The Pacific Highway

Northern end of the Pacific Highway, San Diego's Gateway to the North.
Northern end of the original Pacific Highway, San Diego’s former Gateway to the North, with Torrey Pines Park and the older (upper) and newer (lower) Torrey Pines grades in the background.

A road from San Diego north toward other population centers along the California coast has existed since the 18th century. El Camino Real led from Old Town around the eastern shore of Mission Bay, through Rose Canyon and over the mesa to Sorrento Valley. From there it continued north through what are now Carmel Valley, Rancho Santa Fe, Encinitas and Carlsbad to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, and beyond. Much of its original route in these areas, and in other parts of California further north, is traced by streets, roads and highways which are still called El Camino Real.

In the 19th century, most travel between San Diego and other coastal California towns was by ship or, after 1885, by rail, although from the 1860s to the 1880s a stagecoach line ran to Los Angeles from Old Town, and later from downtown, over much of the same route as El Camino Real. Improvements to the road north began in 1894 when A. G. Gassen, who owned most of the property in Rose Canyon, offered to deed the city a 40-foot right-of-way through his property if the city would build a wagon road along the side of the canyon, avoiding the old road in the creek bed which was ‘troublesome and dangerous in the rainy season’. Although the mayor objected to what he felt was the improvement of Gassen’s property at city expense, gangs of ‘pick and shovel men’ were put to work on the city wagon road and it was eventually completed in 1895.

Meanwhile, San Diego was growing and this growth included new communities along its northern shores, beginning in 1887 with the La Jolla Park and Pacific Beach subdivisions. The streets of these subdivisions and subsequent extensions and additions eventually connected and provided an alternative route along the coast from the mouth of Rose Canyon to La Jolla. This coastal route was later extended beyond La Jolla to accommodate tourists who wanted to visit what became, in 1899, Torrey Pines Park, first on burros and then in large tally-ho coaches.

In 1898 the San Diego Union reported on an international exhibition of automobile vehicles being held in Paris and added that the close of the century could find the horseless wagon coming into general use in the United States, and that its advent would be marked by the long desired era of good roads. The first automobile was seen in San Diego in October 1899 as part of a circus parade. In December 1899 D. C. Collier, a prominent real estate operator, was reported to have ordered one from the east which, according to the Union, was expected to be scaring horses in San Diego in about 4 weeks. Collier did have the distinction of being the first San Diegan to own an automobile, in February 1900, and he was soon joined by others, beginning the inexorable growth in automobile traffic and the need for more and better roads that has never really stopped.

In May 1904 the Los Angeles Times reported on the first ever trip by car from Los Angeles to San Diego along the coast route. The Times claimed that many had gone as far as Oceanside and San Luis Rey by being helped over the sand at San Onofre, but had then gone inland to Escondido; the run along the coast was considered impossible for most automobile users because of steep grades, deep sand stretches and the fords. Nevertheless, a driver with three guests left the Times building at 8:10 AM and passed the San Diego courthouse a few minutes before 6 PM, having covered the 115 miles in only 9 ¾ hours, including two hours at various stops.

By 1909 an automobile trip to Los Angeles was no longer considered impossible, but was still noteworthy. The Union reported in August that the MacFarlands, a prominent Pacific Beach couple, traveled to ‘Elks Week’ in Los Angeles overland in their Maxwell Runabout. On their return they made the distance between Los Angeles and Pacific Beach in eight hours.

In 1912 the California state highway commission announced its intention to build a highway to Los Angeles beginning at the San Diego city limits near Del Mar and working north. Feeling that the city should build a proper connection with the state road, the council authorized the city engineer to recommend a feasible route from Old Town to the city limits. The routes under consideration were either by way of La Jolla or Rose Canyon, and both routes would begin with a fine concrete and steel bridge over the San Diego River at Old Town.

The city engineer’s recommendation, presented in August 1912, favored the coast route, via Pacific Beach, La Jolla and the Torrey Pines grade. He reasoned that the coast highway, except for the Torrey Pines grade, was built over comparatively level country and would be easier to grade and maintain. It also had water available for sprinkling, at least as far as the Biological station (now Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and the alignment as a whole was far superior to the other road. The coast road passed through a populous and rapidly growing district and would accommodate increasing local as well as through traffic. Finally, this was one of the finest scenic drives in the vicinity of San Diego, invaluable as an advertisement, and always had been and always would be by far the most popular route.

By contrast, the road through Rose Canyon had been located and constructed as a wagon road before the automobile was dreamed of and was a ‘side-hill’ road, following the windings of the side-hill upon which it was built with a view more to economy in construction than good alignment. It had many sharp turns, was narrow in places and the hillside on which it was built sloped anywhere from 15 to 35 degrees. It could be improved by straightening out some of the worst turns but converting it into a boulevard equal in width and alignment to the La Jolla road would be expensive. It was also hot, dusty and unattractive in the summer months and there was no water available for sprinkling purposes. The city engineer conceded that it was 3.5 miles shorter, which would have been an argument in its favor in the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but with 90% of travel now by automobile, the straighter alignment of the coast road, presumably allowing higher speeds, was as important as distance.

