Photos: When L.A.'s Most Famous Streets Were Dirt Roads

Sunset Boulevard at Gower in 1907. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Like some of the very people who drive on them, a few Los Angeles streets have achieved the height of fame. Sunset Boulevard lent its evocative name to Billy Wilder's classic film noir. Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard appears on millions of television screens each New Year's Day as the route of the Rose Parade. And to many around the world, Pacific Coast Highway instantly conjures up images of surfers, convertibles, and movie stars. (In L.A., we're more likely to think of traffic, wildfires, and landslides.)

But fame belies the humble origins of these celebrity streets. Horses once casually left droppings where shoppers stroll today along Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. A dusty wagon road alongside the Ostrich Farm Railroad eventually became Sunset Boulevard. A century ago, Los Angeles was a much emptier place, and what today are major thoroughfares were then dusty cow paths through open countryside or pockmarked roads rutted by wagon wheels.

Even in dense downtown Los Angeles, street conditions brought complaints to Angelenos' lips. "After heavy winter rains mud was from six inches to two feet deep," groaned merchant Harris Newmark in his memoirs, "while during the summer, dust piled up to about the same extent." Mud often mingled with contributions from livestock. Dust was such a problem that street sprinkling enterprises were counted among the city's public utilities. Angelenos like Newmark would have to wait until 1887 for the city's first paved streets: Main, Spring, and Fort (now Broadway).

Macadam paving, followed by concrete and asphalt surfaces, eventually helped Los Angeles' roads shake their rustic character. But the following images -- culled from the region's rich photographic archives -- show some of Southern California's most famous streets before they achieved stardom.

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Note: Despite the title, not all the photos here necessarily depict unpaved roads. As Matthew Roth of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives noted in an email, "dirty roads with a lot of gravel strewn across them" are often mistaken for dirt roads.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, ca.1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Sunset Boulevard at Normandie, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard at its intersection with Sunset in 1904. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Hollywood Boulevard at Grand in 1907. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Wilshire Boulevard

Racing automobiles turn onto Wilshire Boulevard, then named Nevada Avenue, from Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica in 1910. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

A 1912 view of Wilshire Boulevard, then named Nevada Avenue, in Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Colorado Boulevard (Pasadena)

Circa 1885 view of Colorado Boulevard, then named Colorado Street, looking east toward Pasadena's central business district. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1890 view of Colorado Boulevard, then named Colorado Street, looking east to Marengo Avenue. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History.

Santa Monica Boulevard

1900 view of Santa Monica Boulevard in Sawtelle. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1900 view of Santa Monica Boulevard in present-day Hollywood. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Third Street (Santa Monica)

Circa 1891 view of Santa Monica's Third Street, looking north from Broadway to Nevada Avenue. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

1880 view of the commercial block on Santa Moncia's Third Street between Utah and Oregon avenues. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

1900 view of Third Street at Broadway in Santa Monica. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1)

The wagon road that eventually became PCH once passed through a natural formation named Arch Rock. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

This one-lane road along the coast north of Santa Monica, seen here in 1905, eventually became Pacific Coast Highway. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Hollywood Freeway (Route 101)

An unpaved road crosses Cahuenga Pass along the present-day route of the Hollywood Freeway, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

1921 view of the highway through the Cahuenga Pass. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Three bicyclists ride up the Cahuenga Pass, ca.1897. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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.

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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