Before the 'Carmageddon': A Photographic Look at the Construction of 5 SoCal Freeways

A woman poses in front of the unfinished Foothill Freeway. Courtesy of the Glendale Public Library.

As Angeleños prepare to survive the upcoming weekend without access to a ten-mile section of the San Diego Freeway, our thoughts may turn to L.A.'s pre-freeway era, a time before it was possible to cruise through the Los Angeles basin at 70 miles per hour, a time when freeway construction was an occasion for celebrity photo-ops rather than an excuse to coin apocalyptic portmanteaux.

In the twenty years between 1950 and 1970, more than 500 miles of freeways were built in L.A., Orange, and Ventura counties. Southern California welcomed them with the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for foreign dignitaries. Movie stars and governors christened the new concrete rivers, and many Southern Californians drove to construction sites to pose in photographs of half-built highways rising from the ground.

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The photos below, culled from several regional archives, illustrate that junction between L.A.'s pre- and post-freeway eras, when work crews built bridges and on-ramps but also razed houses and split neighborhoods. They show construction work on five Southern California freeways: the Hollywood Freeway (U.S. Highway 101), one of L.A.'s first; the Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110); the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10); the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405); and the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210).

Hollywood Freeway

Construction for the new Cahuenga Freeway causes a traffic jam in the pass, 1939. The Cahuenga Freeway opened in 1940, connecting Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. In the 1950s, the freeway was widened, extended to downtown Los Angeles, and renamed the Hollywood Freeway. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

A woman poses in front of the uncompleted Hollywood Freeway, 1952. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Collection.

101 freeway under construction near downtown Los Angeles and City Hall, 1953. Southeast of the Four Level (101-110) Interchange, the 101 freeway is named the Santa Ana Freeway.

Hollywood Freeway under construction in Hollywood, 1953. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight helps open a segment of the Hollywood Freeway between Silver Lake Boulevard and Western Avenue in 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Harbor Freeway

The nearly completed Four Level Interchange in 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Governor Ronald Reagan sits at the controls of a bulldozer in 1968 at a groundbreaking ceremony for an extension of the Harbor Freeway to the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The Harbor Freeway Transitway, which carries the Metro Silver Line as well as carpool lanes, under construction in 1992. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Santa Monica Freeway

Preparation for the construction of Interstate 10 through Santa Monica, circa 1965. B106. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library.

The Santa Monica Freeway under construction, looking east from Hoover Street, in 1961. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

The Santa Monica Freeway under construction at La Cienega and Venice boulevards, 1964. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Miss Auto Show 1965 helps Governor Edmund G. 'Pat' Brown open a segment of the Santa Monica Freeway on October 23, 1964. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Opening of Interstate 10 in Santa Monica on January 6, 1966. B47. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library.

San Diego Freeway

Construction work on the San Diego Freeway just south of Sepulveda Canyon. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Entire tracts of houses were sometimes razed to make way for new freeways. This 1957 photograph, taken between Wilshire and Venice Boulevards along the route of the future San Diego Freeway, shows a neighborhood split by the construction. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Work crews extend the San Diego Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass in 1961. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Foothill Freeway

A bulldozer doing earthwork for the construction of the Foothill Freeway through Arcadia, circa 1966. ID 953. Courtesy of the Arcadia Public Library.

The Foothill Freeway under construction at Devil's Gate Dam in August 1954. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Same view as above, 11 months later. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

At the time this photo was taken circa May 1971, the Foothill Freeway ended at the Arcadia city limits. ID 1059. Courtesy of the Arcadia Public Library.

Dig Deeper

The collections of the Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library and Archive at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority constitute an invaluable resource for understanding Southern California's transportation, from early cable cars to the Pacific Electric Railway and from superhighways to the "Subway to the Sea."

Those interested in learning more about how L.A.'s freeways system was conceived should consult the Metro Library's online list of major L.A. County transportation planning documents. Thanks to the library's active digitization efforts, many of the documents are publicly available in PDF format. Particularly relevant to the subject of freeway planning and construction is a 1946 report by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Parkway Engineering Committee, titled Interregional, Regional, Metropolitan Parkways in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. The report includes maps of proposed freeway routes and an analysis of the county's long-term highway needs.

Librarian Kenn Bicknell is currently digitizing another relevant collection that he describes as the "mother lode of information" about freeway construction. Published from the 1924 to 1967, California Highways and Public Works was the official journal of the California Highway Commission and, later, the California Division of Highways. Bicknell hopes to have the entire archive digitized and publicly accessible here on the library's website by the end of the year. He has already digitized the September/October 1956 issue, which contains a treasure trove of photographs, maps, and other information about freeway construction projects in Southern California.


Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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Looking forward to the day that we can browse a photo gallery of these things getting demolished.