Napa Valley travelers in the early days of the route that eventually became Highway 29 faced a much different problem than traffic congestion, but one just as frustrating.
Bayard Taylor journeyed from Calistoga to Napa in a buggy, back when horsepower meant real horses. As he described in the March 5, 1860 Sacramento Daily Union, the dust on what was then dirt trail became a plague.
“The violet mountains, the golden fields, even the arching avenues of the evergreen oaks vanished in a black cloud, which forced me to close my eyes and blindly trust to the horses,” Taylor wrote. “To add to our discomfort, we were obliged to pass drove after drove of cattle, each enveloped in almost impenetrable darkness.”
Napa County has many red-letter dates in its Highway 29 history. Here are a few, including an 1893 idea that Taylor surely would have endorsed – the county planned to set up a system of wells along its roads so wagons with tanks could water the dirt surfaces.
“The roads that are sprinkled in the summer will be solid and smooth in the winter,” The Napa Register reported. “They will guaranty immunity from dirt in one season and mud and chuckholes in the others.”
Then came the rise of the automobile. In 1917, the county began building its first concrete road, one between Napa and Vallejo, including stretches of today’s Highway 29.
In 1919, voters approved issuing $500,000 in bonds – more than $7 million in today’s dollars—to make the road between Napa and Calistoga concrete. The modern Highway 29 was born, though it had yet to bear this name and was still a county road.
“There is general rejoicing over the fact that the Napa County has risen to the occasion and will now be blessed with the good roads and all the benefits that will naturally and inevitably accrue,” the Napa Daily Journal reported.
Ben Blow in his 1920 book “California Highways” said that Napa County dirt roads that stood up well to horses “ground up and blew away” under the assault of autos. He praised the county for forming road districts to raise money for roads.
“For many years, Napa County has enjoyed the reputation of being one of California’s most progressive counties in relation to road development,” he wrote.
In 1932, Napa celebrated the building of a Third Street bridge to carry State Route 8 – a Highway 29 forebearer – across the Napa River into downtown Napa. The county, though a tourist draw, apparently didn’t yet view itself as the ultimate destination for vacation-bound travelers.
“Napa – Southeastern Gateway to the Redwood Empire,” announced a huge sign created for the occasion, perhaps the last time the county would settle for being a mere gateway.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy at Mare Island in Vallejo requested California widen the two-lane highway between Napa and Vallejo as part of the war effort. That led to today’s four-lane Highway 29 in and near American Canyon.
Then came the effort to build a four-lane Highway 29 freeway and expressway running the 30-mile length of Napa Valley. In early 1964, the state built the First Street interchange in the city of Napa, getting rid of a signalized intersection.
But county officials had misgivings about the Napa Valley freeway master plan by 1966. They asked the state to reopen study of a freeway around St. Helena for fear it would wipe out vineyards.
In 1968, the county created the agricultural preserve and forswore any aspirations of becoming a metropolis. The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to abandon its request to the state to build a freeway north of Yountville.
In December 1968, state highway engineer Alan Hart said that message had been heard. The present project of building a four-lane Highway 29 expressway between Orchard Avenue north of Napa and California Drive in Yountville would be the end of an era.
“The last thing the people of upper Napa Valley have to worry about is a freeway through the vineyards,” he said.
Hart also addressed some unfinished, south county business. He said a Napa River crossing for the state highway south of the city of Napa was needed to relieve traffic on Imola Avenue, which then served as the Highway 29 route.
The state finished the Southern Crossing bridge – today called the Butler Bridge – in 1978, but it wasn’t time to celebrate. Another four miles of connecting highway was needed to reach it. Napa County had a bridge to nowhere, a graceful concrete ribbon rising above the south county that was nothing more than an aesthetic flourish.
Finally, in 1981, the state finished building the connecting roads and today’s Highway 29 route had been born. The bridge to nowhere became a county traffic mainstay.
Still another red-letter day came in 2004, when the state finished creating an underpass for Highway 29 at Trancas Avenue. That eliminated a traffic signal that had become a notorious bottleneck for those driving the highway and trying to cross it.
And what’s next? The county is working with the state Department of Transportation to create a solution for Soscol Junction in the south county, where Highway 29 and 221 meet. A raised highway with two roundabouts for the cross streets are proposed, once money can be found.
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