The state highway system in California has been around a lot longer than most people think. In 1896, the state of California took over maintenance of Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, US 50 now, and the first state road was born. It wasn’t until 1912, however, that the ball really got rolling. California voters approved a bond of $18 million to have 3000 miles of roadways constructed. Only minor changes have been made since then other than a large addition in 1959 constructed by the California State Assembly.
The moment the law was passed in 1895, to create the post of "Lake Tahoe Wagon Road Commissioner" solely to attend to the maintenance and repair of the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road, California had its first highway. The original road was determined to be approximately 3 miles east of Placerville all the way to the Nevada State Line, 58 miles in length. This road is now called US50. It was used as a toll road to garner funds for further improvements until 1886. A stone bridge was added over the South Fork American River in 1901.
1895 also brought about the Bureau of Highways which consisted of three officials. It was the job of this bureau to construct strong roads with the coordinated efforts of all surrounding counties. The county visited each individual county in California and determined a map of the best and most useful places for roads across the state. Soon a second highway was built from Sacramento to Folsom. The Department of Highways had been established and further state roads, beginning with the Mono Lake Basin State Road, which is now part of SR 120, were built and maintained under its authority. In 1907, the Department of Engineering was created. It duties included other things beside highways but it was and continues to be instrumental in highway construction.
The State Highways Act was enacted in 1909. The people of California voted for its approval. It authorized $18 million in bonds to construct and maintain a connected and continuous system of state highways to link all county seats. A special team; the California Highway Commission, was created to fully plan, construct and maintain. Just like with the first major highway, the commission travelled the state visiting all the count seats to determine the most favorable routes. The result was 3100 miles of highway. Construction began in 1912. The Ridge Route and the Yolo Causeway are some of the most significant sections.
An interesting note here is the part that bicyclists played in the highway system. Beginning in the late 1870’s, bicycles began to be imported into the United States any by late 1880’s they were literally everywhere. Imagine Sacramento traffic today, except with bicycles. They were everywhere. People used them to travel near and far. So popular were they that groups of riders began to form. One such group was the Capitol City Wheelmen. This group and others in other parts of the country were dedicated bicycle travelers. The rode together for leisure and sport as well. All these combined groups organized and lobbied for safer, paved roads from Sacramento all the way to Folsom. They used their power and influence to push the ‘good roads” initiative and contribute in a significant way to the earliest Sacramento highways.
This place is so fascinating even the history of the highways in Sacramento is interesting. The details of how the very roads we drive upon each day came into existence is fascinating. To imagine how many people before you have travelled those very roads, on foot, bicycle or automobile, can be very sobering. So many years and so many stories all meshing together to give us this mesmerizing history.