The city engineer did recommend that the Torrey Pines grade, with a grade of 9 or 10 percent and a short, dangerous turn or ‘switch back’, should be entirely relocated and rebuilt (this was a route from Torrey Pines beach to Torrey Pines mesa now followed by Torrey Pines Park Road). The grade opposite the Biological station (now the northern extension of La Jolla Shores Drive) was also ‘susceptible of improvement’ in several places, with three sharp turns that should be straightened out.

The city engineer’s concern about water for sprinkling purposes was related to the fact that he believed that the time when the city would be financially able to improve a boulevard with a substantial pavement was not yet at hand. Instead, he respectfully suggested that the coast road be surfaced with good road material, decomposed granite, and the pipeline extended from the Biological station, where in addition to dust abatement it could probably also be used on the city farm on Torrey Pines mesa. The city engineer also suggested a connecting link between the coast and Rose Canyon routes at a point near the city farm to allow those who preferred the shorter route via Rose Canyon an opportunity to go that way.

Although the city council adopted the city engineer’s recommendation, a group of ‘Rose Canyon boosters’ objected to the coastal route and prepared a petition outlining the advantages of Rose Canyon. In addition to being four miles shorter and avoiding two dangerous grades, the petitioners noted that from a scenic standpoint the Rose Canyon route was preferable to the route by way of Torrey Pines since it would furnish the traveler a change of scenery, the traveler having already been in view of the ocean for the greater portion of the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego. They also made the prescient point that the Rose Canyon route would open up a large area of the city of San Diego to future development.

By 1913 surveyors were at work on the Torrey Pines grade and despite the city engineer’s concerns about funding the plan did include concrete pavement with a surface of coarse sand and oil. Property owners in Pacific Beach and La Jolla, who would be expected to pay for improvement of streets in their neighborhoods, also endorsed paving the coast highway through their communities. The Evening Tribune noted that the coming Exposition of 1915 was expected to attract large crowds, many of whom would arrive by automobile, and an improved highway would give residents of these communities the advantage of this heavy influx of visitors.

However, the paving projects in Pacific Beach and La Jolla were delayed by local politics. In Pacific Beach, the dispute was whether to pave Grand or Garnet avenues. Grand Avenue was also the right-of-way of the ‘La Jolla Line’, the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway, which ran down the center of the wide avenue and which would have complicated the paving project. The council initially voted unanimously to pave Grand, but after continuing protests over the Grand Avenue assessment district, reversed course and in February 1915 decided to pave Garnet Avenue.

Prior to 1915 the only route from San Diego to Pacific Beach and La Jolla passed east of Mission Bay and entered Pacific Beach over Grand or Garnet avenues. In 1915, however, the Bay Shore Railway built a bridge over the inlet to Mission Bay between Ocean Beach and the sandy peninsula that became Mission Beach. When the ‘Hatfield flood’ of January 1916 washed out the bridges over the San Diego River at Old Town this bridge briefly became the only route from San Diego to Pacific Beach, La Jolla and the north. The bridge at Old Town was eventually rebuilt but when the route for a paved highway to the north was being considered in April 1916, rival groups representing Ocean Beach and Old Town appeared before the city council to make their case. Drawing upon history, the Old Town faction noted that Father Junipero Serra was something of a pathfinder and road builder and that in making his way north he chose the road through Old Town that became known as El Camino Real. The Ocean Beach party responded that although they had the greatest respect for the Padres, they had also established their settlement at Old Town while San Diego grew up at an entirely different site, so they might have also been mistaken in their location of the best route north.

Debates about which route to pave did not immediately translate into action, however. In April 1917, the Automobile Club of Southern California report on highway conditions for the Los Angeles Coast Route stated that pavement was complete from Second and Broadway to the India and Winder street crossing, thence dirt road to the top of Torrey Pines grade, with the exception of the Biological hill which is paved. From Torrey Pines into Los Angeles pavement was complete.

