A Long, Winding and Somewhat Twisted Local Road Story
Nov 15, 2019 10:50AM
By Tom Marshall
North El Camino Real, 1936
by Tom Marshall, San Clemente Historical Society
The current outcry over extending the 241 toll road into the heart of San Clemente is but the latest twist in the San Clemente area’s roadway saga which dates back centuries.
Our town’s main drag, the storied El Camino Real, began around 1683 as little more than a trail linking California’s missions. It encompassed several pathways used for centuries by prior native peoples. El Camino Real in Spanish means The Royal Road, but was also known as The King’s Highway. Any road built under the jurisdiction of the Spanish crown was considered a Camino real. Once Mexico became independent from Spain, the term was rarely used until the early 20th century during the American Mission Revival movement.
Perhaps the most detailed description of the original 600 mile El Camino Real comes from the notes of an 1850 journey by Dr. Charles C. Perry, a physician and botanist. His journal describes long stretches of sagebrush and many streams and rivers that had to be waded through since there were no bridges along the road. On his sixth day of travel from San Diego, Dr. Perry noted the trail followed San Mateo Creek down to the beach. He camped near a “fine corral and deserted ranch” on the bluffs near San Mateo Point in what is today’s city of San Clemente.
By the 1900s bridges had been constructed over the various waterways and the road had been widened in many locations. In 1912 the first pavement of El Camino Real was laid in San Mateo County as a two-lane highway. It wasn’t until the 1920s when our section of it was paved following public demands for a better road between Los Angeles and San Diego. Much of the original road is now California Highway 1. In 1906 the first of 450 commemorative markers were placed along the original route. These were distinctive metal bells hung from a pole in the shape of what was called a Franciscan walking stick. Many of the bells were stolen or vandalized. There is no record that one was placed in San Clemente. In 2005, Caltrans restored the program, but again San Clemente has been left out. The Historical Society will attempt to get Caltrans to rectify that.
Meanwhile back in the 1920s Ole Hanson had graded several streets for his new town of San Clemente. When he took the plans to the county for approval, they turned him down because they couldn’t see any real streets. Undaunted, Ole returned home, had the streets whitewashed and got a friend to fly over the area in a bi-plane and take a picture from the air. Returning to the county with the photo, San Clemente’s first city engineer, Bill Ayer, Sr. was asked what the names of the streets were. He said he would have to check. During a one-hour break in the meeting Ayer sat in his car and made up as many names as he could think of, including names of all the kids he could remember. Most of those names were later changed, but the county finally gave their approval to the plans.
It is not the only time a quandary developed over the naming of San Clemente’s streets. Local activist and attorney, Brad Malmud tells the story he heard from a former city councilman, now deceased, about how the streets in Cypress Shore and Cypress Cove came about. According to the legend, a group of city fathers were having a couple of beers one evening while trying to come up with the names and decided upon Spanish sounding names based on English language swear words. There is no proof they ever carried this out, but some of the names lend credence to the tale. We’d give examples here, but this is, after all, a family publication.
The next road battle occurred in the 1950s when Interstate 5 was being planned and then constructed. With apparently little local protest, the freeway was cut through the heart of San Clemente. The route resulted in deep cuts through local hills and the destruction of a large reservoir. The huge demand for a better road between Santa Ana and San Diego outweighed concerns expressed by local environmentalists, and even the brass at Camp Pendleton agreed. Between 1958 and 1960, bulldozers scraped the pathway. As they were about to rip out several stately palm trees, local nursery owner Bob Carrick, Sr. convinced the crew to allow him to dig up the trees for transplanting in town. Those trees are still there to see in the median strip of Esplanade.
Today the I-5 corridor basically cuts San Clemente in two. Most local leaders agree the road should have been located east of town. An extension of the 241 Toll road would now cut our town into thirds. This time, however, there is not only strong public disapproval of the route, but no overriding need for it locally. We may need some of Ole Hanson’s creativity to convince north county officials to abandon this idea.