100 Years Ago Today: The California State Highway Commission, Caltrans Predecessor, Is Launched

Commission members at groundbreaking ceremony for first project, State Highway 1, August 1912 (via Calisphere, Click to enlarge)

The year starts off with a look back one full century to the birth of highway planning in the state.

On January 2, 1912, the seven division engineers of the California State Highway Commission met for the first time.

The Commission set the stage for building a network of roads to connect the far-flung areas of our large and sparsely populated state (1910 population: 2.3 million).

While driving was still very much a novelty and considered a hobby more than a transportation mode, the move to create a state highway agency charged with accommodating all that traffic was quite prescient in light of how rapidly the population embraced motoring.

As we have noted elsewhere, the explosion of car ownership in Los Angeles was mirrored across California.  The numbers say it all:

1914 California automobile registrations:   125,516

1930 California automobile registrations: 2,015,418

The first three State Highway Commissioners, including N.D. Darlington of Los Angeles, were appointed in 1911, but the actual commencement of field operations did not begin until all seven regional leaders were appointed.

The original bond issue gave the Commission $18,000,000 to build a State highway system.

In 1923, the first state gasoline tax was enacted, providing revenue for the Commission’s ambitious plans.

In 1961, California established the Highway Transportation Agency that consisted of the Department of Public Works (which included the Division of Highways), Department of Motor Vehicles, and the California Highway Patrol.

The Highway Transportation Agency was renamed the Transportation Agency in 1965.

In 1973, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) was formed to unify all transportation functions under a single Department.

Caltrans retains the seven divisions in the state of California as created 100 years ago today.

For more details on the early days of the Commission, the January, 1932 edition of California Highways And Public Works looks back at its first 20 years.