It’s election day, 1910: Will you vote for California to create a state highway system? It’s not an easy decision.

Another use for the modern automobile: Dressing it up as a parade float. Florence Edwards, wife of Santa Rosa mayor James Edwards, and her sister Katherine Rockwell driving their entry in the 1910 Santa Rosa Rose Carnival. Underneath all those blossoms was a 1909 or 1910 model Buick Model 10 Runabout, which was a 22.5 horsepower three-seater (there was a “mother-in-law” seat in the rear not visible in this image). The local Buick dealer was Santa Rosa Garage at 216 B Street. Photo courtesy Rockwell family archives 

There were now three auto dealerships in downtown Santa Rosa and judging by the large, expensive ads crowding the pages of both local papers in 1910, the town was more car crazy than ever. Buying a car was usually no longer a newsworthy item, but the gossip columns kept track of whom was driving where for whatever. The first auto fatality was also recorded that year; a nine-year old boy was killed by an auto at the corner of Third and B. The coroner’s jury found the driver blameless – the child simply dashed in front of the car without looking.

But the most significant event of the year was the upcoming vote on the State Highways Act. California voters were being asked to approve a state bond for a jaw-dropping $18 million that would last until the futuristic year of 1961. The bond would pay for the construction of two highways running north-south. One would follow the the Central Valley through Sacramento, becoming more-or-less the route of today’s I-5; the other highway route would be “along the Pacific coast,” although it was left undetermined if that would be a true coastal road such as modern highway 1 or follow the trail of El Camino Real, becoming highway 101. “Several county seats lying east and west” of each highway were promised connections via new branch roads.

At this point, Gentle Reader’s mouse finger is probably getting twitchy; reading about old state bond measures sounds just about as boring as, well, reading about old state bond measures. But there is a point to be made and hopefully you’ll stick around for a few more paragraphs.

James Wyatt Oates, president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association, wrote a lengthy defense of the Act in the Santa Rosa Republican. He argued the new system would probably be more cost-effective (while admitting he didn’t know how much was currently being spent on county roads) and that the system would end the haphazard local maintenance (while overlooking it would be up to the same locals to maintain any new state road construction, and doing so without state financial help).

There were loopholes and other unsavory details in the Act that Oates neglected to mention but were being hotly debated in newspapers around the state. Warnings were sounded over the politically-appointed advisory board that determined the exact locations of the new roads; they would be wielding enormous political power – a sensitive issue in California, which was still trying to wriggle out from under the cloven hoof of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

There was particular concern over the repayment demands. Whenever any bond money was spent in a county, it was required to pay four percent back to the state (the amount of interest paid on the bonds). That sounds fair on paper, but consider that neither highway would cross through bridge-less San Francisco County – the wealthiest part of California – so the region most likely to profit from the new intrastate road system would pay little or nothing. Counties in the path of the highways might gain an income windfall for turning county roads over to state ownership, but that would create holy hell in Los Angeles County, which had recently sold $3.5 million in road bonds; paying the state its four percent for roadwork plus the interest due from those earlier bonds meant that Los Angelenos would be double-taxed. There were many poor, eastern counties such as Amador complaining they would see no benefit at all because they were too far away from the action. For these reasons and more, opposition was stiff. The popular California Good Roads Association and the Automobile club of Southern California campaigned against approval.

With all that it mind, let’s pretend it’s the morning of November 8, 1910, and you are an average Santa Rosa voter (meaning, you are male and have a receipt showing you’ve paid the poll tax). How will you vote?

Before marking the ballot yes or no, further consider this: You and yours can’t expect to personally ever enjoy the new road system. The average household income in 1910 Santa Rosa was around $600, which meant that a car big enough to seat your family would cost around two full years’ pay. Even the tiny Buick runabout shown in the picture above was out of reach (it sold for $900). Yes, the situation would change in the near future, thanks to Henry Ford; five years later, a new Ford would cost as low as $360, making autos affordable to nearly everyone – but 1910 voters couldn’t see into the future. So while the new highways might offer local advantages in trucking crops to market and such, cruising around the Golden State on those endless miles of beautiful fresh pavement was a pleasure reserved for the wealthy. People like James Wyatt Oates, relentless crusader for more roads.

