Coast Highway 101 in Oregon

Travelers on storied Coast Highway 101 in Oregon may grumble about its two lanes, hairpin curves, and periodic rough patches, but they would grumble more if they were suddenly transported to the 19th century.

What roads there were consisted of glorified cow paths courtesy of wagon-wheel ruts, or log roads in soggy places. Road conditions were deep mud in winter and dust clouds in summer.

Settlements then were virtually cut off from each other, owing to the rugged terrain and waterways that separated them.

One way people got around was the beach, where accessible. In fact, several of Oregon's "highways" consisted of stretches of hard, smooth sand. Generations of Native Americans, then white settlers, used the beach to reach neighboring communities.

The late 19th century saw the introduction of freight and passenger stage lines that took advantage of the sand. Stagecoaches were glorified wagons equipped with wide wheels -- better to negotiate sand -- and roll-down curtains to protect passengers against spray, rain, and airborne sand. Stage lines operated year round. Departure times were tide-dependent. Depending on the weather, the journey along the shoreline could be enjoyable. However, natural hazards -- hidden and conspicuous -- included capricious waves, quicksand, and all sorts of obstacles, among them driftwood, buried logs, and roots.

Two northern shoreline highways included the stretch from Cannon Beach to six miles south of Arch Cape, and an 18-mile section from Newport to Waldport. From central Oregon to the south, Florence and Coos Bay shared the longest beach road -- 47 miles -- with just one natural barrier, the Umpqua River.

Ferries provided stream crossings, and steam launches and sternwheelers provided upriver (eastward) transportation at river-coast connections.

Prompted by Governor Oswald West in 1913, the State Legislature passed a measure designating the shoreline's full length as an official part of the state's highways.

The 20th century ushered in the automobile. If all was well, motor vehicles could move freight and passengers quickly on the beach, but salt proved to be murder on engines. Autos also were heavy, and as it happened in thick mud inland, they sank into soft sand.

Eventually, the Southern Pacific Railroad made its appearance between the Siuslaw River and Coos Bay, which triggered the demise of horse and auto stages.

Trade and the desire for greater convenience influenced construction of better roads. Such entities as counties, state and federal governments got into road building. The political strength of pro-road citizenry prodded change in the form of the Oregon Motor Vehicle Department and professional engineers who oversaw improvements funded by the feds. The Oregon Legislature funded a bond issue with $6 million for roads -- a lot of money in those days.

"Macadamized" construction, comprising a three-layer roadbed of graduated rock size, and drainage ditches, dramatically improved driving conditions.

A coastal highway was the dream of State Representative Ben Jones, who in 1919 introduced a bill to fund such an artery from Oregon's northern to southern borders. Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure. That highway eventually became a border-to-border segment of the Roosevelt Military Highway. In addition, east-west highway construction got a big boost with continued public favor.

As they say, however, easier said than done. It was workers against implacable Nature all the way. Rock, forest, and wetland presented barely surmountable challenges.

By May 1932, nearly 400 miles of road had been completed, but they didn't include streams and bodies of water then negotiated by ferries. Ferries posed several disadvantages, among them breakdowns, limited space, and nonexistent night service.

Enter the era of bridge building, captained by the gifted engineer, Conde B. McCullough, who supervised construction of more than 600 spans -- 11 of which are listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Constructed of concrete and steel, they rose during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression under McCullough's sure hand and artful eye.

More than a bridge engineer, McCullough fused beauty with design and sturdiness. Every day, motorists drive over works of art from the Astoria-Megler bridge to the border with California. Each bridge is an artist's or photographer's delight. Art influences include Romanesque, Egyptian, and Art Deco design, reflected in spires, columns, and railings.

Beginning in 1919, when McCullough was hired to manage the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) bridge division, construction continued virtually nonstop. Even the Depression couldn't stop Oregon's bridge-building head of steam, thanks to the federal Public Works Administration. Like road construction, bridge-building meant sorely needed jobs. The workers seemed to embody their enthusiasm for meaningful, paid work by risking their lives in a dearth of adequate safety precautions -- often scrambling around the construction at great heights. The last bridge was completed in 1936.

The highway was completed from border to border, and earned a new name: U.S. Highway 101. The historic construction of Highway 101 and its bridges signaled the end of a romantic, but frustrating, hazard-laden era of Oregon's transportation history.