Creating Pacific Coast Highway And Other Landmark Projects From 1924: Metro Library’s New Collection Of Historic California Highway Commission Documents

The Coast Highway north of Santa Monica, 1924.

We have embarked on an exciting new project this year, one that is already yielding fascinating insights into local transportation history.

Metro’s Transportation Library & Archive has entered into an arrangement with Occidental College Library to digitize their complete collection of California Highways, the official publication of the California Highway Commission (predecessor to Caltrans).

California Highways (later titled California Highways & Public Works beginning in 1927) was published from 1924 until 1967.

Occidental College Library Special Collections is a participant in LA as Subject along with Metro Transportation Library & Archive.

Our professional relationship with Occidental through this network of more than 200 libraries, archives, museums, and other historical and cultural institutions has facilitated this mutually beneficial project.

Now that we have completed the digitization process for 1924, we wanted to publicize this project and share some of the interesting stories about California roadwork from the inaugural year of the Commission’s critically important publication.

But first, some background.

Between 1914 and 1922, auto registrations in Los Angeles County had quadrupled — a testament to the explosion of automobile ownership’s explosion in the 1920s.

In the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan for the Traffic Commission of the City & County of Los Angeles (41p. PDF), authors Frederick Law Olmsted, Harland Bartholomew and Charles Henry Cheney stated that:

The street traffic congestion problem of Los Angeles is exceeded by that of no other city…The traffic congestion in the area surrounding the central business district…will in the future find repetition in numerous sub-centers that are even-less prepared, to accomodate great growth.

Planning, engineering and construction to accomodate the state’s growing transportation infrastructure needs were on a serious upswing, and several well-known projects can be traced to 1924 alone.

Building the Waterman Grade route to Lake Arrowhead, 1924.

A statewide traffic census on state highways was launched in 1924 for two days each month, “indefinitely.”

A smallpox outbreak and subsequent quarantine failed to halt construction on the “Coast Boulevard” (later, Pacific Coast Highway) through the Malibu Ranch.

California began plans for a statewide forest road system and new bridges and roads into Yosemite National Park.

Extensive articles from the first year of California Highways document highway construction and improvements was occuring simultaneously on several massive projects, including “California’s most expensive state highway (in Whittier!), the Waterman Grade up to Lake Arrowhead, the seaside route through Big Sur, the “Highway of the Missions” north of Santa Barbara, “conquering” the historic Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe and the coastal extension through Pt. Mugu near Oxnard — all in 1924.

In June, Commission officials excitedly welcomed “Road Builders Of A Nation” to the 10th annual American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) convention, held in San Francisco, with this proviso:

It is suggested that visiting officials and delegates come to California over the northern routes and leave the state via Los Angeles.

This will give opportunity for a motor trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles following the convention.

Sufficient automobiles to transport the entire convention over state highways between the two cities will be available. The trip will be complimentary.

One can only imagine how eager state officials were to show off the newest roads and highways that they would transport every convention attendee from San Francisco to Los Angeles…for free.

There’s even humor in the montly “Smileways” column. This tidbit from September, 1924 is titled “Must Have Been Los Angeles”:

Irate Wife: “John, you’ve kept dinner waiting.”

Meek Husband: “Yes, dear, but I had to walk to where my car was parked tonight, there wasn’t a taxi in sight.”

This project should yield benefits for years to come. But the process is more complex than just scanning old publications.

Tejon Pass Ridge Route improvements, 1924.

Library staff at Occidental have arranged for us to borrow several years of the publication at a time to digitize them.

The material is very fragile and requires special handling.

Once scanned, the file size of each document is reduced and optimized so that they take up less online storage space and appear more legible.

Library staff perform optical character recognition (OCR) on each item to comply with Section 508 requirements for online recognition.

Pt. Mugu, before and after new coastal route construction, 1924.

Metadata is added to each record so that keyword searching will yield relevant results to find information on a particular subject or if a particular date of the desired publication is not known.

Finally, the files are organized on an externally-accessible server, allowing us to point to links to the documents rather than sending file attachments.

Additionally, catalog records here and at Occidental will include these links so that both the researcher looking for this item as well as the casual browser who stumbles upon this publication can instantly access more than 40 years of this title and locate a particular issue without any need to visit or even contact the library.

This project is in line with our broaders goals of facilitating access to information and removing barriers to findability.

We are moving forward with plans to digitize a large portion of our print collection, recognizing the ease and convenience of 24/7 access to material that doesn’t get lost, stolen, misplaced, defaced or mis-shelved, while allowing more than one person at a time to use a particular item and supporting full-text keyword searches — reducing time spent for exactly what users want.

When completed, digital access to the entire 44-year history of the California Highway Commission’s official publication will allow both academic researchers and transportation officials to look back at how our roads and highways were planned, constructed, maintained and improved.

California Highway Commission's State Highway System map, 1924. (Successor agency Caltrans' District 7 covers Los Angeles to this day)

We know that historians and others will be particularly intrigued to compare highway planning to transit planning as the years go forward.

And we are thrilled to enhance our collection of transit history with this critical resource for highway research.

California Highways offers insight into our legacy of not just highway planning, but the political processes of the past, historical financing, the impact of roads on the landscape and environment, and the eventual identification of the state with automobile travel and Los Angeles with congestion.

One year down, more than forty to go.