In July 1918 the news was that the city engineer’s office was working on plans for paving La Jolla Boulevard to Turquoise Street, Turquoise to Cass and Cass to Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. Garnet would be paved next and ultimately paving would be completed to Winder Street. New specifications called for 4 inches of concrete on a 20-foot wide roadway. The city would pay 60 percent with the remainder to be assessed against the abutting property on a 10-year bonding plan. Progress was slow, however; Garnet Avenue was finally paved in November 1919 and the remaining sections of paving completed in early 1920, finally giving motorists a continuous paved highway from San Diego to Los Angeles via Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

Meanwhile, despite being relegated to secondary status, the Rose Canyon road was also being improved. In January 1919 the Evening Tribune reported that a gang of city prisoners with picks and shovels was putting the road between Morena and Sorrento in first class shape for auto truck travel, widening a number of sharp curves so that two machines can make the turns without danger of colliding. According to the Tribune most truck hauling between San Diego and Los Angeles used that road because it is 5 miles shorter. The city also had in view future paving of that highway, which had been the main highway to the north before the coast highway was improved.

In 1924 Mission Boulevard through Mission Beach was paved as part of the extension of the San Diego Electric Railway through Mission Beach to La Jolla, providing another paved route between Pacific Beach and San Diego proper. This alternative route joined the coast highway at Garnet Avenue and Cass Street via Pacific Avenue (later Pacific Beach Drive) and Cass. The route was reportedly somewhat shorter and avoided the ‘unsavory back door of the city’, presumably referring to the slaughterhouse on the north side of the San Diego River across from Old Town.

An Evening Tribune headline in December 1924 announced that ‘Pigs May Build Rose Canyon Highway’. According to the Tribune, the sale of hogs raised at the city farm on municipally-collected garbage had raised over $5000. Other recent sales had swollen the pork barrel from the municipal piggery to such an extent that the city manager had decided to go ahead with construction of the Rose Canyon highway. He proposed to appropriate $12,000 for a gasoline power shovel and $12,000 for a fleet of six trucks to improve the grade through Rose canyon. This would take heavy truck traffic off the paved highway through La Jolla and the Biological and Torrey Pines grades. The Rose Canyon route remained unpaved, however, while the paved coast highway through the beach communities became part of U.S. Route 101 in the new nation-wide system of standardized roads in 1926.

In 1927 the state highway commission indicated that it would aid San Diego in its plans to pave Rose Canyon and re-route the Torrey Pines grade. The city council adopted a resolution in March 1927 authorizing plans and specifications under which the city would grade and prepare the road for paving and the state highway commission would pave the road to a width of 30 feet. In August 1927 the San Diego Union reported that a petition with the signatures of more than 650 citizens asked the council to start proceedings for the paving of the Rose Canyon road, then little used because of its rough, unpaved condition but which, if paved, would take all the stage, truck and other heavy traffic off the coast route. In January 1928 the state highway commission did make provision in its budget for paving the Rose Canyon road if the city would obtain the rights of way and grade the road to state standards.

In February 1929 the common council again discussed construction of a continuous paved highway by way of Rose Canyon north to a new connection with the state highway just this side of Del Mar. The discussions included a new 6% grade down Torrey Pines hill and a new approach for the highway into Del Mar, including a new overhead crossing over the Santa Fe tracks just south of Del Mar. The current paved highway across Torrey Pines mesa would be materially widened. In August 1929 a contract for grading the Rose Canyon highway was awarded to the R. E. Hazard Company; the city council also provided funds to change the channel of the creek in Rose Canyon to straighten out the road and make it unnecessary to build a bridge over the creek. The new road would be 29,000 feet long and graded to a width of 46 feet. Plans called for paving the road for a width of 30 feet. The road would leave Balboa Avenue near Pacific Beach and head north, following the old Rose Canyon grade for several miles and then swinging down into the canyon to parallel the Santa Fe right of way for a mile before swinging back to the west to climb up to the Torrey Pines mesa road several miles south of the Torrey Pines grade.

Grading was completed and the new highway opened to traffic in June 1930. The Union reported that it was not merely an old road widened but departed from the old route to seek an easier gradient and more wide-angle turns. Plans would permit use of the road until the work of paving was started by the state, perhaps before the next rainy season.

Paving was completed and state highway officials came to town for an official opening in December 1930. The ceremonies took place at the junction of the new Rose Canyon highway with the old Torrey Pines highway at the city farm, about where Revelle College at the University of California, San Diego, is now located. The improvement effort then moved north to where four steam shovels were expected to begin removing dirt for the new gradient that would replace the tortuous Torrey Pines grade. The city administration was also planning to improve the road by widening the causeway across the flats near the northern limits, widening of the Torrey Pines mesa road and improving the road from the mouth of Rose canyon into the city.

The original plan to replace the Torrey Pines grade had been for a bypass road with a 6% grade on the west, or ocean side, of Torrey Pines Park. In addition to improving the grade, the new road would be the finest scenic highway in Southern California, in the opinion of the division engineer for the state highway commission. However, even in the 1930s, the plan to carve a highway out of scenic cliffs in what was then a city park met opposition and the League to Save Torrey Pines Park was organized in La Jolla. Under pressure from the League, the park board voted to oppose the road. The city responded by voting to rescind the 1899 ordinance setting aside Torrey Pines Park, withdrawing it from the jurisdiction of the park board. The park board sued, and won, and eventually a compromise was reached in which a new road would be built within the park, but on the east, or valley side, instead. Initially the new route was to be for northbound traffic only, with southbound traffic continuing to use the old grade.

