Highway 128: AV’s Main Street

by Marshall Newman, January 28, 2015

One-Twenty-Eight. The highway. That $%&(@! road. However one refers to California State Highway 128, it is Anderson Valley’s main street and its main portal to the outside world.

Highway 128 is also — in some ways — a wonder. Anderson Valley’s isolation comes in part from the seriously rugged surrounding terrain; tall ridges, deeply cut and convoluted canyons, myriad streams and dense forest. Even today, access to the valley isn’t quick and isn’t relaxing. Like the road itself, the story of California State Highway 128 is a complicated one, with plenty of twists and turns.

Of course, there is more to Highway 128 than the approximately 55 miles from Cloverdale to Highway 1 at Navarro-by-the-Sea. In full, Highway 128 runs roughly northwest 130 miles, starting at Highway 505 near Winters, skirting the southern edge of Lake Berryessa, crossing the Vaca Range, running through the heart of Napa Valley and Alexander Valley, and FINALLY heading into Anderson Valley before reaching — almost — the Pacific Ocean. That the component pieces essentially meet end to end appears to be the only reason they collectively became Highway 128.

The Anderson brothers became the first non-native Americans to see the valley that now bears the family’s name in the early 1850s by tracking an elk northwest from Oat Valley near Cloverdale. The earliest settlers, some coming from the Russian River Valley, others coming from the Mendocino coast, likely reached Anderson Valley in ways similar to the Andersons; following game trails, watercourses and native Pomo paths.

A basic route — essentially a trail — into Anderson Valley from Cloverdale appears to have been established by 1859, when Alexander C. McDonald patented property at its highest elevation (1,220 feet) approximately eight miles northwest of Cloverdale. McDonald chose the location for what became McDonald Ranch well, as it was situated both at a logical stopping place on the primary route into Anderson Valley, and at a logical stopping place on the primary route — at the time — into the Ukiah Valley. It also encompassed some excellent grazing land. Here McDonald established Mountain House, with a rooming house, barns and pastures. After the trail was widened into a road to handle wagons, Mountain House — operated by McDonald and later by his son, Richard McDonald — served as a stage stop for decades and also served as an overnight stop for Anderson Valley ranchers herding their sheep to the railhead in Cloverdale. When I was a pre-teen in Anderson Valley circa 1960, long-time resident Leo Sanders spoke of doing the two-day trip with his father and sheep, with an overnight stay at Mountain House, in the late 1910s.

A crude road into Anderson Valley from the Pacific Coast to the northwest was built by valley settler John Gschwend in the late 1850s. The route ran along the top of Navarro Ridge before descending to the valley floor near Flynn Creek, just west of Wendling (later to become Navarro). It washed out during the winter of 1861-1862, but was rebuilt and served as the primary access to and from the coast for many years.

Whether one traveled to Anderson Valley from the southeast or the northwest back then, the trip wasn’t easy. Heavy winter rains closed the roads on a regular basis. Horses, livestock and thin, metal rimmed wagon wheels tore up dirt roadbeds and left a mess in their wake. As Cecil Gowan described the road at his family’s property near Philo around 1910 in the book Mendocino County Remembered, “You couldn’t walk in it for the mud in the wintertime and you couldn’t walk in it for the dust in the summertime.”

With the addition of gravel now and again, and some grading by the county, the main roads into and through Anderson Valley remained dirt until well after the advent of the automobile. The Navarro Ridge Road proved so problematic, the logging railroad from Albion to Wendling was utilized for several years around 1915 to haul automobiles - on flatcars usually used for logs - from the coast to the valley and vice versa.

In 1923, the state began work on a paved road to connect McDonald Ranch to the Shoreline Road (as it was then called) at Navarro-by-the-Sea. The reason for beginning at McDonald Ranch was simple; the presumably already-paved road from Cloverdale to McDonald Ranch and then on to Hopland remained part of what became Highway 101 (previously marked as Legislative Route Number [LRN] 1 and changed to Highway 1 in 1926) until 1934, when a replacement road connecting Cloverdale to Hopland by way of the Russian River was finished. The McDonald to the Sea (or simply McDonald) Highway was completed in 1927. With the exception of new construction from Flynn Creek Road to Navarro-by-the-Sea, it essentially followed the route valley folks had been using to and from Cloverdale for nearly 70 years.

When I was a child in Anderson Valley in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was rumored an easier, flatter route from Sonoma County had been proposed at one time, but that a powerful state legislator from Cloverdale has squashed construction and forced the Highway Department to upgrade the road from Cloverdale. I cannot find any evidence of the latter, but the former apparently was true. A route was considered that followed Dry Creek from Healdsburg to a spot near its headwaters approximately four miles northwest of Mountain House, where it would connect with the road to the valley already in use. It was never built, but planning had advanced to a point where the proposed route appeared on maps printed in the 1910s and 1920s.

The McDonald to the Sea Highway moniker did not last long; it was changed to Highway 28 in 1933. In 1952, an additional number was added to most California highways and Highway 28 became Highway 128. During this period and through the late 1950s, significant Highway 128 improvements were made, including several realignments, two of which allowed construction of new bridges over Indian and Anderson Creek, and the addition of turn-outs in various locations.

The only major change in Highway 128 through Anderson Valley since 1960 has been replacement of a significant portion of highway between Boonville and Philo around 1970 (I cannot recall the exact year). When the new, virtually straight section was completed, old Highway 128 became Anderson Valley Way. As a result, Farrer’s Corner, one of the valley’s more notorious spots for accidents, went from dangerous curve to slow turn, albeit one that still conjures up bad memories among older locals who remember its carnage.

In recent years, Caltrans has continued to work on Highway 128; replacing the Fish Rock Road junction to accommodate the new bridge, adding a few passing lanes, replacing culverts, fixing slides and roadbed slips, and repaving. In the last year or so, repaving has been ongoing, both between Mountain House and Boonville and between Boonville and Philo.

I am confident the drive will be smoother when the repaving is finally finished, but I am equally sure travel on Highway 128 from Cloverdale to the Pacific Ocean will remain a challenge. Those drivers who let their attention wander and those drivers who believe they can speed along well above the posted limit will sooner or later discover its unforgiving nature. In several ways, Highway 128 has protected Anderson Valley from the fate of similarly beautiful and bountiful landscapes, and for that locals should be grateful.

One Response to Highway 128: AV’s Main Street

  1. Robi Reply

    July 7, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    Is this the road that CA Highway Patrol nicknamed “Blood Alley” ? Just curious. Thanks for the informative, interesting article.

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