OLD CUESTA ROAD–A photo from the California Division of Highways [now Caltrans] which once reported 71 hazardous curves on the highway north of San Luis Obispo. The road was built in 1915 and improved in 1923, the photo is from about 1922.
Something about the Cuesta Grade captures the imagination of readers. One of the popular pages in Vault is a Cuesta Grade accident photo from 1963. A quick web search shows interest in the pass from railroad and highway historians.
The railroad spanned the grade in the late 1800′s The automobile came a few years later. Stage Coach Road is the closest thing today to the original trail over the grade.
On September 12, 1965 an Elliot Curry story was published on the history and future of the Cuesta Grade. [A few paragraphs have been rearranged and the story edited for length. The first part of the story talks about the highway department plans then delves into history. ]
The Cuesta has always been a formidable foe.
The first route over the pass was called the “Padre’s Trail” and it simply followed the bottom of the Canyon, dodging obstacles along the creek. The first county road over the pass was constructed with a $20,000 bond issue in 1876 and was called Cuesta Road. It followed the westerly slope and most of it is still there, but recommended only for daring drivers.
Before the coming of the railroad in the Nineties [1890's], much of the grain and wool from the north part of the county had to be hauled over the pass to San Luis Obispo and supplies for the ranches had to be hauled back over the torturous route.
For the big freight wagons, pulled by six or eight horses it was a day’s journey just to get over the grade. On leaving San Luis Obispo the first stop was the Waterfall saloon, built over San Luis Creek, near the start of the long climb. It was eight miles to Bean’s station at the foot of the grade on the north side and it took a good eight hours to make it.
Henry Twisselman, a pioneer of the Shandon country, always claimed to be the only man who ever drove a 12-horse team over the grade with three wagons hitched together–the ancestor of some of today’s truck and semi-trailer monsters.
The State Division of Highways office was organized in San Luis Obispo in 1912 and it soon came to grips with the Cuesta.
In the fall of 1914 contract No. 110 was let for a 24-foot roadbed and gravel surfacing on the easterly slope of the pass. Total cost was $58,771 and the surface was oiled in 1916 and maintained as such until 1922.
In 1922 curves were widened and a reinforced concrete pavement was put down with curbs along each side. Cost of this project was $169,166 and parts of the old pavement can still be glimpsed along the mountainside where it wound its way through 71 curves.
By 1936 the old paved route had become a traffic trap that could delay motorists by as much as half an hour. The state highway commission decided to make this one of the best mountain highways in the west and in the following two years they appropriated $945,000 for the job. Metropolitan Construction company built the four lane highway in 18 months.
When the present grade was opened in 1938 it was called the third largest road building job in the west. Excavation involved 1,365,000 cubic yards of earth, considered a monumental task at that time. Today more earth than that is moved to build the Cayucos by-pass.
The Cuesta Grade crosses a pass in the Santa Lucia Mountains and whatever else they may be, these mountains are not “rock ribbed.” One of the biggest problems encountered in the construction was the instability of the mountainside where the mud deposits were sometimes 40 to 50 feet thick. The problem persisted for years at the Division V [Highway Dept.] engineers devised ways of draining the water out of a side hill which kept sliding toward the canyon bottom.
Some of the most harrowing chapters in the history of Cuesta ended when the freeway was built through San Luis Obispo. When Highway 101 was still routed down Monterey Street, runaway trucks used to come screeching and honking through the city at 100-mile-an-hour speeds. In one of the last such episodes a truck raced along Monterey all the way to Nipomo [Street] and then took out the corner of a a building as it dived into San Luis Creek.
At the time there was a push to convert all of Highway 101 in the county from expressway into freeway, eliminating grade level access. That goal that eludes the road to this day.
The Cuesta was still using the 1930′s era bridge over the railroad within my driving career. The road has undergone at least two major face lifts since the mid-1960′s and many of the same issues bedevil drivers and road engineers.
And yes, the term Cuesta Grade is redundant. So is Morro Rock. Apparently boosters in the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce tried to get the name changed in the 1930′s to La Cuesta. Still waiting for that one to catch on.