On the Road - Oregon's Main Street: U.S.
By Pat Edwards and Jo-Brew
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Mountain Roads in July,
vintage postcard, courtesy of Curtis Irish.
In the early
part of the 20th century, travel through and between the Pacific Coast
states of Washington, Oregon and California was cumbersome. Towns and
developing cities were connected haphazardly and, for the most part, the
roads were still dirt trails wending through all types of terrain. In
the fall and winter months, after the rains began, especially in the
Pacific Northwest, these tracks became muddy quagmires that even horses,
mules and wagons had trouble navigating. To the consternation of local
residents of small towns, the newfangled machines called automobiles
that Henry Ford and his colleagues began building were beginning to
appear and catch on in popularity. Unfortunately, they were frequently
jacked up on blocks and stored away during the wet autumns, winters and
springs when the roads became impassable.
As the love affair with the automobile began to take hold, more and more
people began to petition for a main highway that would not only run
through the whole State of Oregon from north to south, but would also
connect it to its neighbors in Washington and California. The same
movement was happening in those states, too, and the dream to join the
whole West Coast gained momentum.
In 1913, the first shovelful of dirt was turned by Oregon Governor
Oswald West on the Siskiyou Pass to mark the beginning of the
construction of that long-dreamed-of Pacific Highway through Oregon. At
the time, the whole State of Oregon had only 25 miles of paved road.
Even after construction of the highway had begun, it was mainly dirt and
gravel for quite some time. Federal money did not pour into the project
until 1921. Until that time, it was up to the individual counties along
the route to come up with the funding to build the roads through each of
their areas. By its completion in 1926, however, it was adopted as U.S.
Highway 99 and was declared the longest improved highway in the country
The route of the Pacific Highway, later known as U.S. Highway 99, had
its beginnings long before the gold-rush and westward expansion of white
settlers. The Native American tribes roamed throughout the area for
centuries, establishing their own routes to winter and summer lodgings
and areas where fish and game were plentiful and their favorite plants –
camas roots, acorns, hazelnuts, fruits and berries – could readily be
found during their seasons of harvest. Most of those original routes
followed animal trails. The migrating herds of deer and elk, especially,
had for centuries found the most expedient way to traverse the mountains
Once the French Canadian fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company, the gold
miners and, eventually, the white settlers arrived, they also used many
of the Indian trails to find the easiest ways to travel with their
wagons and on horseback.
These early trails eventually became stagecoach roads when the
increasing need to transport settlers, commodities and mail from one
locale to another became necessary.
As part of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 that was later modified in
1866, the federal government began to offer land grants to the
California and Oregon Railroad of California and a company to be
designated by the Oregon Legislature to build a railroad line connecting
California and Oregon. When completed in 1887, the railroad provided
most shipping and passenger travel between Washington and California
through Oregon’s interior, although steamships on the Willamette River
were also used until U.S. Highway 99 was developed and improved.
With the advent of the automobile, more and more families began to avail
themselves of the growing system of roads and highways. Bus lines – most
notably the Pacific Greyhound Lines – began providing transportation for
those who did not own their own automobiles. Soon, Greyhound and, to a
lesser extent, Trailways Bus Lines, began providing parcel post service
between towns along their routes, as well.
The railroads began cutting down on their passenger service and
automobile-related businesses began blossoming along U.S. Highway 99.
Gas stations, auto courts/motels, and other businesses began appearing.
Towns along the routes began growing and prospering. Many of the “Main
Streets” were U.S. Highway 99. There were instances where the business
districts of whole towns were changed to accommodate the tourist and
commercial traffic generated by the highway.
During the mid-1920s and 1930s, when the airplane first became an
obsession with the public; when distance and endurance records were
constantly being reset and Charles Lindberg was the national hero, the
Richfield Oil Company of California came up with an advertising scheme
called the “Lane of Light.” It not only provided a valuable service to
automobile drivers, but to private pilots, as well. At that time, it was
common practice for pilots of those early planes to follow highways and
railroad lines, using them as their main means of navigation. The noses
of the early planes were so long, the pilots could not see over them, so
it was necessary to look down over the side door. Radar and guidance
systems were a thing of the future, so they had to “fly by the seat of
their pants.” It was during this time that U.S. Highway 99 became the
main aviation flyway in Oregon.
The gas stations were spaced less than 100 miles apart along U.S.
Highway 99, so automobile drivers would be approaching the next station
when their fuel gauges were nearing empty.
Motor Bus on Pacific Highway between Ashland and
Medford, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Talent, OR Historical Society.
Near each of the buildings, a 125-foot steel tower was assembled. It had
a beacon on top and neon letters placed on one side of the tower spelled
“Richfield;” on the opposite side was the name of the nearest town where
it was located. Some of the properties had airfields for small planes to
land and hotels were planned for others... some had both. The company’s
plan was to make these sites a small community in themselves. Richfield
owned them, but generally, they did not operate them. In most cases,
they were leased to local businessmen.
The Norman-style buildings themselves were comfortable and luxurious,
incorporating “lounging rooms” for men in one wing and for women in
another. They each had a sales room and a canopy over the gas pumps. The
grounds around them were landscaped to attract business.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression years sent that division of the
Richfield Company into receivership and many of the stations were closed
or put to other uses.
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