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When Model T’s Scaled Santa Monica’s California Incline

Functionally, it was little more than a highway ramp – a 1,400-foot-long, 3-lane roadway that climbed 84 feet between Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue. But that description hardly hints at the charm of the original California Incline. Driving down, the palms of Palisades Park receded into the sky as one abruptly left behind the urban grid of Santa Monica and entered the surf and sand (and traffic) that is the realm of PCH.

Footpaths like the Sunset Trail and stairways like the 99 Steps preceded it, but the California Incline was the first automobile shortcut over Santa Monica’s ocean bluffs. When it opened around 1905, Linda Vista Drive (as it was then called) was a dirt path carved into the cliffside. Only later was it paved and named for its intersection with California Avenue. In 1935, construction of PCH along the base of the bluffs further reconfigured the California Incline, widening the roadway adding a concrete balustrade that remains its most notable architectural detail.

Erosion brought more change in the ensuing decades. In places where the sandstone beneath the ramp crumbled away, 14 concrete columns took its place, keeping the roadway’s 8-inch slab from falling onto PCH below. That engineering solution looked picturesque from below, but Caltrans and the city of Santa Monica deemed it unsafe. In 2014, the city began demolishing the old incline. In its place rose a new ramp, built to modern seismic standards and with more generous provisions for pedestrians and cyclists. It opened Sept. 1, 2016.

Early automobiles, including a Ford Model T, descend Santa Monica's California Incline in the early 20th century.
Early automobiles, including a Ford Model T, descend Santa Monica's California Incline in the early decades of the 20th century. Image courtesy of the Randy Young Collection, Santa Monica Library Image Archives. 
The newly reconstructed California Incline features generous space for pedestrians, who have used the ramp since its early days.
The newly reconstructed California Incline features generous space for pedestrians, who have used the ramp since its early days. Image courtesy of the Randy Young Collection, Santa Monica Library Image Archives. 
Postcard of California Incline, circa 1913-20
Postcard of California Incline, circa 1913-20. Image courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

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This 1928 photo of the California Incline shows the sandstone bluffs that eventually crumbled away beneath the roadway.
This 1928 photo of the California Incline shows the sandstone bluffs that eventually crumbled away beneath the roadway. Image courtesy of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society Collection, Santa Monica Public Library.
A mid-1930s modernization project on the incline accompanied the widening project along the Roosevelt Highway (PCH).
The mid-1930s construction of the Roosevelt Highway (PCH) added modernizations to the California Incline, including measures to shore up the ramp in the face of the palisades' erosion. Photograph (dated 1934) courtesy of the Adelbert Bartlett Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
A concrete balustrade, added as part of a reconstruction project in 1935 and seen here in a circa 1940s postcard, became the incline's defining feature.
A concrete balustrade, added as part of a reconstruction project in 1935 and seen here in a circa 1940s postcard, became the incline's defining architectural feature. Image courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.
The California Incline in the 1960s, when a large sign welcomed motorists leaving PCH to Santa Monica.
The California Incline in the 1960s, when a large sign welcomed motorists leaving PCH to Santa Monica., by nmasters

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Los Angeles Magazine’s City Think blog on April 22, 2014. It has been updated here and expanded with additional images.

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