. Further, due to California's topography, coastal mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean, there are not many alternatives for a coastal route.

In this article, I only will cover the history of Highway 101 in western Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Currently, California has budgeted over $1 billion for Highway 101 improvement projects in Santa Barbara County. Much of this is presently being spent on improving the highway between Santa Barbara and Ventura, a project that is scheduled to be completed in 2026.

In our area, sections of Highway 101 have been known as the El Camino Real, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Ventura Highway and the Cabrillo Highway. Historically, it was built by the Spanish to connect the 21 California missions. However, parts of it followed original Native-American routes used for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.

Today, its course has changed slightly throughout history due to geography, government and economic interests. However, it still follows basically the same path that was set down hundreds of years ago. 

Ventura County

Before wooden plank causeways were built along Rincon Parkway Beach, the only way to get from Ventura to Carpinteria was through Casitas Pass Road (now State Route 150).

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Highway 101 between Ventura's La Conchita and the Santa Barbara County line was a wooden road called the “causeway,” shown in 1914. 

This scenic back route had been used for stagecoach travel since 1878 and opened to automobiles in 1897. Its dangerous, hilly, twisting topography was a catalyst for a new route built in 1911, when physician Arthur Pillsbury and his wife, Grace, were killed after their car attempted to avoid a landslide that had fallen on the roadway. As a result, the car carrying the Pillsburys and their three children went over the cliff. The three children were thrown out and survived, but the mother and father died.

In writing about the tragedy, the Oxnard Courier newspaper declared, “the accident brings forcibly to mind the urgent necessity of the immediate construction of the Rincon sea-level road between Ventura and Santa Barbara, thus doing away with the travel over the dangerous Casitas Pass.”

The wooden causeways were built along the Rincon coast for $47,000 and opened in November 1912. But this route also was problematic as landslides and pounding surf often closed the road.

In 1924, the causeways were replaced by a paved road built on earth fill. Again, this road was often closed during flooding and high tides.

Later, as highway building equipment improved, a road was cut into the hillside to become the Highway 101 along Rincon that we know today.

Santa Barbara County

During the heyday of the Coast Highway going through Carpinteria, the city had 14 filling stations, nine automobile repair shops, Ford and Chevrolet car dealerships, and a tractor retailer. Motels and restaurants also were built along the highway to serve the traveling public. The distance from Los Angeles was perfect for motorists who needed to fill up their vehicles with gas, get a bite to eat and stretch their legs with a walk along the beach. Traffic was so great that a stoplight was installed at the Coast Highway and Linden Avenue intersection.

In 1948, an 18-foot-tall Santa Claus was built along the highway northwest of downtown Carpinteria. This was a popular highway attraction with gift shops, train rides and restaurants. In the mid-1950s, the highway was rerouted from downtown to become a freeway. By then, the town had firmly established itself and has remained a vibrant beach community city to this day. (NOTE: Santa Claus was moved from Carpinteria to Oxnard in 2003.)

The freeway continued up the coast past today's Summerland and Montecito into Santa Barbara. Beginning in 1948, there were four stoplights along Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. These were the only stoplights on the highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of course, those in Santa Barbara liked the stoplights, as they encouraged travelers to turn off to eat and shop.

The last light to be removed was at Anacapa Street in November 1991. Initially, Highway 101 continued to Goleta on what is now Hollister Avenue. In 1903, Hollister Avenue wound around the Bishop Ranch and went along Armas and Winchester Canyon roads to avoid going over a steep hill. In 1912, the road was moved westward, the hill was leveled and the road was straightened. The historic Barnsdall Rio Grande service station established in 1929 still stands on Hollister Avenue near today's Winchester Canyon Road and Highway 101 intersection.

The road continued west (north) along the coast. In 1918, the Arroyo Hondo Bridge was built near the current Mariposa Reina off-ramp. The bridge is no longer part of the highway but is a lookout point if you travel east (south) on Highway 101, with its concrete arches retaining both their beauty and functionality. Still, the bridge was closed in the mid-1980s as the modern freeway was rerouted to the north on solid ground.

Gaviota

In 1915, the Hollister Estate Co. built a community at Gaviota that consisted of a general store, service station, a motel (called an auto court at the time), a dance hall and a post office. The little town was so far away from anything in both directions that it quickly became a hub of activity for truckers and surfers. Today, less than 100 people are living in the Gaviota area. Most of the original buildings were demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new rest stop, restaurant and service station, along with a planned residential and recreation development that never happened. The restaurant burned to the ground in 2002, and in 2008 the area became Gaviota State Park.

