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Rogue Valley roads went from muddy quagmire to futuristic highways

While much of the West was mired in mud, a road construction and paving boom in the 1920s allowed residents of the Rogue Valley to hurtle along in their newfangled horseless carriages.

The Pacific Highway, later labeled Highway 99, connected California, Oregon and Washington. It was declared the longest improved highway in the nation.

At the same time, Medford bragged it was one of the most-paved cities in the U.S.

But it took years of planning and backbreaking labor for Rogue Valley residents to enjoy mile-after-mile of smooth, mud-free roads a century ago.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, travel along the West Coast was cumbersome, according to Pat Edwards and Jo-Brew, authors of the book “Oregon’s Main Street: U.S. Highway 99.”

“Towns and developing cities were connected haphazardly and, for the most part, the roads were still dirt trails wending through all types of terrain,” the two said in their book. “In the fall and winter months, after the rains began, especially in the Pacific Northwest, these tracks became muddy quagmires that even horses, mules and wagons had trouble navigating.”

Automobiles were starting to catch on, but they fared no better on the muddy terrain. They were often left jacked up on blocks and stored away during the wet autumns, winters and springs of the Pacific Northwest, Edwards and Brew said.

“As the love affair with the automobile began to take hold, more and more people began to petition for a main highway that would not only run through the whole state of Oregon from north to south but would also connect it to its neighbors in Washington and California,” they said.

“The same movement was happening in those states, too, and the dream to join the whole West Coast gained momentum.”

In 1913, Oregon Gov. Oswald West turned the first shovelful of dirt on the Siskiyou Pass to mark construction of the new Pacific Highway. At the time, the whole state had only 25 miles of paved road.

In the beginning, much of the highway was still dirt and gravel. That changed when federal money started pouring into the project in 1921.

Once the Pacific Highway was finished in 1926, West Coast residents could brag they had the longest improved highway in America, Edwards and Brew said.

Towns and businesses grew along the Pacific Highway, which served as the main street for many West Coast towns. Gas stations were spaced less than 100 miles apart so motorists could refuel, and auto courts, campgrounds and motels proliferated, Edwards and Brew said.

Original maps list the length of the Pacific Highway at 340 miles within Oregon. It later shrank to 308 miles after modern road-building equipment allowed state highway engineers to straighten many of the curves, according to articles in the Mail Tribune archives.

But the highway soon became a victim of its own success. The road was congested and loud, especially where it traveled through towns.

The construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s took pressure off the Pacific Highway.

One day in 1963, traffic was coursing along the Pacific Highway through Medford, and the next day, officials cut a ribbon and automobiles surged onto I-5, the Mail Tribune reported.

“What a colossal difference. It must have been phenomenal,” local historian George Kramer said in describing the scene for a 2007 Mail Tribune article.

As for Medford and its network of paved roads, an orchard and building boom in the early 1900s pushed road development.

Wealthy orchardists motored between their homes in town and their rural orchards.

“The automobile is not a luxury in the valley. It has become a necessity,” a 1909 Mail Tribune article reported. “The orchard owners reside in the city, and when the rush times come on they must visit their orchards several times a day.”

Medford had one automobile for every 30 people at a time when there was one automobile for every 500 people nationally, the Mail Tribune reported.

Medford undertook an aggressive campaign to pave roads in the area.

The orchard and construction boom collapsed in 1912 when fickle English eaters switched their allegiance from Rogue Valley apples to pears, the Mail Tribune reported.

Before the crash, builders were so backlogged on constructing new homes that a tent city sprang up, men slept on the streets and wives and children camped out in hotel lobbies, according to local historian Ben Truwe.

But from the 1910 census to the 1920 census, Medford lost one-third of its population.

The Rogue Valley eventually caught up with changing tastes by planting more pear orchards.

The dreamers who pushed for the construction of the Pacific Highway and local paved streets left behind a legacy that has fueled the economy and made life easier for generations.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

A mileage sign for U.S. Highway 99 in Grants Pass. Photo by Dorothea Lange for the Works Progress Administration.