Building a Super-Highway: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

Traffic is a problem in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is not a new problem. Back in the pre-bridge era, the only way to get from San Francisco to Oakland was to take a ferry or to drive around the Bay. As automobiles became more popular, it quickly became clear that the system of roads then was inadequate to the task. Even with the paving of El Camino Real, which began in 1912 and the addition of Skyline Boulevard to the state highway system in 1919–both two lane roads–a more substantial road, a “super-highway” was needed. On October 20, 1929, that super-highway from San Francisco to San Jose was dedicated. It was known as the Bayshore Highway.
 

Bayshore Highway just south of Salinas Avenue, October 15, 1929.Bayshore Highway just south of Salinas Avenue, October 15, 1929. (wnp26.133; DPW Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

On dedication day, the super-highway did not actually span all the way from San Francisco to San Jose, but we’ll get to that shortly. Construction work on the new highway began on September 11, 1924.1 Mayor Rolph declared the day to be “Bayshore Highway Day.” Caravans from Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco met in South San Francisco for the dedication ceremony. As was his usual schtick, Mayor Rolph got his hands dirty at the ground-breaking, wielding a pick.
 

Bayshore Highway, north of Costa Street, October 15, 1929.Bayshore Highway, north of Costa Street, October 15, 1929. (wnp26.131; DPW Horace Chaffee – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

San Francisco had seeded the super-highway project with a $500,000 appropriation.2 The money was given to the State Highway Commission to build a 5.2 mile stretch of the highway from South San Francisco to San Mateo.3 San Francisco’s expectation was that the State would then commit funds to build the rest of the highway. However, despite the Governor’s support, his Committee of Nine on highway construction and finance put the project on the back-burner.4
 

Bayshore Highway near Tunnel Road, October 15, 1929.Bayshore Highway near Tunnel Road, October 15, 1929. (wnp26.129; DPW Horace Chaffee – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Finally in the Spring of 1925, the legislature passed the Breed Bill, gas tax legislation to raise monies for construction of state highways, and which designated the Bayshore Highway as part of the State highway commission. It would officially start at the intersection of Army and San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco and travel for 41.5 miles alongside the Bay to San Jose.5 However, despite Governor Friend William Richardson’s support of the Bayshore Highway, he vetoed the Breed Bill after opposition from Southern California.6
 

View north on Bayshore at 3rd Avenue, July 17, 1934.View north on Bayshore at 3rd Avenue, July 17, 1934. (wnp27.5557; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Work on the short stretch from South San Francisco to San Mateo continued with the funding provided by San Francisco. When that work hit a snag building around Southern Pacific railroad tracks, the State Highway Commission finally approved funds in June 1926 to build a subway for the highway under the tracks.7 Work on that stretch was finally completed in 1929 and the Bayshore Highway was dedicated on October 20, 1929.8
 

View north of Bayshore Highway toward Visitacion Valley, circa 1935.View north of Bayshore Highway toward Visitacion Valley, circa 1935. (wnp14.4513; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The success of the initial portion of the Bayshore Highway led to more state funding and the highway was extended in increments. Seven miles of road through marshes down to Redwood City was dedicated on May 14, 1931.9 By June 1932, the Bayshore was opened to Palo Alto.10 After another year of work, the Bayshore extended down to Lawrence Station Road in Sunnyvale.11 Work on the final stretches into San Jose took a few more years, but the last link connecting to what would become Highway 17 was finished and dedicated on June 12, 1937.12
 

Bayshore Highway by Old Western Pipe & Steel Shipyard in South San Francisco, circa 1950.Bayshore Highway by Old Western Pipe & Steel Shipyard in South San Francisco, circa 1950. (wnp14.2196; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

After completion of the Bayshore Highway, it was redesignated as U.S. Route 101, previously the designation of El Camino Real and a decision that businesses along El Camino Real protested.13 The uproar resulted in El Camino Real getting the Highway 101 designation back with the Bayshore Highway becoming the Highway 101 bypass. The Bayshore quickly developed a nasty reputation for accidents likely because of its lack of a median barrier.
 

View north on Highway 101 near Silver, April 1964.View north on Highway 101 near Silver, April 1964. (wnp25.6177; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Because of the number of accidents on the Bayshore Highway, the State decided to replace it in the 1940s with a modern freeway that was separated from surface streets and had a median. By 1962, the new Highway 101 would be completed between San Francisco and San Jose. The old Bayshore Highway retains the Bayshore name in San Francisco as Bayshore Boulevard, running parallel to Highway 101 or the Bayshore Freeway as it is also known. The Bayshore “super-highway” had a short life as the main route along the Bay, but it was the first of its kind here.
 

Notes:

1. “Bayshore Road Work Started By Officials,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 1924, p. 1.

2. “Supervisors Inspect New Highway Down Peninsula, San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1923, p. A3.

3. “State Action On New Road Cause Of Joy,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 1924, p. 1A.

4. “Petty Action On Bayshore Arouses Ire,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 1925, p. 1A.

5. “Bayshore’s Backers Are Rejoicing,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 1925, p. 2A.

6. “State’s Good Efforts Must Go On,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1925, p. 4A.

7. “State Board Praised For Decision On Under-Pass,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 1926, p. 1A.

8. “Bayshore Highway Dedicated Before Crowd Of 20,000,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 1929, p. 13.

9. “Rolph Presides Over Dedication Of New Bayshore Link,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1931, p. 15.

10. “Bay Shore Highway Completed Within 14 Miles Of San Jose,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 22, 1932, p. 1A.

11. “Bayshore Road Now Six Miles From San Jose,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 1933, p. 18.

12. “Final Unit Of Bayshore Route Open,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 1937, p. A1.

13. “Want Highway Back,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 1937, p. 7.