Finding Old Highways – A Guide – Part 1

When looking for old highways, there are many clues you can use to help discover where old highways ran. This will serve as a partial guide to finding those clues and figuring out the history of a roadway in California.

State Highways

When you are looking for clues if a roadway you are on is an old State Highway, there are a few things to look out for. Depending on the age and location, look out for Right of Way monuments. In California, these are small concrete blocks with a C on the side of them, facing the roadway. They tend to be at the fence line along roadways, at the same distance as the utility poles, or further out. How much they stick out also varies. Some are just a few inches above the ground where others are about a foot high. Look out for these monuments at the beginning or ending of a curve usually about 50-100′ from the centerline of the roadway (or former centerline).

Old C-Block State Highway Right Of Way marker from 1930.
Old C-Monument State Highway Right Of Way marker from 1930.

Other clues tend to be tougher to spot but can be very subtle in appearance. Roadways that were formerly paved with concrete instead of asphalt are usually cracked in a very specific way if the asphalt is old enough. Expansion joints in the concrete, potholes exposing the old paving, or a defined crack running near the roadway edge usually give this away. Older concrete paving was either 15′, 18′, or 20′ wide. Modern roadways are usually 24′ wide, with two 12′ lanes. Look out for this concrete at curves which appear to have been straightened.

Original alignment of the Ridge Route at Tejon Pass. These lanes were built in 1923 on top of the original 1919 Ridge Route concrete.
Original alignment of the Ridge Route at Tejon Pass. These lanes were built in 1923 on top of the original 1919 Ridge Route concrete.

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On some roadways bypassed or abandoned after 1964, old postmile markers can be found. These markers are similar to the ones on current State Highways. On a current roadway with R mileage, look for old alignments in the area. R mileage indicates a realignment that took place after 1964, which is the point of “base mileage” for California State Highways.

This milepost was found near Whitaker Summit on old US 99. US 99 was gone legislatively in 1964 so Route 5 took over the numbering here. That is why it shows the mileage for I-5.
This milepost was found near Whitaker Summit on old US 99. US 99 was gone legislatively in 1964 so Route 5 took over the numbering here. That is why it shows the mileage for I-5.

Abandoned roadways are tougher to spot depending on the area climate. Drier climates tend to preserve older paving better than wetter climates. In some areas, the paving itself was removed after the roadway was bypassed. I have found a few sections of roadway relatively intact, complete with old striping, in Central and Eastern California. When the pavement has disintegrated or obliterated, you can look out for areas where there is less vegetation and distinct roadway grade. Sometimes old drainage culverts and bridges are left behind with nothing but dirt grade leading to them.

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More paving, both lanes now visible.
More paving, both lanes now visible.

In any area, make sure to take plenty of photos if you find an old alignment. You never really know when the local jurisdiction will come along and either obliterate or repave the roadway. This is fairly common in Los Angeles County as I have found. The most recent loss has been the June 1933 three lane concrete in Gorman along old US 99 which was repaved in the past couple years. Document what you find as best as you can. Doing so will help to preserve the memory of these forgotten roadways for many years to come.

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8 thoughts on “Finding Old Highways – A Guide – Part 1”

    1. That marker predates the freeway, most likely from the 1920’s. It marks the right-of-way for former US 60/70, which is now incorporated into modern I-10. I’ve seen a few of these myself, mostly on the south side of the freeway east of Desert Center.

      1. That’s really interesting. I live in Central California, a long way from there, but I’m fascinated by pretty much any lost towns, abandoned highways, extremely old things, or ruins in California.

        1. You’ll find plenty of those c-monuments throughout the state. Just look along the fence line and you’ll see them. One of the next installments of the “Finding Old Highways” series will be specifically about c-monuments in the near future.

            1. i do, for some areas. Many of the “towns” were nothing more than railroad stops. Some were just platted but never really amounted to anything. Towns such as Tropico, Florida, and Alosta existed but were subsumed by other towns.

              1. Yes. A few people said they were Railroad Towns, which I guess meant that the Railroad literally built a few very small towns, just to increase their business, and even though there was a railroad going right through them, I think they probably started disappearing as early as the 1920s because they were not close enough to the highway, and there was no dependable water near enough. The town of Knight’s Ferry (for example) is right next to one of the Lost Towns that has literally nothing but an old road and a railroad track through it now, and Knight’s Ferry is still there, even though no railroad tracks ever went through it (as far as I know) because of the river.

                Anyway, like I said in my article, if I can find actual photos of businesses in these Lost Towns (not just a house or two), I may pursue some kind of book or something about them, if not I definitely will not.

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