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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Road Show

Museum exhibit looks at early years of coastal highway and the changes it brought to area's lifestyle.

September 11, 1997|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's hard to imagine today, but in 1912 a scenic road made of wood planks teetered above the ocean's edge along a curved stretch of shoreline known as the Rincon, near La Conchita.

Awed by the ocean view, sightseers in their Model T Fords would creep over the swaying causeway as the spray from breaking waves below often made the trip a slippery one.

"The causeway [actually three elevated spans totaling about a mile] was spectacular but flawed," noted Matthew Roth, a historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "Few cars traversed it without getting flat tires" because of the protruding nail heads.

You can get a feel for the hazards of early motor travel along California's rugged coast in a new exhibit, "Coast Road: 1900-1950," that opens Friday at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

Sponsored by the museum and the auto club, the exhibit highlights California's Pacific Coast Highway, especially from Gaviota to San Diego--a 255-mile stretch. But it also draws on the roadside culture, development, and recreational activities the highway brought.

Of course, nothing could be more symbolic of the coast road than the surfing craze that began to catch on in the 1940s. You can see a vintage 11 1/2-foot hollow mahogany paddleboard/surfboard and old photos of Malibu surfers.

The road spawned the first auto campgrounds on the beach. Along with photos of families in their cars, with their tents strapped to the running board, you'll see some early camping gear, including a thermal container, vintage 1916, in a leather carrying case. The Auto Cook Kit, circa 1920s, included a bread-box-size oven that sat on top of the gas grill.

"People from every social and ethnic group went to the beach," Roth said. You can browse through an oversized "family photo album" of beach-goers over the years. Bathing suit styles give away the age of the photos. For an idea of beach fashions from the 1930s, check out the men's black wool bathing suit on display.

Along with the museum's photo collection, the nearly century-old auto club has thousands of photos of the coastal route and its development. The club will display the first maps its members received for traveling the coast, along with other paraphernalia like blowups of scenic postcards and menus from roadside restaurants.

"Before 1900, the coast was not a desirable place," Roth said, citing the climate and difficulty getting there. "It wasn't the premium location it became in the 20th century." Roads and autos helped change that.

"The coast road didn't just appear--it was a very intentional creation in the 1920s," said Tim Schiffer, curator of the Ventura museum. "It was built for the purpose of autos to go up and down the coast." State officials envisioned an ocean view every mile for motorists.

As for the Rincon causeway, which was built with private funds, the quirky roadway was replaced by concrete in the 1920s and eventually absorbed into the state highway system. That spot was only one of the challenges facing coastal road builders back then. Point Mugu was a major headache. Engineers first routed the road around the rocky promontory in the 1920s. Confronted with constant water damage, they blasted through rock and moved the road slightly inland in the 1930s.

BE THERE

New exhibit: "Coast Road: 1900-1950" opens Friday and continues through Jan. 4, 1998. The Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $3 for adults, $2 for Auto Club members. Museum members and children under 16 are free. (805) 653-0323.

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