At Gaviota, Highway 101 takes a sharp turn north and goes through Gaviota Pass. The first road through the pass was built in 1854. As coastal stagecoach travel increased, the need for a better road was evident. In 1861, dynamite was used to widen the pass, and a wooden bridge was built over Gaviota Creek. In 1875, a pier was constructed at Gaviota Beach, causing an increase in traffic from farmers in Lompoc and the Santa Ynez Valley who transported their produce and animals to the pier for shipping.

By the early 1900s, cars were beginning to travel the "coast" highway, using Gaviota Pass to get inland. These vehicles were faster but more delicate than the horse-drawn wagons, so the road improved again. In 1915, the California Division of Highways took control of the road through the pass, graveling, straightening and widening it. The wooden bridge was replaced by a steel suspension bridge. By 1931, more improvements were added. The road was again widened, straightened, paved, and a new concrete bridge replaced the steel bridge that today serves as the southbound lane of the freeway.

After World War II, the government realized that the highway was so crucial that Gaviota Pass had to be improved. The highway was vital to West Coast defense as well as becoming an essential economic thoroughfare. Traffic was increasing, cars were going faster, and they needed a wider highway for safety. In May 1953, the Gaviota Tunnel was completed, making Gaviota Pass two lanes in each direction.

Just north of Gaviota Pass, Highways 1 and 101 split, with Highway 1 going to Lompoc and Highway 101 continuing over the mountains to the Santa Ynez Valley. Initially, Highway 101 did not go through to Buellton as it does today, but at the top of the grade, it turned sharply east and followed Alisal Road into Solvang. It was not until 1917 that a dirt road led directly to Buellton. In 1922, bridges were built over the many Nojoqui Creek crossings, and the road was paved. Now, cars could travel directly to Buellton, and the town boomed.

Buellton

There were three generations of Highway 101 bridges built over the Santa Ynez River at Buellton. The first was in 1918, and its parts are still visible if you look west from the bridge on Avenue of Flags. The second was in 1948 and is now Avenue of Flags as you exit Highway 101 at the Santa Rosa Road off-ramp. The current bridge was built in 1965 when Highway 101 bypassed Buellton. The original highway through town became Avenue of Flags.

When I grew up in Buellton in the 1950s and '60s, it was a real challenge to cross Highway 101 as there were no stoplights. Many parents did not allow their teenage drivers to cross Highway 101, so if your friends lived on the other side of town, you only saw them at school and rarely got to visit their house. The safe way was to walk or ride your horse down to the river, cross under the Highway 101 bridge, then walk back up to the road on the other side. My cousins lived on the west side of Highway 101, and I lived on the east side, so we had a well-worn path along the river between our houses.

Los Alamos

Highway 101 continues north to Los Alamos. Once again, it originally ran right through town on what is now Bell Street and Highway 135. I can remember many 1950s shopping trips to Santa Maria when my family stopped for dinner in Los Alamos on the way home. Highway 101 bypassed downtown Los Alamos in the mid-1960s. Today, Los Alamos is not as large as it was in the heyday of the automobile, when the main road ran through town. There are fewer hotels, gas stations and restaurants. There is no longer a jail, police station or bank. However, in many people's opinions (mine included), this adds to the town's historical charm. It’s a great place to get off the highway and enjoy a glass of wine and a meal in one of the many unique restaurants and tasting rooms.

Santa Maria/Orcutt

Initially, the highway continued to Orcutt and Santa Maria via what is now Highway 1 and 135. It entered Santa Maria on Broadway (Highway 135) and continued through town. In the late 1920s, a 2-mile stretch of Broadway just south of downtown Santa Maria was packed with two dozen businesses that sold gas, even though the population of Santa Maria at the time was just 7,000.

In 1936, the state improved the highway between Orcutt and Santa Maria, widening it and replacing the pavement, although it remained two lanes. Highway 101 was rerouted to the east to its current route in the 1960s, bypassing Los Alamos, Orcutt and Santa Maria. Today, if you exit Santa Maria at Thompson Avenue heading north, you’ll be on the old Highway 101 for several miles through Nipomo. This section of road, which was the alignment between 1930 and 1958, runs parallel to the current highway, a little to the east.

Without Highway 101, Ventura, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Buellton, Los Alamos and Santa Maria would not be the vibrant and economically prosperous communities they are today. Further, California would not be the economic powerhouse it is — the fifth largest economy in the world! 

23 stories explaining the Central Coast's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

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Highway 101 originally ran through town on what is now Bell Street and Highway 135.

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Highway 101 is California’s longest highway that runs approximately 1,540 miles from Los Angeles to Tumwater, Washington.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at judith@hwy246.net

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