Roads and highways have been an important part of Kern County from its earliest history.

Spanish colonists' oxcarts traced the first road, El Camino Viejo de Los Angeles, passing through San Emigdio Canyon and following water sources up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley as it linked the northern and southern missions of Alta California.

Gold excitement on the Kern River in 1853 led to the building of the Stockton-Los Angeles Road, which traveled along the foothills on the east side.

In 1857, Congress funded a road to carry Overland Mail stagecoaches between St. Louis and San Francisco. Entering Kern County near Fort Tejon and descending Grapevine Canyon, the coaches crossed the Kern River at Gordon's Ferry before travelling north to Visalia, Fresno City and San Francisco.

During the Progressive Era, farmers, bicyclists and automobile owners formed the Good Roads Movement and lobbied state and federal governments for dependable all-weather highways to compete with the railroads. In 1895, the Legislature created the State Bureau of Highways and in 1910 voters approved $18 million in highway bonds.

Among the first projects: a route running the length of California, through the valley and Kern County. In 1915, the Ridge Route closed the remaining gap in the highway, finally connecting Northern and Southern California.

With the Federal Aid Road Act (1916) and the Federal Aid Highway Act (1921), Congress provided funds that by 1920 helped pave the valley highway and in 1926 had added it -- as U.S. Highway 99 -- to the new U.S. Highway System. Valley boosters named it the "Golden State Highway" in 1927, but it was informally known as the "Main Street of California," since it passed through the heart of the valley's cities and towns.

As highway travel grew, the landscape of roadside America took shape: motels, diners and filling stations. For much of its life, Highway 99 passed through Bakersfield on Union Avenue, forming the town's "main drag" and a thriving corridor of travel-related businesses.

Local traffic mixing with long-distance travellers, cross-streets and stoplights, however, eventually made Bakersfield a major bottleneck. In the 1960s, Caltrans realigned Highway 99's route through Bakersfield and replaced it with a new multi-lane freeway on the west side of the city. The new highway alleviated traffic problems, but set in motion the long-term decline of Union Avenue, which never fully recovered from the loss.

In 1956, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, creating a new national network of freeways. During the 1960s, Caltrans built Interstate 5 along the west side of the valley. The new freeway carried much of the long-distance traffic between Southern California and northern points, allowing truckers and travellers to bypass Bakersfield entirely. With the opening of I-5, U.S. Highway 99 was demoted to State Route 99.

Today, the convergence of Highway 99, I-5, and Highway 58 (connecting to I-15 and I-40 at Barstow) makes Kern County a growing hub for warehousing and distribution. California's highways and transportation infrastructure have long played a key role in Kern County's prosperity. But they require continual maintenance and modernization, and both the state and the Congress have struggled to find a way pay for the needed work.

Perhaps they should remember what the State Bureau of Highways recognized back in 1895: "there is no tax so grinding as the tax of bad roads."

Douglas Dodd is an associate professor of history and history graduate program coordinator at Cal State Bakersfield, where he teaches courses in U.S. history, California history, public history and the history of the American West. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This first appeared in a Californian special publication, "The story of us," Aug. 6, 2016.

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