Ask Me

UK visitor asks: Who landscapes our state highways?

Caltrans maintains freeway landscaping, including this median along Highway 99 in central Fresno.
Caltrans maintains freeway landscaping, including this median along Highway 99 in central Fresno.

Q: Driving along Highway 99 recently I was struck by the miles of shrubs and plants along the center reservation. I live in the United Kingdom where we either have just grass or ugly metal barriers. I would very much appreciate knowing who is responsible for this imaginative idea, as I would like to tell my two children who live in California.

John Fraser, Norwich, England

A: “That would be us,” said Sam Yniguez, a spokesman for Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, in explaining who plants and maintains trees and shrubs in the median islands of state highways. The landscaping is functional, he said, “but we’d like them to be pleasing as well.”

The original purpose of landscaping was to provide shade in the 1930s and 1940s when automobiles didn’t have air conditioning, according to Brad Cole, landscape architect for the Caltrans District 6 covering Fresno, Madera, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties.

At that time Highway 4 – later Highway 99 – was a two-lane road and landscaping included mainly oleander bushes and eucalyptus trees, which also screened headlight glare from oncoming traffic.

As highways were widened, more low-maintenance and beautifully blooming oleanders were planted, Cole said. Oleanders, a Mediterranean and West African plant not native to California, are still used “from time to time,” he said, “but now there’s more focus on native plants, within the past 30 years.”

The Valley has more native grasses and riparian plants than shrubs, he said, so species common to other areas of the state are used. Highway plants include incense cedar, valley oak and western redbud trees and rock rose, a groundcover. Ice plant, used in other parts of the state, is a succulent that holds water in its leaves, which helps control fires along highways, Cole said.

The most noticeable purpose of highway landscaping is beautification. “We want people to feel it’s a nice place to live,” Cole said. But plants and trees also control erosion, help keep highway gutters clean and keep dust down.

Water trucks are used to irrigate highway landscaping, but the plantings also get water from rain and highway runoff.

Not all state highways are landscaped by Caltrans crews. Those that travel through mountains and forests have their own natural landscaping, Cole said.

Q: I remember the giant Sky Slide on Blackstone Avenue in the late 1960s. When did it close?

Tracy Parker, Fresno

A: The four-story-tall Sky Slide where riders slid down 15 undulating lanes on waxed cloth sacks opened on the west side of Blackstone Avenue north of Dakota Avenue in late August 1968.

According to a Fresno Bee story, the giant slide offered “youngsters of any age a six-second thrill” ride “variously described as giving the sensation of ‘having your stomach in your throat’ and ‘feeling like you’re going to fly.’ 

Fresno’s Sky Slide measured 36 feet high and 167 feet long. One of the workers building the slide told The Bee, “Passengers, if you can call them that, slide down the fiberglass travel lanes on waxed gunny sacks.”

Bee writer Jerry Bier wrote, “The ride takes about six seconds and, if this reporter’s computations are correct, that is almost 20 miles an hour.” Riders sped over dips and bumps in the slide on the fast track to the bottom.

Sky slides were popular in other parts of the country as well. Fresno’s giant slide was opened by Richard B. and Marilyn Sandrini of Delano. The manager in the 1968 was Eldon Ozier.

The Fresno Planning Commission denied a request to build a second Sky Slide on the west side of Blackstone between Barstow and San Jose avenues, citing concerns over noise, lights, parking in nearby residential areas and the slide’s “unsightly design.”

According to Fresno city directories, the Sky Slide near Blackstone and Dakota closed in 1971.

Note to readers: If anyone has a picture of Fresno’s Sky Slide, please send it along.

More about: Dana Hail Moroni of Le Grand recently wrote to share memories of Stan’s Drive In and Stan’s Private Line, a request line with local radio station KMJ in the 1950s. A question and answer about the request line was published on Nov. 17, 2008. Stan’s was at 1922 Broadway from 1950 to 1961.

“In the early 1950s we drove from Le Grand to Fresno to go to Stan’s Drive-in for his wonderful strawberry shortcake,” Moroni wrote. “My parents were unusual in that teenagers thought they were great. They would load the car and off we’d go to out-of-town ball games and other events, such as museums in San Francisco – you name it, off we’d go.

“On weekends we would listen to Stan’s Private Line, a radio request music show where you called in your favorite song, to be dedicated to someone, coming directly from Stan’s.

“We’d be playing cards or board games at home and around 10:30 p.m. my mother would say, ‘It’s time for strawberry shortcake. Let’s go.’

“Someone would call Stan’s Private Line with a request and then off we’d go to the car and on the road to Fresno, an hour’s drive, to get that strawberry shortcake and hear our requested song on the car radio on the way. What fun!

“What made the shortcake so special was the scoop of ice cream inside. These rides continued while I was home from college and after I was first married.”

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.