Come election day, Los Angeles voted against it 3 to 1. It won 55 percent approval in Sonoma County and passed statewide.

Passage of the State Highways Act bond was a turning point in California’s history; it’s impossible to imagine the state would have experienced its later decades of explosive growth and agricultural development without those major north-south arteries. Sure, had it failed to pass, the WPA might well have built similar highways 25 years later – or just maybe we would have been stuck with a fractious system of county toll roads that evolved in its absence.

Yet it’s also hard to see California voters approving something like the State Highways Act today. That $18 million might not sound like much to our ears, but it was an enormous sum at the time; with inflation it works out to $8.6 billion in modern dollars, equal to about three-fourths of all California state bonds sold last year. Every special interest in the state would now fiercely lobby against such a proposition simply because it would suck all the air out of the investor’s bank vaults.

Still believe the Act would be approved by modern-day voters? Compare criticism against it in 1910 to recent arguments against funding the SMART trains. Just as then, SMART opponents charged the project is a boondoggle, that it will benefit only a privileged few, that the choices for the route (train stops) will be decided on political favoritism, that it can’t be completed as promised without additional rounds of future funding. It took two attempts to gain voter approval for SMART and it nearly faced a recall. Think back over all those years of heated struggle on SMART funding, then realize that cockfight was squabbling about two percent the relative size of the State Highways Act bond.

The 1910 Act passed because it won approval in counties that expected to gain state highway status – Los Angeles excepted – with a big boost from San Francisco, which at the time had a quarter of the state population. It should be noted, too, that 1910 was near the peak of the Progressive Era, when many people eyed civic betterment as more important than “what was in it for them.”

Skeptics were right, however, in predicting the State Highways Act bond would fall short on money. Additional bonds were passed in 1915 and 1919 to complete the work. Over the course of that decade Sonoma County built roads in a frenzy; by 1913, Santa Rosa was spending over $28,000 a year for highways – among the highest of California cities of its size – and the county was spending almost as much on new roads as larger Alameda County and far more than Marin. For better or ill, Sonoma County was among the vanguard in subsidizing the car culture using public funds.

Roads in Marin County From San Rafael to Sausalito Are to be Improved Soon

Santa Rosa autoists as well as those on all sides of the bay will be glad to know that through the efforts of the automobile owners of San Francisco and Marin county, aided by the proper authorities, steps are to be taken very soon to improve the roads in Marin county, particularly from San  Rafael to Sausalito, a road much used but in a very bad condition.

The Sonoma County Automobile Association, of which Colonel James W. Oates is president, will shortly take up some active work for the improvement of certain roads in the county. The Ukiah Good Roads Association, as has been stated heretofore, is doing fine work on the roads from the Sonoma county line northward to Ukiah. Already they have held two “good roads” days, and the members of the club have turned out in full force to help in the repair work on the roads.

– Press Democrat, April 29, 1910
Splendid Time in Prospect–Anyone Favoring Good Roads Can Join the Association

Today the much anticipated outing, annual meeting and bull’s head breakfast under the auspices of the Sonoma County Automobile Association of which Colonel Jas. W. Oates is president, occurs in Bosworth’s Grove at Geyserville.

All members of the Association and their families are expected to be present as well as all others who become members of the Association prior to twelve o’clock noon–you can join on the field–when the big feast will commence. Anyone interested in good roads, whether he or she be owner of an automobile or not, may become a member of the Association, a prime move of which is to encourage the building of good roads throughout the state.

There will be all kinds of good things on hand for the breakfast menu. The Bismark Cafe proprietors, Bertolani Brothers, have charge of the feast, and they have secured the services of a special Spanish cook of note who will superintend affairs. Saturday night a staff of seven men left here for Bosworth’s Grove so as to get everything in readiness, for the grand breakfast will be enjoyed under the shade trees. The thoughts of that perfectly good feed should be an inspiration to membership in the Association, let alone the splendid object that is to be the strong feature of the meeting following the breakfast, that of boosting good roads.

– Press Democrat, June 5, 1910

Synopsis of “State Highway Act” Now Pending

Santa Rosa, Oct. 19, 1910

I have been requested to give a synopsis of the “State Highway Act,” now pending and to be voted on by the people at the November election.

