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Ask Me: Highway 99 first paved in 1913

Highway 99 once led travelers through the heart of Valley towns. In Fresno, the highway turned onto Van Ness Avenue under the sign that welcomed visitors.
Highway 99 once led travelers through the heart of Valley towns. In Fresno, the highway turned onto Van Ness Avenue under the sign that welcomed visitors. Fresno Bee file

Q: My curiosity is about Highway 99. When was it built, and what was the original purpose of planting all the eucalyptus trees along the highway?

Mark Kistler, Squaw Valley

A: The major north-south highway through the Central Valley is officially named State Route 99 but is commonly called Highway 99 or just 99. The highway stretches along 274 miles between Red Bluff in the Sacramento Valley to the junction with Interstate 5 south of Bakersfield.

In 1909 the roadway from Sacramento to Los Angeles, which passed through Fresno, was designated as Legislative Route Number 4, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation report. Road construction was paid for with a statewide bond measure approved by voters in 1910.

The roadway was first paved about 1913. In the 1920s this two-lane road became U.S. 99 but also was called the Golden State Highway.

In the 1930s some segments were widened to three lanes, with the middle lane used for passing and turning onto side roads. The dangerous middle lane “became the site of many head-on collisions,” the U.S. Department of Transportation report said.

In the early days, the highway took travelers through towns up and down the Valley. The highway traveled along Van Ness Avenue in downtown Fresno.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the highway was “widened into a four-lane expressway, segment by segment, often on new alignments that bypassed towns along the route,” the report said.

When Highway 99 was realigned through Fresno, the new route cut through Fresno’s historic Chinatown and old Germantown, destroying many iconic buildings.

Eucalyptus trees were planted along California highways from the 1930s to 1960s, according to AARoads, a website for road enthusiasts. According to Fresno County’s Route 99 Corridor Business Plan, the eucalyptus trees were “used to delineate the route and identify structures and curves … The trees also help to give some change and variety to the scene in the long stretches of rural freeway.”

But “time and roadway construction have taken a toll” on the trees and changed the “once consistent pattern of tree groupings,” the county report said. As the trees age, some have died and others have been removed.

Q: I recall Borger’s meat market that may have been part of the A. Diel grocery store. It might have been on Kirk Street. Where was it located, and what is its history?

Norman Bitter, Fresno

A: Brothers Henry and August Diel, and later August’s son-in-law Alex Borger, owned and operated the stores you recall.

The Diel brothers were Volga Germans born in Russia. They settled in Fresno in 1899.

Henry Diel opened H. Diel & Co. grocery store in 1906 at 258 S. F St., next door to August’s home. When Henry died in 1912, August Diel took over the store.

In 1916, August Diel’s daughter Anna married Alex Borger. In 1917 Diel moved the store to 2303 German St., which was renamed Kirk Street two years later. Borger began working for Diel as a clerk in 1922.

Diel died in 1937, and the next year his sons Fred and August Diel Jr. took over the grocery store but focused on their beer distributing business.

In 1947 Borger and his son Gene moved the grocery store next door to the beer business. The last year the store is listed in Fresno city directories is 1959.

Borger died in 1964. His obituary in The Bee said he and his sons operated the A. Diel Grocery for 40 years, but a 1953 news item in The Bee about a failed late-night burglary of the store refers to the business as Borger & Sons Grocery. Borger’s obituary noted that “the store was well known for its German sausages, which Borger made.”

Q: What is the history of the Coalinga Mineral Hot Springs resort, and what were the health benefits of the springs?

Susan Locke, Lemoore

A: The spa was originally known as Rogers’ Hot Springs, named for James J. Rogers, who discovered the series of 19 hot springs located 18 miles west of Coalinga.

In 1857 Rogers killed a bear in an area later called Bear Canyon. A history written in 1995 by Glenn H. Marcussen says Rogers “moseyed over to a spring to wash the bear’s blood off his hands” and discovered the 112-degree sulfur-smelling springs.

Rogers built a hotel and wooden soaking tubs there in the 1860s. “Some people were wheeled in as invalids and after being soaked the proper amount, miraculously walked to the four-horse stage,” the history said.

The hotel burned to the ground in the 1870s, not long after Rogers sold the property to Colonel Burrus. To finance a new hotel, Burrus borrowed money from Gustav Kreyenhagen. When Burrus was unable to repay the loan, Kreyenhagen took over ownership of the resort.

Kreyenhagen and his sons rebuilt the hotel, but it too burned to the ground in 1884. “With it went the linen and silver, the four-legged square piano and the precious library Kreyenhagen and his wife, Julia, had brought from Germany,” said a 1962 Bee story.

A third hotel was built in 1896, and the hot springs reached its “social peak” during that time, the Bee story said. A horse-drawn stage ran between the Southern Pacific Railroad station at Alcalde to the resort three days a week. After “taking the waters,” visitors could go for hikes, play croquet and horseshoes, go hunting or attend nightly dances at the resort.

The Kreyenhagen family operated the resort, which became known at Fresno Hot Springs, until 1904. After 1919, the resort fell into disuse and disrepair.

Robert and Eleta Abell and three business partners bought the resort in 1926 and named it Coalinga Mineral Hot Springs. People came again to drink the water or soak in tubs for their health, or simply to escape the Valley heat.

“I’ve seen too many people come here sick and go away cured to have any doubts about the power of the water to help them,” Eleta Abell said in a 1967 Bee story. She touted the foul-smelling water as a cure-all. “I know from experience that many people with rheumatism, arthritis, low and high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart problems have been helped.”

The Abells’ hotel, like others before it, had no heat except for the steaming water from the springs. Kerosene lamps provided light. The Abells incorporated the resort, modernized the hotel, built new cabins and turned the resort into a year-round destination. The hotel burned to the ground in 1962.

Today the springs are part of the Coalinga Mineral Springs Recreation Area. According to the R.C. Baker Museum in Coalinga, the resort has been closed for years, but the area still attracts hikers and picnickers.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com 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.

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