Opinion Columns & Blogs

Confirm or deny: Highway 99 expert buckles up into my lie detector

This is famous Dead Man’s Curve at Lebec on the Grapevine.
This is famous Dead Man’s Curve at Lebec on the Grapevine.

Highway 99 and I have been a commuter couple for 40 bumpy years. We have driven each other crazy for thousands of miles through Fresno virtually every workday of my adult life.

I love that road for keeping me stoplight-free as I race like an automaton from my northwest neighborhood to downtown. Awright, sure, I’ve cursed it plenty of times for its rough spots, its potholes or for trapping me in a parking lot during its heavy construction periods. It’s pretty much a nightmare out there in the center lanes if there is an accident scene to get through.

But I bless that ribbon of highway as well, because I never have had an accident on 99 in all these years, knock on wood. There certainly were plenty of breakdowns when the engine overheated and a few *flashing lights* speeding tickets over the years.

Oh, I have seen plenty of other people in some horrible wrecks. I have written about the worst of them, most memorably the giant fog-season pileups. Dozens of vehicles used to crash every fog season, some involving as many as 90 cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses with countless injuries and multiple fatalities.

For decades, it was considered just a fact of life in the Valley that there would be a gigantic smash-up during the foggy winters, so we railed every year on the Opinion pages about prevention. Thankfully, now it’s a lot better.

We’ve been through so much together as it’s taken me to great places. But I am ashamed to say that I never dug into its history of my faithful partner. Until now.

Author, photographer and newspaper editor Stephen H. Provost is a former Fresno guy now living on the Central Coast who also has a big history with 99. He’s written a new book chronicling the history of this storied road that runs the spine of California. It’s called “Highway 99: The History of California’s Main Street.”

He will be coming to town for a book signing at Petunia’s Place at Palm and Bullard avenues from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 25. And a book talk will be held Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Woodward Park Regional Library, 944 E, Perrin.

So he agreed to let me pry into the secrets of my long-time highway husband in a game of “Confirm or Deny.”

The basic tool used to clear a path for Highway 99 came from Fresno Ag.

Confirm.Well, indirectly. The Fresno scraper, an earth-leveling tool pulled by mules, horses and tractors, was used to scoop up and redistribute soil for highways across the state in the first few decades of the 20th century. It was developed and patented by Fresno blacksmith James Porteous, whose Fresno Agricultural Works eventually became Fresno Ag Hardware.

That carsick-inducing slice of road called the Grapevine between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, so treacherous with snow, hail, mudslides and fires, got its name because the original Ridge Route over the Tehachapis had so many blind curves and hairpin turns.

Deny. It was named for the grapevines that grew (and still grow) there. The name dates back to 1806, when a priest dubbed it La Cañada de las Uvas, or “the canyon of the grapes.”

Even God couldn’t stop Highway 99’s construction.

Confirm. An 8,000-square-foot brick church was moved 300 yards in one piece to make way for Highway 99. This happened in Fresno in 1947, when the German Cross Church (all 1,800 tons of it, complete with colonnade, bell tower and stained-glass windows) was moved using railroad rails and steel rollers to make way for the D Street freeway, as it was known then.

The new freeway bypassed the old highway alignment, which used surface streets such as Broadway, H Street and Motel Drive through town. It replaced D Street, which explains why there’s no longer a street by that name on Fresno’s map.

Interstate 5 traces or parallels the path followed by Highway 99 from north to south across the entire state.

Deny. Interstate 5 closely follows the old alignment of Highway 99 in several places, including the areas north of Sacramento and across the Tehachapi Mountains. However, old U.S. 99 veered east in Los Angeles, along the route now followed by Interstate 10 (the San Bernardino Freeway), then hooked south at Indio and down to the border at Calexico – a section of road preserved today as State Route 86.

Interstate 5 in Orange County and farther south follows the path of another federal highway, U.S. 101.

The Fats Domino song “Blueberry Hill” was inspired as the singer ate a 2 a.m. breakfast at the Livingston cafe during a road trip.

Deny. The owner was trying to think up a name for the iconic roadside eatery when a customer dialed up “Blueberry Hill” on the jukebox in 1957. The café was demolished in the mid-’90s to make way for a highway bypass that eliminated the highway’s last stoplight.

Perry’s coffee shops along Highway 99 in the Tulare area and the Perry Boys’ Smorgy buffet-style restaurants in Fresno were owned by feuding chefs who got into a knife fight in the kitchen.

Deny. “Hoot” Perry founded the former group with a drive-in on Tulare’s J Street in 1947. Coleman Perry (no relation) started the Smorgy chain in 1958, and it eventually expanded as far afield as Hawaii. Confusing things further, Hoot Perry did own a Fresno restaurant, Hoot Perry’s Ranch Kitchen Chuck Wagon, at 2839 Blackstone Ave. in the 1960s. Perry Boys’ Smorgy also had a restaurant on Blackstone, in Manchester Center.

Fresno was the site of the first section of freeway in the San Joaquin Valley.

Confirm. Construction of the so-called Fresno-Calwa Freeway, a short section of freeway just south of town, began just after the end of World War II. It survives as a section of Golden State Boulevard, stretching roughly from Church Avenue to Ventura Avenue. It comes complete with offramps and overpasses, although it’s not a part of the current Highway 99 alignment.

You have to drive a duck truck or an amphibious sub-surface watercraft to drive the total stretch of old Highway 99.

Confirm. Portions are deep underwater. Man-made Pyramid Lake in the Tehachapis flooded a section of the Ridge Route Alternate (Highway 99) that was built in the early 1930s and later replaced by Interstate 5. The pyramid-shaped cut in the hillside that gives the lake its name was made to carve out a path for the highway.

In Northern California, a section of Highway 99 lies underneath Shasta Lake, which flooded several towns, including the copper-mining boomtown of Kennett, which once had a population of 10,000. During drought years, sections of the old highway re-emerge from the lowered waters of the lake like eerie skeletons of a bygone era.

Gail Marshall is the interim editor of the Editorial Pages. Connect with her at 441-6680 on Twitter @gailmarshall and on Facebook. Connect with Stephen Provost at sproauthor@gmail.com Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn and Twitter @sproauthor.

‘Highway 99’ Fresno events

Saturday: Book signing at Petunia’s Place, northwest corner of Palm and Bullard avenues, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Dec. 2: Book talk at Woodward Park Regional Library, 944 E. Perrin Ave., 2 p.m.

Books will be for sale at both venues and they are available at Amazon, Clovis Book Barn or quilldriverbooks.com.

Tell us your Highway 99 horror stories

Everyone’s had adventures with Highway 99. It’s the blue-collar freeway that we love to hate. It gets the job done, but sometimes, it sure isn’t pretty. Send your stories, 200 words for fewer, to letters@fresnobee.com.