Old Redwood Highway: Highway 1 connects coastal haunts
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Because of its spectacular scenery, Highway 1 is officially an All-American Road, but long before it got its official number in 1964, the trip north along Sonoma County’s coast was slow going.
Rather than just one road, there were pieces that eventually joined together. Russians built the first leg from Fort Ross to Bodega Bay and Bodega. Spaniards added to it, forming a rough trail to Olema. In later days, a stagecoach traveled between Petaluma and Olema.
That’s why seeing the historic sights along the Coast Road sometimes requires you to leave the highway.
Starting at Sea Ranch and heading south, Stewarts Point Store is one of the first landmarks. It started life as a stagecoach stop, with the dilapidated building next door once a that accommodated 19th century travelers.
A little farther south is Fort Ross, established in 1812 by the Russians. They used the next stretch of Highway 1 to get back and forth to Bodega Bay and Bodega. In 1972 the road was rerouted to protect the fort from people who were loving it to death.
The late Milton Cunningham of Bodega used to tell the tale of an early-day traveler riding in a horse-drawn wagon with a very tough character.
The pair came upon a Chinese man fishing from a sea bluff. The driver became enraged and, with no provocation, attacked the fisherman, hurling him to his death on the rocks below. Once back in the wagon, he threatened to kill his traveling companion if he said a word.
Back in Bodega, the ruffian safely ensconced in a saloon, the passenger sought out the sheriff’s deputy. A gunfight ensued on the road, and the murderer was killed.
You can keep that piece of history, more legend than fact, in mind as you drive the hair-raising On the hair-raising Jenner Grade, the highway regularly self-destructs and often needs rebuilding. In the 1980s, a bad storm wiped out the whole stretch. The government rerouted traffic to the ridge on Meyers Grade Road for months while a World War II metal Bailey bridge was installed over a chasm south of Fort Ross and the road reconstructed.
Locals were appalled when, in 1976, Congress made Highway 1 an international bicycle route. It required painting a white line on either side of the road to designate a bicycle lane. In many places the white line is the bicycle lane.
Just north of Jenner the dramatic outline of Goat Rock becomes visible. Pull over at a wide spot and look down at the mouth of the Russian River, watching for its colony of mother harbor seals. They use that spot as a “haul out” on which to have their babies and teach them survival skills.
In the old days a ferry carried travelers across the river. These days there’s a bridge, followed by the stretch of road that winds down to the placid waters of Bodega Bay. The oldest building still in town is the house called Wood Haven.
At the Bodega turnoff, make another detour to see historical sights along the old coastal road. The Murray House, on a curve at the east edge of Bodega, once was the stagecoach stop. A building across the road that housed a store and tavern is still there, too. It houses the Casino, an informal town hall, watering hole and even a theater on occasion.
Back on the coast, Highway 1 climbs two steep hills known locally as “the camel humps” and goes to Valley Ford. There you will find Dinucci’s, built as a hotel to serve rail passengers until service stopped in the 1930s. It still hosts a crowd, serving Italian family dinners in the dining room and cocktails from behind a rosewood bar brought around Cape Horn on a clipper ship.
Outside of Valley Ford, the road takes a sharp right on its way to Tomales. The William Tell House has been beside the road since 1877 and now serves as a restaurant and tavern.
As you come into Marshall you’ll see a little island in the bay. It is Hog Island. It used to be privately owned but is now part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. You can enjoy the views of the serene bay and the mountains of the National Seashore that protect it all the way to the town of Point Reyes Station.
There you will find another piece of history. The Western Saloon was once a brothel and then a speakeasy, but now is a beloved watering hole that Prince Charles of England has visited. It’s a great place to end an exploration of our little piece of the great road.
Read about key stops along those early day Sonoma County roads in the special May 12 issue of Towns: