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405 Freeway's path tells a story of near-constant change

Between the time when the Sepulveda Pass was a trail and this weekend's 'Carmageddon,' the Sepulveda Pass has been under construction.

July 14, 2011|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times
  • The 405 Freeway is seen six days after its opening in December 1962. From the Sunset Boulevard bridge to the San Fernando Valley, the freeway carves through the Santa Monica Mountains.
The 405 Freeway is seen six days after its opening in December 1962. From…

The army of men and machines chewed through the Sepulveda Pass, casting aside in a geological blink of an eye what had taken nature millions of years to make. From above, the Santa Monica Mountains, its crest splayed apart, looked as if it was undergoing open heart surgery.

"This is the toughest highway job I've ever seen," project manager Gordon Bawden said at the time.

This weekend's closure of the 405 Freeway, also known as the San Diego Freeway, through the Sepulveda Pass as part of a $1 billion widening project is being foretold as "Carmageddon" — a potential cataclysm that underscores the region's servitude to an overburdened freeway system.

Photos: 405 history repeating itself

But in fact, the corridor has been under renovation for centuries. California's original commuter, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola, rode a horse through the area in 1769 following Native American hunting trails. Wagon roads were carved on top of footpaths.

The road that prefigured the 405, four-lane Sepulveda Boulevard, opened in 1935 and was hailed in the Los Angeles Times as a "new and wondrous highway" over the mountains, vastly superior to the overcrowded Cahuenga Pass and Laurel Canyon.

Sepulveda would become a clogged deathtrap within a few years. It's hairpin curves claimed 65 lives during the 1950s alone in often-spectacular multi-car crashes. More than 40,000 vehicles a day squeezed through a three-lane tunnel at its crest like sausage into a casing. Northbound traffic routinely backed up to Sunset Boulevard.

"It could take you more than an hour to drive Sepulveda to West L.A. It was a long haul," said Chuck Mathews, 77. As a young man just out of the Air Force, he took a job as a surveyor for the highway department and would work on the corridor's next incarnation.

In August 1960, work began on the 405 Freeway connecting western Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley — part of a 12-mile, $20 million project, then the most expensive California highway project to date.

Newspaper accounts marveled at the supersized numbers involved. Eighteen million cubic yards of earth removed! Ninety thousand cubic yards of concrete poured! Six million pounds of steel holding it together! A 30-story building could be hidden within the depths of the so-called Big Cut.

"Back then it was bang, bang, bang — get them designed and get them built as fast as you can," Mathews said of the heady days when new freeways were embraced as the liberator of an expanding metropolis.

Dec. 21, 1962, was a day to celebrate the opening of eight lanes of freeway that flowed through the mountains with the grace of a river.

Some 800 people watched Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty cut a ribbon and then fly off in a helicopter, leading a caravan of cars southbound across the Sepulveda Pass.

Motorists flooded the northbound lanes above Sunset Boulevard. Traffic backed up for more than a mile, causing the route's first SigAlert.

Meantime, in the southbound lanes, police pulled over Ron Tamkin for going 72 mph in a 65 mph zone — the new freeway section's first ticket.

"I was driving my newborn son, Bobby, home from the hospital," said Tamkin, now 72. "I told my wife not to tell anyone. I was embarrassed. Here I was speeding with a baby in the backseat."

The next day's Times reported the incident — and Tamkin's name. Every detail about the new freeway was news. Tamkin clipped the story and put it in Bobby's baby book.

The 405 would come to play an integral role in Tamkin's life.

He and his business partners profited from land deals that led to new apartment complexes in the now easily accessible western San Fernando Valley. In 1970, Tamkin and his family moved from Mar Vista to a new home in Encino.

"I'm sure I wouldn't have done that without the freeway," he said.

He had plenty of company. About 100,000 vehicles a day crossed the pass on the 405 in 1963; by 1990, it was nearly three times as many.

"The freeway serves as a bridge over the barriers of both social and natural geography," David Brodsly wrote in his seminal 1981 book, "L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay." "The San Diego freeway through the Sepulveda Pass … is functionally similar to the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Manhattan with the once less accessible Brooklyn suburbs."

In the summer of 1960, construction or planning was underway on no fewer than a dozen freeways in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties.

As the 405 was being completed, a decade of noise, dust and neighborhood destruction had left many with a case of freeway fatigue. Thousands of buildings were razed to build the 10 Freeway; tens of thousands of people were displaced.

Public opposition would soon kill plans to cut freeways through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and lead to a statewide revolt against the politically powerful highway lobby. The era of crosshatching the region with new freeways was drawing to a close.

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