From Roosevelt Highway to the 1: A Brief History of Pacific Coast Highway

1938 postcard of the Roosevelt Highway, north of Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Admired for its scenery and dreaded for its traffic -- as well as the landslides that occasionally render it impassable -- Pacific Coast Highway is perhaps Southern California's most iconic ribbon of asphalt. Even if Beach Boys-era woodies are now a rare sight, the scenes of crashing waves, surfboards, and palm trees are enough to attract tourists to the road, which connects coastal towns from Ventura to San Juan Capistrano.

Pacific Coast Highway opened in the late 1920s as part of the Roosevelt Highway, a 1,400-mile road that traced the western margin of the United States. Nationally, Americans found the first highway linking the Mexican and Canadian borders an appropriate memorial for the country's late and famously internationalist president, Theodore Roosevelt. Locally, Southern Californians celebrated the reduced travel time between the various beach towns of the region; the Roosevelt Highway represented the first direct link between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach and between Ventura and Santa Monica.

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A primitive wagon road, shown here at Arch Rock, connected Santa Monica to the Rindge ranch before construction of the Roosevelt Highway. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Roosevelt Highway's precursor paralleled the railroad tracks of the Southern Pacific in Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

PCH might not exist today if one intransigent landowner, May Rindge, had prevailed in her decades-long struggle against the county. Since at least the 1890s, a primitive road -- often submerged at high tide -- hugged the rocky coast between Santa Monica and Malibu, passing underneath a natural arch, only to reach a locked gate at the property line of Rindge's 17,000-acre ranch.

As owner of the former Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, Rindge was determined to keep her landholdings safe and secure. She and her late husband had long fought to keep homesteaders off her ranch, and in 1906 she outfoxed the politically powerful Southern Pacific, forcing the railroad to divert its Santa Barbara line around Malibu and though the San Fernando Valley.

So when in 1907 the county proposed extending the coastal road through Malibu, Rindge posted armed guards at the entrances to her ranch and challenged the county's power of eminent domain in court. A stalemate ensued for years, but the road's prospects improved in the early 1920s when it was incorporated into the newly planned Roosevelt Highway. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the county's right to appropriate the land for the highway in 1923, and the dispute finally came to an end in 1925 when a superior court judge granted the county title to the right-of-way in return for $107,289.

Delayed by the litigation, the Malibu segment of the Roosevelt Highway was the last to open. California Governor C.C. Young, flanked by Miss Mexico and Miss Canada, cut the ceremonial ribbon on June 29, 1929, and a parade of 1,500 cars sped by to navigate the road's curves.

A parade of cars on the Roosevelt Highway, perhaps on the road's opening day in 1929. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1930 view of the Roosevelt Highway near Pacific Palisades. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Pacific Coast Highway passes by El Morro Beach in Crystal Cove, Orange County, 1953. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Circa 1940s aerial view of Pacific Coast Highway passing through Laguna Beach. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Passing directly through towns, the Roosevelt Highway -- renamed Pacific Coast Highway in much of Southern California in 1941 -- adequately met the region's transportation needs in 1929. But by the 1950s, regional transportation planners envisioned a new Pacific Coast Freeway that would bypass congested retail districts and parallel the superhighways further inland. Much of the 100-mile freeway would follow the original Roosevelt Highway route, but in some cases the new road would bisect coastal communities and restrict public access to beaches.

It Wasn't Always "The One"

Southern Californians know PCH as "the One" today, but Roosevelt Highway began as Route 60. It was later redesignated Route 3, then Route 101 Alternate. It was not until 1964 that the green shields designating PCH as California State Route 1 appeared roadside.
Some cities, like Laguna Beach and Costa Mesa, fought the plan. Others sought to modify it: Santa Monica officials proposed a seven-mile causeway stretching from Topanga Canyon to the Santa Monica Pier that would spare the city's business district, move its beach one mile offshore, and create an artificial yacht harbor.


Despite growing resistance from local communities, California's state highway agency began purchasing right-of-way land, including expensive beachside parcels in Malibu, in the 1960s. The proposed freeway remained on planners' maps until 1972, when it succumbed to bitter opposition among residents, civic leaders, and environmental activists. Today, only a short stub exists southeast of Oxnard.

This 1936 newspaper clipping shows an earlier proposal for widening the coastal highway. Later plans to convert PCH into the Pacific Coast Freeway would have had the same, if not greater, impact on local beaches. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

The ocean views from Pacific Coast Highway were not always pristine. In Huntington Beach, oil wells lined the highway for miles. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

PCH in Orange County's Sunset Beach, 1966. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

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 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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