This act, speaking generally, provides:

1–For the issuing by the state of eighteen million dollars of bonds in serials, to fall due in equal amounts each year until 1961.

2–The funds raised from the sale of these bonds are to be for the construction of two main highways, one to run through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, and from the Mexican line to the Oregon line; the other to run through the coast counties, both running north and south, and to connect every shire, or country town in the state.

3–These highways are to be constructed under the management and control of a state engineer.

4–The state pays the principal of these bonds by general taxation.

5–These bonds are to bear interest at a rate not over four per cent per annum, and each county in which any part of such highway is constructed is to pay the interest on the bonds represented by the amount of such highway fund expended in constructing such highway in such county.

6–After the construction of any highway inside a county, the management and control of the same is to be turned over by the state to the county in which it lies.

There are other provisions in the act, but they, in the main, deal with mere methods of procedure in putting the act into operation and for paying the bonds.

The way this act would operate in this country would be about this:

The only roads we have that would come under the operation of this act are the present ones from the Marin county line through Petaluma and Santa Rosa to the Mendocino county line, that from Santa Rosa through Sonoma to the Napa county line, and possibly from Cloverdale to the Lake county line.

These roads are now and have been for many years, county highways in more or less good condition, but never, within my knowledge, have they ever been in good condition throughout at the same time.

The construction of the state highway along these routes would be in all probability, by no means the same or as costly as the construction of new roads. In many places they would require much less work than in a new construction so that much of the expense of constructing new roads could be saved. All this, however, would depend upon whether the roads would be entirely reconstructed, and this is a matter of detail to be determined later by the proper authority.

To illustrate, we will say such construction within our county should cost $100,000 of this highway fund. When completed the roads would be turned over to the county government, and the latter would thenceforward have to pay the interest on $100,000 of the bonds, which would not be over $4000 per year at first, and would gradually grow less as the state paid off the principal of the bonds, till in the end the amount would be very small. The county, however, would have to keep up the roads.

From the Marin line to the Mendocino line, and from Santa Rosa by Sonoma to the Napa line is approximately 86 miles of road.

I have tried to find out how much money is spent each year on these roads, but from the present system it is almost impossible to do so. It would not, however, be far from the mark to say that such expenditure is annually not far from $4000 each year, which is the amount we would have to pay at first as interest on the bonds. Under the present system the results are by no means satisfactory. It is not much more than mere patchwork, at best. The system in inefficient and wasteful. Once a good road is constructed, the keeping of it in repair in a good system would not be very costly. Most of the nations of Europe have solved the trouble by letting a good road out to the lowest bidder for a term of years to keep it in good condition, and putting the contractor under bonds. One having a contract say on twelve miles of road, could watch it and by proper care keep it in complete repair at a nominal cost to him and make the upkeep to the county also much less than is expended now in patchwork, with the result of good roads all the time, instead of bad ones most of the time.

The economic advantages of better roads than we have had in America is just now attracting the attention of the people all over the Union; in fact the good roads movement is now on and will continue until a better system of construction and preservation is attained.

Some object to this “State Highway Act” because it is thought it might be better to have such portions of those highways constructed under county control. There are some advantages that might result from county construction, but the disadvantages greatly outweigh them. Inder that idea each county would have its own system of construction, and we would have nearly as many kinds of roads as we have counties. It would result in a huge piece of patchwork, and much of it, no doubt, would be a failure. Constructed under state control we would have at least uniformity of plan, construction and result; and it strikes me we can get that result in no other way. That this is a controlling consideration is obvious.

This plan is intended and will operate as an entering wedge for an improved road system in this state. With such highways through a county lie benefits and economic worth will soon be so manifest as to lead to similar treatment of all other roads in the county, from time to time, as the county can get at them. No one can rationally expect any system of good roads to be adopted and applied to all roads at once. A beginning must be made somewhere on some road, while other roads must wait their turn. In this way those fortunate enough to live on or near the first ones improved would reap an advantage, but under any system such would be the case. Unless some main roads are used for a beginning, all the roads will continue to be as they are.

The people vote in November on this “State Highway Act”; they can vote it up or vote it down; if they vote it up we have taken a long step towards bettering road conditions in the entire state. If they vote it down, we will have to continue to do the best we can with the road system as we have it.


– Santa Rosa Republican, October 21, 1910

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