Marin’s Freeway History Collection in the Anne T. Kent California Room
By Lissa McKee
The Anne T. Kent California Room has acquired a collection of California Division of Highways (now CalTrans) records of right-of-way surveys for proposed projects in Marin County in the 1950s and 1960s. These files include photographs of the areas adjacent to the Highway 101 corridor before it was widened, such as the marshlands now occupied by the Strawberry Shopping Center in Mill Valley, and Town Center and The Village at Corte Madera shopping centers. The photographs in this collection also reveal the small businesses now replaced by more modern development and the grassy hillsides now covered by housing.
The Bureau of Highways was established by the California Legislature in 1895. Before that time, counties and private toll operators initiated road development. In the following decades, the State adopted a series of local roads under its authority. For instance, State maintenance of Shoreline Highway (Route 1) in southern Marin County began in 1933, which remains a conventional two-lane highway today. However, California’s longest highway, Route 101, has been expanded to eight lanes and more in Marin County. Its development is an prime example of ambitious State transportation programs.
Route 101 incorporated what had been a county road beginning at the ferry terminal in Sausalito. The original alignment had followed a northwesterly course around Richardson Bay, separating from the road to Bolinas at Tamalpais Junction. The road continued northward past Tamalpais Union High School in Mill Valley and continued at what is today Camino Alto over the hill into Corte Madera. It then continued north through Larkspur, Ross, and San Anselmo, before turning east into San Rafael. The route traveled down Fourth Street and turned north at today’s Lincoln Avenue before going through what would become the City of Novato, and then continued north to the California redwoods on its way to Oregon.
In 1916, the federal-aid highway program was initiated by the Federal Aid Road Act, which subsequently led to construction of U.S. Highway 101, the nation’s westernmost federal-aid highway. By 1929, work on a direct passage through Marin County began. The now renamed Division of Highways, in the State Department of Engineering, then constructed a section of what was called the “Redwood Highway” across the marshland northwest of Sausalito and past Corte Madera. After the four-lane highway was completed, vehicles traveled along the elevated berm that formed the roadbed, even as tidal waters sometimes rose on both sides of the roadway. This conversion to a direct route through Marin County culminated with the November 1931 completion of the Redwood Bridge, a redwood-timbered quarter-mile span over Richardson Bay.
In 1939, the California Legislature passed legislation establishing the freeway model, which restricted access from abutting properties and modified or closed intersecting local roads and streets. On December 30, 1940, the West’s first freeway, Arroyo Seco Parkway between Pasadena and Los Angeles, opened. In Marin the elevated roadbed through San Rafael was completed in 1942. Although there was a period of highway-building dormancy during World War II, both federal and state appropriations prepared for an ambitious postwar construction program. The Federal Highway Act of 1944 and the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 funded efforts to meet the postwar demand created by large increases in traffic. The latter, which added 67 miles to the California highway system, required that the State maintain State highways in cities, increased gasoline and diesel and fuel taxes from 3 to 4.5 cents per gallon, and increased automobile registration fees.
The most important piece of federal legislation, the Federal-Aid Highway Act, was enacted in 1956 and provided for the construction of 40,000 miles of interstate highways designated as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The Collier-Unruh Local Transportation Act of 1963 further increased the gasoline tax. Thus, with predictable sources of funding in place, state and federal mandates, and the pressure of unprecedented traffic growth, California embarked on a massive highway construction program. Among the many projects was the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the Bayshore Freeway in the East Bay, and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.
Thus, throughout the 1950s, Highway 101 was widened and access was restricted in many locations to turnouts, such as the modified cloverleaf interchanges as East Blithedale/Tiburon exit (then called the Alto Wye). The section between Richardson Bay to Alto in Mill Valley was widened in 1957. This project had been prioritized by the Division of Highway after five lives were lost in accidents along there in three months in 1953, several of which were due to attempts to make left turns in the “restaurant-tavern-motel area south of the Alto Wye,” as the area was called then. The Alto Wye area was publicized as the Alto Death Strip in the Marin Independent Journal — one sober perspective on the period in contrast to the more modern criticism of the environmental consequences of the freeway age.