Assuming anyone would want to in the first place, how does one find a former U.S. highway, especially in California? If you’re already a Highway Geek, like I am, you probably already know.
But if you’re a new or aspiring amateur highway historian, you might benefit from some tips on how to find something that was removed from California maps after 1964. If you live in another part of the country, the dates may be different but the principles still apply.
The easiest place to start your search is with a road map or atlas that was printed when the object of your curiosity was still a U.S. highway. That should give you a pretty good idea of where the highway was when that particular map was published. Then it’s a matter of driving to the location, getting out of the car several times, talking to people and walking around to see what you can find.
But don’t rely solely on old maps. Another high-tech tool at our disposal today is Google Earth. An old map combined with new Google Earth is a powerful search tool that can save many hours of aimlessly looking for something, often in a strange area, that simply may not be there today.
A lot can happen to a decommissioned U.S. highway. Some of the examples I’ve encountered are:
•The highway was flooded by a new lake with the old roadbed now possibly being used as boat launching ramps on opposite sides of the lake.
•The highway was broken up and hauled away so a shopping center or industrial park could be built on top of the old right-of-way and some adjacent property.
•The highway was simply abandoned to let time, weather and Mother Nature conspire to slowly cause the roadbed to simply fall apart and eventually disappear.
•The highway was replaced by a nearby Interstate highway and the two routes crossed. So the old highway was renamed to something else, marked only with an unceremonious “End” sign on either side of the newer Interstate. That portion of the old highway determined to be too close to the Interstate’s right-of-way was usually simply broken up and either buried in place or hauled away.
•The highway was signed as something else. In California, many former U.S. highways were re-signed after 1964 as a California State Route. Old highway 99 exists in many places in California as California Route 99.
•The highway was left in place as a secondary road but renamed as a non-highway.
Old 99 is now Union Avenue on the south side of Bakersfield, California and as Golden State Avenue north of the downtown area.
In downtown Reno, Nevada, former U.S. Route 395 is now signed as Virginia Street and in neighboring Carson City, Nevada, as Carson Street.
Those are but a handful of examples of possible obstacles to your search. But they can be largely overcome with patience and a good eye.
If a U.S. highway once served your town, chances are pretty good that it did so first in the downtown area and may have been routed around the downtown area later.
Downtown, after all, is where all the businesses and services were in the early days. Also, in the early days, the town’s principal streets were probably paved and most others weren’t. That made “Main Street” an ideal alignment for an early U.S. highway.
You might find lots of other physical evidence, too.
In the 1930s, 40’s and 50’s, thousands of motels (“motor hotels” shortened to “motels”) were usually built on a U.S. highway because that’s where the budget-minded overnight stay traffic was. As you drive through a candidate town, if you see two or three motels on each side of town connected by the principal street of that town, there’s an excellent chance that you’ve found your former U.S. highway.
Look for old gas stations, too, for the same reasons. Gas stations of the 1920s, 30’s and 40’s were usually small buildings with, perhaps, a single service bay beside the office. Typically, there was a concrete “island” in front, with easy street access. The gas dispensing devices (early ones weren’t pumps – they were gravity-fed) were placed atop the concrete “island” for safety.
Typically, also, the area between the gas pumps and the small building were covered with a peaked or flat carport-style roof. This was mostly for customer and employee convenience in the hot sun, rain, snow, hail or whatever. For night operations, lights could be placed on the underside of the roof, protected from the elements. The roof also protected the dispensing units.
Did your target town have inter-city bus service back in the old days? If it did, chances are pretty good that the Greyhound or Trailways bus station was built on or very near the U.S. highway.
Motels, gas stations and bus stations are all buildings. If the buildings survived the decommissioning of the U.S. highway, they may have done so in some other business.
Many older former gas stations can still be seen today, often as shops for mufflers, window tinting or radio/stereo products or some other type of small business that doesn’t dispense gasoline to today’s modern cars that require today’s modern fuels.
The once-famous Bakersfield Inn in Bakersfield, California was built on both sides of U.S. Route 99. It was noted for the pedestrian bridge that was built over the U.S. highway to connect the east and west sides of the hotel.
Since the glory days, the footbridge has been moved to another location to promote a local entertainment venue, the west side of the property is now a shopping center and the east side of the property, with some original buildings, now serves as a social services agency.
The Bakersfield Inn site and surviving buildings would be easy to miss driving north on Union Avenue. But it was there and, if you know what to look for, you can find remnants of it today.
The “Beaumont Cleaners” in Beaumont, California operates out of a former inter-city Bus station. Directly across the street, the former Beaumont Hotel remains but is no longer a hotel.
While things are different now, having a bus station across the street from a hotel and both being on co-signed U.S. Routes 60, 70 and 99 was a perfectly logical arrangement. The former co-signed highways are known today as Ramsey Avenue and the historic buildings are still in service in 2012. You just have to look beyond present uses to what conditions put those buildings there originally.
Another hint is the pavement. Most early U.S. highways were built with poured concrete. Subsequently, layers of asphalt were usually applied to repair and widen the road surface. If you get lucky (as I have done several times) it is sometimes possible to look at the former highway from the shoulder and clearly see two or three or more distinct layers of asphalt. U.S. highways were well maintained. This is excellent evidence of that.
But if the former U.S. highway has been abandoned, the asphalt may be in bad condition. If that’s the case, it may be fairly easy to actually see the original concrete roadway through gaps in the subsequently applied asphalt.
It’s like an archaeological dig in some ways but as you dig down you go into the past. An example of this that I’ve seen lately is on the Old Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Gorman, California.
The concrete was poured between 1915 and 1917 (before the U.S. highway system was created) and subsequently straightened and widened with asphalt. It’s there today.
If you’re nearby and want to take a look, exit I-5 south of Gorman on California State Route 138 and drive about 3 miles east. The Old Ridge Route is well marked off Hwy 138. It’s easy to find and worth seeing if you are interested in such things.