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MailTribune.com
  • Where can you find 'old' Highway 99?

  • Never mind Route 66 — now they're starting to get nostalgic about its cousin, old Highway 99, which began joining towns up and down America's West Coast in 1915, filling city centers with tourists and log trucks for half a century until Interstate 5 was built.
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  • Never mind Route 66 — now they're starting to get nostalgic about its cousin, old Highway 99, which began joining towns up and down America's West Coast in 1915, filling city centers with tourists and log trucks for half a century until Interstate 5 was built.
    You can still find ghostly segments of old 99 as it comes into Jackson County at Siskiyou Pass. Take the Mount Ashland exit from I-5 (but instead of taking the ski road, head straight).
    When you cross under to the east side of the freeway, you'll be driving on the original Pacific Highway, says Klamath River resident Jill Livingston, author of "That Ribbon of Highway."
    These days it's a paved road with houses, and an even earlier part of the road (abandoned now) is visible on private land if you know where to look, she says.
    The still-used road tracks all the way to the Siskiyou Summit (exit 1) a mile north of the California state line.
    In early years, many remote areas of the highway weren't paved. Although Oregon paved its side of the pass, California didn't.
    The road was "eight feet wide and very winding," Livingston says. "You have to realize they didn't have any big machines to move dirt. They did it by hand and with mules, so they would go with the contours of the land." Livingston researched the length of 99 from Canada to Mexico for her series of three books on its history.
    "Jackson County was the first county west of the Mississippi to have a continuous, paved route from border to border and (Highway 99) was completely paved from the Columbia to the California border by 1923," says Ashland historian George Kramer, who compiled the highway's history for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
    Highway 99 purists, who want to step 90 years into the past, need only to drive the forested Old Siskiyou Highway from Callahan's down to the Greensprings Highway (Oregon Highway 66). It follows the old stage road used by wagons from 1857 to 1915 and "is what it looked like as the very early 99," she says.
    In the 1940s, that route was abandoned and 99 was realigned from Callahan's down the present I-5 route and linked to Siskiyou Boulevard south of Ashland.
    The original highway followed Highway 66, then East Main and North Main through downtown Ashland, but take a right at the railroad trestle onto Jackson Road and you'll be driving on a rough, cracked old pavement that's probably the only original 99 roadway that dates to 1913, Kramer says.
    Old 99 crossed the present Pacific Highway at South Valley View Road and passed behind Jackson Hot Springs (now called WellSprings). If you look on the backside of their building, you'll see an old promotional sign painted on it. That used to face all the tourist traffic on 99, says Kramer.
    The old highway trudged up the incline onto the present Talent Avenue and followed that route through downtown Talent, but that section, being too steep for early cars, was abandoned for the present route in the 1930s, Kramer notes.
    Then, as now, 99 followed Main Street in Phoenix, Riverside in Medford, through the Big Y (intersection with Highway 62), Front Street in Central Point, took Blackwell Road to Gold Hill, and then followed the Rogue River Highway into Grants Pass.
    California finished its section of Highway 99 in 1926, and the highway became known as the "Road of Three Nations." It was only then that highways went from names to numbers, odd going north and south, even going east and west — and going to higher numbers as you went west or south.
    Original maps list the 99 route through Oregon at 340 miles, but that figure shrank when modern road building equipment allowed state highway engineers to straighten many of the curves, shrinking the distance to 308 miles.
    As the main highway on the West Coast, Highway 99 was busy, to put it mildly. Outdoor performances at Oregon Shakespeare Festival were often accompanied by the sound of noisy "jake" brakes on trucks and throaty exhausts at the Pioneer Street traffic light, says Ashland-born Karen Smith, Jackson County's Bear Creek Greenway coordinator.
    To decrease congestion on main downtown streets, the Oregon Highway Department (now ODOT) created one-way "couplets," where one street handled all the northbound traffic and a parallel street took everyone going south. Those one-way grids persist today in Ashland, Phoenix, Medford, Grants Pass and other cities, says Kramer.
    Many of the couplets were widened to four lanes.
    "We were used to a little country road and when it went to four lanes, it was such a big, extravagant deal," says Smith.
    Walt Hoffbuhr, retired director of Talent Irrigation District for 30 years remembers 99 as "slow, torturous, twisty and slow to travel, particularly in the Sexton Mountains, Canyonville and Wolf Creek. New people didn't know how to handle it. In summer you'd have a log truck go by every five minutes."
    Former Jackson County Commissioner Tam Moore recalls the road grew more congested as more people moved into the communities up and down the highway. "Boy, it took a long time," he said. "Very slow, lots of traffic."
    Interstate 5 provided relief as sections were completed in the mid-1960s, and in 1971 the highway lost its U.S. 99 designation and became Oregon 99. Many communities renamed sections that ran through town. In Medford the highway became North Pacific Highway and South Pacific Highway; Central Point called it Rogue Valley Highway.
    "The freeway took a long time to build, years," says Smith. "It made this a less rural place and went through so much highly visible scenic and farm country."
    One day in 1963, the traffic was all going through town in Medford and the next day they cut the ribbon and it was all on the freeway, says Kramer. "What a colossal difference. It must have been phenomenal."
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