The widening of the road on Torrey Pines mesa south of Torrey Pines Park was also affected by environmental concerns, this time over the fate of a line of trees on the east side of the existing road. This controversy was solved by building a separate roadway to the east of the trees, allowing the trees to remain in the center of the divided highway. Although the highway is now long gone, some of these trees remain on what is now the UCSD campus.

With the completion of the new Torrey Pines grade in June 1931 the San Diego Union began to refer to the highway project as the Million Dollar Gateway to the North, and to note that only the segments south of Rose Canyon remained uncompleted. Improvement of the road from Rose Canyon into the city would involve grading and paving an extension of what was then Atlantic Street (now Pacific Highway) from Barnett Avenue to the Rose Canyon highway at Balboa Avenue. The city would grade the Atlantic Street extension and the state would then pave the entire route from Rose Canyon to Broadway. State aid was also expected for an overhead bridge over the Santa Fe tracks south of Del Mar provided the city would build a bridge over Sorrento Slough (the outlet from Los Penasquitos creek and lagoon on Torrey Pines Beach).

The Sorrento bridge was completed in September 1932 but it could not be opened until the overhead bridge was completed. In January 1933 contracts for two other bridges, over Cudahy Creek and Tecolote Creek, north of the San Diego River, were awarded and the bridge over the San Diego River was advertised for bid. Grading of the Atlantic Street extension between Barnett Avenue and Balboa Avenue began in March 1933 and was expected to be completed within 90 days. However, construction work was delayed in April by heavy rain, 1.3 inches in 4 hours, and many places along the highway were flooded with mud and water. The muddy condition of the fill across Morena temporarily halted construction work there and work on the San Diego River bridge was delayed when a truck carrying steel rods for the bridge became stuck.

The overhead bridge at Del Mar was completed in June 1933 and in August the contract to pave Atlantic Street and extension was awarded. The new San Diego River bridge was expected to be ready by the time the paving was complete. The work was completed and a formal dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the Million Dollar Gateway to the North in December 1933. After the dedication at the downtown terminus of the new road, a caravan of several hundred automobiles, three abreast, carried the crowd to the ribbon-cutting at the foot of Rose Canyon.

A few months after the formal opening of the Gateway to the North, in April 1934, the city planning commission decided that the proper name for Atlantic Boulevard would be Pacific Highway and voted to ask the council to order the change in name. In June 1935 an ordinance was adopted changing the names of Atlantic Street, West Atlantic Street, Rose Canyon Highway, Torrey Pines Mesa Road and Torrey Pines Road to Pacific Highway (Pacific Avenue in Pacific Beach had earlier been renamed Braemar Avenue to avoid any confusion with the new Pacific Highway; it was renamed again in June 1935 to Pacific Beach Drive).

Pacific Highway Sign

As San Diego continued to grow, and traffic on the gateway to the north continued to increase, further improvements were made to Pacific Highway. In 1938, for example, the 9.7-mile section between Barnett Avenue and Miramar Road, including the bridge over Rose Creek in Pacific Beach, was widened to four lanes with a raised area dividing the highway. By the 1960s, however, these incremental improvements had also become inadequate and the gateway to the north was completely rebuilt. The new freeway, Interstate 5, followed much the same route as Pacific Highway from San Diego through Rose Canyon, but then diverged in a northerly direction toward Sorrento Valley and beyond.

Some portions of the original highway that weren’t buried under the new freeway remain in service today. The former Atlantic Street in San Diego is still called Pacific Highway from its beginning at what was once the ferry landing on the bay and is now Seaport Village to just beyond the San Diego River, which it crosses on its original bridge. Where Pacific Highway turns toward Mission Bay and becomes Fiesta Island Road a short segment of the original route continues over Cudahy Slough, where the 1933 bridge is still standing (although now a dead end).

1933 Pacific Highewy bridge over Cudahy Slough
1933 Pacific Highway bridge over Cudahy Slough

A few other sections of the former Pacific Highway, including Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach, Gilman Drive between Interstate 5 and UCSD and North Torrey Pines Road between UCSD and Del Mar are also still in use. The ‘overhead bridge’ over the railroad tracks south of Del Mar is also still there and was recently retrofitted to meet modern structural and seismic standards. When San Diego relinquished its interest in the bridge to Del Mar (the bridge lies within both cities), Del Mar declared the bridge to be a historic site and the redevelopment effort also preserved that monument to the former Pacific Highway, San Diego’s Gateway to the North.

Recently restored 1933 North Torrey Pines Bridge