A Short History of California's Cuesta Pass on U.S. 101

Here the Padre Trail is approaching Cuesta Pass.
Here the Padre Trail is approaching Cuesta Pass.

I imagine we all have a lot of favorite roads. One of mine is very short. About three miles long, ascending, or descending, a thousand feet along the west side of Cuesta Canyon, just north of San Luis Obispo, California. It’s dirt, one-lane, built in the 1870s and minimally maintained. The alternative is a six-lane highway, U.S. Route 101, on the east side of the canyon.

All roads have histories: when they are built, when they are improved and, maybe, when they are abandoned. From the first rudimentary roads in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago to the multi-lane freeways of today, we can thank those who combined two wheels with an axle. A person on foot, or on a horse, would follow a trail, which could wind around boulders and zig-zag up a steep slope. But once some bright soul built the first two-wheeler, with an axle span of four feet or more, all that changed. Harness a horse to do the pulling and the world was changing.

U.S. Route 101 is high above the original Padre Trail.
U.S. Route 101 is high above the original Padre Trail.

Granted, single-track motorcycles do not really require the road-width that cars do, but smooth asphalt or dirt are appreciated by all but the most dedicated off-roaders.

In California 250 years ago, the local Indians did not worry about roads, as they did not have wheels, let alone horses. But on foot they could go anywhere, up the steeply mountainous Big Sur coast, or over the Santa Lucia Range. In 1769, a Spanish explorer named Don Gaspar de Portola took a land route from San Diego to Monterey, with some 60 soldiers and 100 mules carrying the gear. Historians surmise that his expedition arrived in the Valley of the Bears (a lot of those critters hung out there), where the city of San Luis Obispo now lies, where they camped for a while, sending out scouts to find the best way to go north.

A major creek flowed south from the Santa Lucia Range into the Valley of the Bears, and a scout realized that this was the way the native Indians crossed from the sea plain to the valley of a major river—later named the Salinas. The trail went up a canyon (Cuesta Canyon) and the last half-mile before crossing over the saddle was quite steep. But doable by bridle-led mules.

Portola’s expedition were probably the first Europeans to scale La Cuesta (The Slope, or Grade, as the Spaniards chose to name it), which crossed over the Santa Lucia mountains at a little more than 1,500 feet, and then descended gradually 500 feet into the Salinas River valley. After that it was a relatively easy 140-mile trek north to Monterey and the Carmel Mission.

In 1772, the Franciscans built the mission called San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and this little track over the Santa Lucias became known as the Padre Trail, as it was the main communications route for the string of missions that eventually stretched from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. These were conveniently placed two or three days apart, so the traveler might spend a couple of nights on the road, and then have the hospitality of a mission.

This gate closes any further access to the original Padre Trail.
This gate closes any further access to the original Padre Trail.

After the mission was completed, the padres at San Luis Obispo established a rancho, called Santa Margarita de Cortona asistencia, on the north side of La Cuesta, both to enlarge their holdings as well as to offer assistance to travelers along the Padre Trail. It was a long walk, 10 often steep miles, from San Luis Obispo to Santa Margarita. In 1819, they built a stone retirado, a place to retreat to, on the ranch, as pirates were threatening coastal missions.

Spanish colonists looking for good land realized that the Salinas valley was immensely fertile, though occasionally prone to flooding. It was good for raising grain, cattle and sheep, with wagons being needed for hauling produce to the market at San Luis Obispo. Which meant the Padre Trail over the Santa Lucias got widened to a two-track. It was steep, and oxen were preferred to horses. Runaways were not uncommon.

We are looking from Stagecoach Road over to the six-lane U.S. Route 101.
We are looking from Stagecoach Road over to the six-lane U.S. Route 101.

Years went by, and politics changed. In 1821, the Mexicans declared independence from Spain, with the Catholic church backing the losing side. In 1833 the Mexican government secularized all the missions, allowing civilians to take the land once claimed by the mission padres. Then American settlers began arriving, and after a brief war Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848. Followed by the gold rush of 1849, and the state exploded with business. Including stagecoach companies, which had to use that Padre Trail. On the descent passengers were advised to get out an walk down the slope, just in case things got out of control.

San Luis Obispo had become a major town, and ships came into the nearby port of Avila. The town fathers decided that a new road was necessary, but it was they who would have to raise the money for the project. The state was not interested. Thousands of Chinese had flocked to California to try their luck at mining and, failing that, many had turned to construction jobs, notably in building the railroad over the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Reno to Sacramento.

This is what remains of the original "motel;" the word used to advertise the place in 1925, when a room for the night cost $1.25.
This is what remains of the original “motel;” the word used to advertise the place in 1925, when a room for the night cost $1.25.

