A statue of Captain Gaspar de Portola stands in Pacifica.
Captain Gaspar de Portola and his explorers left the area of San Diego in July of 1769 and had been trekking up the coast of California for the past four months.
The men were tired. Many of them had scurvy and were so weak they had to be tied to their horses every morning before they could continue riding up the coast. It was the end of October now and Captain Portola was beginning to believe he had somehow missed Monterey Bay, the object of his exploration. Heading north from the Half Moon Bay area, he was now facing the solid barrier of a mountain (Montara Mountain). Portola decided to rest his men at a small creek (Martini Creek) at the base of the mountain. His scouts reported that the oceanside path was impossible to follow because at this point there was a huge promontory blocking their northward movement.
The next morning, they began climbing the rugged mountain by following an Indian trail. Because of their weakened physical condition, they were able to proceed only at a slow pace. It was a very difficult path to follow. As the group continued their assent, they noticed the four prominent peaks to their right (which were later named Peak Mountain, Montara Knob, South Peak and North Peak). North Peak proved to be the highest at 1,898 feet. From this vantage point, they could see a great distance and were able to spot a well-known landmark — Point Reyes — to the north. Portola now knew for sure he had missed Monterey Bay. After a few hours rest here, they continued north and descended from Montara Mountain onto a fertile valley that was later to be called San Pedro Valley.
For some 5,000 years, the Native Americans had crossed this mountain on their way to visit villages north and south from the area of Half Moon Bay. The trails were crude, but they were at least a way over the mountain. Although it is not known exactly which route Portola and his men took, it is believed to have been the Indian trail that crossed the mountain at what is now called Saddle Pass.
For the next 70 years, there was no improvement on this crossing, and it was not until the late 1840s that there was even an attempt to improve it. The Road Trail, as it was called, appears on the map done by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1866. The farmers who began living in the Half Moon Bay area considered the road impossible to move their crops on as it took two hours just to traverse on horseback, and they demanded a better road be built by the new state. In 1879 a new road was built along the ocean buffs, and it was called the Half Moon Bay-Colma Road. Parts of the road were a nightmare.
It ascended to the top of Devil’s Slide, and then dropped down into the valley of the Shamrock Ranch in the Linda Mar District of Pacifica. The steepest of the grades, 24 percent, made it exceedingly hard to get their produce trucks up and the solid tires dug ruts into the road bed. This road was used until the county constructed the Coastside Boulevard. Opening on Oct. 31, 1915, it had a treacherous 250 curves. The highest point reached was 922 feet at Saddle Pass, and the road was only 16 feet wide. The promise of using this route commercially from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco never materialized and it became a very difficult road to drive. Nevertheless, thousands of drivers jammed the road of the twisting Coastside Boulevard and they were required to honk their horns on each of the 250 curves in the road.
In the early 1900s, there was a movement to bring a railroad to the coast to better facilitate the movement of produce from the fertile Half Moon Bay fields. The Ocean Shore Railroad was completed to Tobin Station in Pacifica on Oct. 2, 1907. The next most challenging part of the railroad was getting around the dangerous sliding sedimentary rock of San Pedro Mountain. The most treacherous 1,000 feet occurred where the roadbed was built 300 feet above the ocean at Devil’s Slide. When completed in May 1908, the passengers were petrified and thrilled at the same time as they moved across this treacherous section of the Ocean Shore Railroad in their open bed railroad car. The granite rock of Montara Mountain to the south was in sharp contrast to the loose nature of the shale and sandstone that continued to cause problems when it rained. At the completion of this section the railroad opened up the Half Moon Bay valley and allowed produce to move more easily to San Francisco in a fraction of the previous time. Realtors sponsored weekend excursion trains that brought down thousands of potential customers to visit and buy real estate in the wonderful valleys on the coastside.
The Ocean Shore Railroad was a viable means of transportation to the coastside from 1907 to 1920. However, in 1921 it went bankrupt, and it was not until 1937 that the Joint Highway District Number Nine was formed and the present day Highway 1 was built. The new road utilized most of the railroad’s right of way, thereby bypassing the great height of the old roads over Montara Mountain. The highway from Pacifica to Montara, 5.9 miles, was a great improvement over the old 10.6-mile section of the Coastside Boulevard. Highway 1 had only 28 curves, its highest point was 465 feet and it was 26 feet wide. It has become one of the most unique and scenic sections of the coast.
In May 2005, due to many slides and highway closures along Devil’s Slide, ground was broken for a tunnel-construction project to provide more reliable access along the coast. By November 2007, the 4,200 foot tunnel was being bored from both ends to complete the project. Named after the late congressman Tom Lantos, it opened earlier this year.
For enjoyment, read Barbara Vander Werf’s book Montara Mountain (ISBN 0-9632922-2-6) published by Gum Tree Lane Books, PO Box 1574 El Granada, CA 94018 .
Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.