Cliff Pierce: 1932: Taking the High Road to Half Moon Bay

Story by Cliff Pierce

The year was 1932. Late on a July afternoon a low level mixture of clouds and fog moved in from the ocean off Half Moon Bay, swirled up the Pilarcitos Valley and settled on the hills and mountain ridges to the east in less than an hour what had been a bright, sunny day become gray and dreary. By seven o’clock it was almost dark and getting darker by the minute.

On the other side of the mountains in San Mateo, Ludmilla Pierce waved a final goodbye to her husband and watched his train pull out of the station. Her son, Stanley, was with her. Her thoughts shifted to the long drive back to their vacation cottage in the Santa Cruz mountains, It was over on the coastside in the Butano Canyon near Pescadero; the first part of their trip would take them across Crystal Springs Lakes, up the mountain through the pass and down the old road to Half Moon Bay. She put the car in gear and headed for the hills.
At nine o’clock that night high on the mountainside near the summit, Ludmilla suddenly hit the brakes and came to an abrupt stop. The road in front of her had disappeared! She could see nothing beyond the headlights. The sat there for a minute, then fourteen year old Stan opened the car door and stepped out into darkness and chilling, dense fog. His mother sat tensely behind the wheel.
Stanley moved cautiously. He saw dirt under his feet, not pavement Sliding one foot past the other, he felt his way forward. He hadn’t gone ten feet, when realized exactly where they had stopped. What he saw was to stick with him for the rest of his life as one of his most terrified moments. He was on a ledge. Three feet from his toes, the ground dropped away into black space. Between the fog and the darkness there was nothing out there to be seen. They had been that close to going over the edge!
He moved back to the car and found the pavement a few feet to the rear. His eyes became more accustomed to his surroundings, and he could actually see where he was walking. He and his mother came up with a plan. He would walk a few feet ahead of the car on the edge of the asphalt and guide her down. It wouldn’t be too far before they would break out beneath the clouds. With Stan’s help, they got the big family Caddy back on the pavement and began their slow descent. Would they meet other traffic? They hoped not, and they didn’t.
But, we have to remember, it was 1932.
A hitchhiker on this road might have to wait an an hour before seeing another car. They eventually broke out into the clear and made the rest of the trip with no more thrills. It had been a night to remember!
Remnants of the “old highway” that my mother and brother were on that night still cling to the mountainside high above today’s #92. Driving east out of Half Moon Bay, starting up the hill to the summit, a driver can see traces of the roadbed still evident far up the hillside on the left. And he can be thankful that he’s down here instead of up there!
When you spot it, you will be seeing the former San Mateo and Half Moon Bay Turnpike. In the 1860s it was carved out and graded by hand, horsepower and dynamite. In deep dust or at its muddy, slippery, twisty worst it was used by horse-drawn wagons and coaches to haul cargo and passengers over the mountain. Considering that a team of six horses pulling a stagecoach or freight wagon would take up fifty feet of space, front to back, there must have been some dicey confrontations up there on that mountainside when two such rigs met headon at a hairpin turn.
What if they meet in such a spot? Which one backs up? How do you throw into reverse six horses attached to a 2,000-pound wagon? Add to this that the road at times was little better than a wide trail hanging on the edge of the mountainside with a 500-foot drop inches away from the wagon wheels.
Travelers lurching down this narrow, stomach churning road in horse-drawn carriages had probably given up any previous thoughts of lunch or dinner long before they reached Half Moon Bay!
As it neared the bottom, it crossed Pilarcitos Creek nearly a mile back in the canyon and finally joined today’s highway where it flattens out in the valley. As motor cars became popular, the old road was finally paved in the early 1900s, and horse traffic on it became history.
By 1920 nearly every family in California had at least one car, and loved to use it. By 1939 the former “Spanish Trail”/Spanishtown & San Mateo Road just couldn’t handle the road anymore, and the present roadway from the summit down through the canyon was built. The old Turnpike west of the summit to the valley floor was abandoned in 1939. In spite of a whole dictionary of words to draw from, the official label for the new stretch on County maps was “105A.”
Visiting portions of the old highway today, I can’t think of a better word for it than “abandoned.” Short stretches of crumbling asphalt are overgrown by brush and poison oak. Much has completely dropped away down the hillside. The only tracks in the dirt are of deer and small animals. Standing up there on a windblown remnant of this old turnpike, knowing who had been there before, looking down and watching four lanes of traffic speeding pell- mell through the canyon below on the highway that had made this one unnecessary.
I felt world apart from what I was seeing. And I wondered: What’s next?