In 1876, the community leaders in San Luis Obispo managed to collect the funding and contracted with a local Chinese entrepreneur, Ah Louis, to hire Chinese crews that would do the blasting and digging to make a new way to get over Cuesta Pass. The west side of Cuesta Canyon seemed the logical place, and within a year the road was finished and called the Mountain Road—now Old Stagecoach Road. This was considerably easier to go up or down, although still steep, and enterprising types would rent out extra horses for those going uphill.

The Southern Pacific Railroad was expanding, and by 1889 had come south from San Francisco to Santa Margarita, with other tracks coming into San Luis Obispo from the south. Santa Margarita became a boom town, with all the vices that hard-working railroad men could spend their hard-earned money on. Ah Louis had done such a good job on the road that he was offered another contract, this time to hire several thousand workers and build the tunnels that the railroad needed in order to get over the pass. This was completed in 1894, and by 1897 steam trains were running from San Diego to San Francisco on the coastal route.

Horses were the main source of power along the roads, but after the turn of the 19th century the age of internal combustion was upon us, and the first Harleys and Fords appeared. These had pretty rudimentary engines, putting out only a few horsepower, and the grade on the Mountain Road was considered too steep for some of these vehicles. And too narrow when traffic was going in both directions. A 4 mph speed limit was imposed.

Bowing to the inevitable, the state government realized that if the road system was to be improved, which in turn would benefit business and in turn add more dollars to government coffers, the state was going to have to foot the bill for new roads. Sacramento decided in 1914 to fund a proper two-lane road up La Cuesta, which would be on the east side of the canyon. This would be 24 feet wide, have a gravel surface, and was said to include well over 60 curves and bends. The road was completed in 1915, but it was steep, and more than one traveler would write about “the terrible slope of the Cuesta Grade” … the grade was probably as severe as eight or nine degrees in places. Ascent was difficult with a Model T, and the descent was hazardous in those days of iffy brakes. Accidents were many.

This coincided with the Mission Revival movement, wherein Californians thought that all things from the Spanish colonial days were wonderful, and decided to call the road from San Diego to San Francisco El Camino Real—The King’s Road. A series of decorative bells hanging from tall columns, replicating the old mission bells, were set at odd intervals along the road.

Coming up from near sea-level, this 1,500-foot pass remains quite a challenge even today.
Coming up from near sea-level, this 1,500-foot pass remains quite a challenge even today.

Then, in 1923, the road on the Cuesta Grade (a marvelous bi-lingual redundancy) was greatly improved with the addition of a concrete surface, now with a maximum grade of seven degrees. The old Mountain Road was still used by horse-drawn wagons.

In 1926, the big road was officially called U.S. Route 101. The year before that, in 1925, a businessman built a hotel catering to motorists in San Luis Obispo, at the north end of Monterey Street (which served as U.S. 101 before the feds built the freeway which passes through the city in the 1950s). This was called the Mo-Tel Inn, the first use of that word. It was in operation until 1991, and the remnants of two buildings can still be seen, next to the Apple Farm Inn just before one gets on the latest version of U.S. 101.

I'm on the dirt Stagecoach Road, with the Padre Trail down below, U.S. Route 101 over to the right.
I’m on the dirt Stagecoach Road, with the Padre Trail down below, U.S. Route 101 over to the right.

In 1938, U.S. 101 on the Cuesta Grade was drastically realigned and widened, now with a few gentle curves and the two lanes becoming four. In 2004, the four lanes became six, for a bill of $50 million.

If I’m not in a rush when I’m headed south, I take the Old Stagecoach Road, and may meet a couple of bicyclists or pedestrians. My descent is cautious, what with sharp curves and rain furrows, but the old dirt road can prove to be quite relaxing, taking me back to the way life was 140 years ago.

A hundred years ago Californians were romanticizing the Spanish colonial days and hung these bells along The Royal Road.
A hundred years ago Californians were romanticizing the Spanish colonial days and hung these bells along The Royal Road.
This is the southern part of the old concrete road over the pass, built in 1923.
This is the southern part of the old concrete road over the pass, built in 1923.
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This is the gate to the San Luis Obispo mission's assistencia, Santa Margarita de Cortona, on the north side of Cuesta Pass, now a privately owned ranch.
This is the gate to the San Luis Obispo mission’s assistencia, Santa Margarita de Cortona, on the north side of Cuesta Pass, now a privately owned ranch.
The original Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was built in 1772, fell into ruins during Mexican days, and was resurrected by Franciscans in the late 1800s.
The original Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was built in 1772, fell into ruins during Mexican days, and was resurrected by Franciscans in the late 1800s.

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