9 February 2010

Tonight we are going to depart from our usual format to focus on the literature of place, specifically, Calfornia’s beloved Route 99. We’ll be drawing primarily on a wonderful anthology edited by Stan Yogi for the California Council for the Humanities.  It’s called Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley.

Background on Highway 99

We’ve put together a brief history of this historic highway, drawing on a number sources, including amateur and professional historians and hobbyists who just like to collect information about highways and byways.

For instance, Patrick R. Frank, Founding member of the Route 99 Association of California, writes on the Clark Travel Center website that:

The historic route 99 began as a horse and stagecoach trail extending from Mexico to Canada. Originally, it was called the Pacific Highway, the Golden Chain Route and the Highway of Three Nations, linking from Mexicali (Baja California), Mexico, through the States of California, Oregon, Washington, and ending in Vancouver (British Columbia), Canada.

As automobiles were being mass produced during the early 1920’s, a definitive United States Highway system was needed for the promotion of commerce and tourism.

The year was 1926, when the Pacific Highway was designated to become US No. 99, a part of the U.S. road network. However the U.S. highway shields didn’t occur in California, until January of 1928. The division of Highways assigned the signing responsibility to the Automobile Clubs, at the organizations’ expense, until 1934.

http://www.clarkstravelcenter.com/history.htmlHistoric Route 99 Association of California

Wikipedia explains that in the northern part of California:

The first state highway bond issue, approved by the state’s voters in 1910, included a north–south highway through the central part of the state,  through the Sacramento Valley from the Oregon state line south to Sacramento (replacing the Siskiyou Trail). In addition, a second route followed the west side of the Sacramento Valley from Red Bluff south to Davis and the Yolo Causeway to Sacramento. In mid-1929, this split was renumbered, with US 99W replacing the original western route via Davis, and US 99E following the East Side Highway via Roseville.

We were also interested to learn that:

A third highway heading north from Sacramento was constructed along the Sacramento River levee and Feather Rivers to Yuba City, which was dedicated in October 1924 as the Garden Highway and still exists.


Casey Cooper explains on his U.S. highways website:

[As a United States highway] US 99 was completely decommissioned by 1968 with the completion of I-5, but it had gradually been phased out beginning July 1, 1964.

[As this happened, many parts of 99 were given other numbers, but in our part of the world the number 99 was retained as state route], and any portions of US 99 remain, though mostly as frontage roads. This includes 99W, which was replaced by I-5 and remains as frontage road known as 99W.

[And from Red Bluff to Sacramento, State Route 99W is a mainstay of local traffic.  You can see it passing through towns like Corning, Orland, Willows, Williams, and Dunnigan.]


Chico Wiki details the history of 99 East from Red Bluff on down to Sacramento:

California State Route 99  is the main highway through Chico and the only freeway in town. The freeway in its modern form was built in the 1960s, but the highway has existed in some form since well before then.

Business 99 is the old highway prior to the building of the freeway, which can still be followed along the Esplanade and through downtown along Main and Broadway.  [Many of the motels on north Esplanade are remnants of the original 99E.]

The proposal to relocate Highway 99E through Chico, was the most single most important influence in the growth of the city of Chico. At the time it was a very controversial proposal [opposed by many environmentalists because of its encroachment on Chico’s historic and treasured Bidwell Park.] The California Highway Transportation System agreed to construct a causeway over Bidwell Park, and to beautify and improve The Esplanade which had been the old 99. The first section of the six mile stretch of freeway through Chico was dedicated September 24, 1963. The freeway was built during a time when Chico was much smaller in terms of population, and is often now seen as inadequate for current traffic volumes. The on-ramps are notoriously short within central Chico, which can lead to congestion during busy driving times. There are signs advising through traffic to use the left lanes to help alleviate this congestion and allow for easier merging for cars coming on to the highway, although this advice is not always heeded.


Readings from Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley

Here’s an excerpt from a narrative by Pedro Fages, one of the first Europeans to see the Central Valley in 1773.  He writes of a village called Buena Vista above the River San Francisco:  pp. 2-3.

A century later and closer to home, here’s an excerpt from the diary of William Henry Brewer that of his trip from San Francisco to Red Bluff and return in the 1860s, plus some notes about Chico and the influence of the Bidwells:   pp.  18-19.

And here is a contemporary poem by Gary Thompson, reflecting on the Bidwells and Old Cohasset Road:  p. 24.

Here’s poet Gary Snyder’s take on the valley, “Covers the Ground.”  pp. 30-31.

There are, of course, cities in the Great Central Valley.  Here’s a view of city life, this of Sacramento in the 1920s, and it offers a perspective from an immigrant, Ernesto Galarza, from his memoir, Barrio Boy.   pp.  49-51

Here’s another view of Sacramento, by Joan Didion, including an excellent description of Highway 99.  pp 194-196

Here’s another city description, this one by William Saroyan, describing Fresno in 1934:  pp.  74-75

And a description the valley’s agricultural life and labor by Poet Roberta Spear.  pp. 175-177.

Here’s a poem by   Catherine Webster, “Child Off Highway 99.”   p. 326

George Keithley writes a poem about another Sacramento Valley tradition,    “Red Bluff Rodeo” p. 235

Susan Kelly-Dewitt writes a poem about another familiar valley scene, “Rice Fields at Dusk”   p. 307

That completes our literary view of Highway 99 and the Central Valley from Stan Yogi’s outstanding anthology, published by the California Humanities Committee and Heydey Press.  We recommend that you get a copy of the book for your own bedside reading.