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The Tioga Road; a History 1883-1961 (1961, 1980) by Keith A. Trexler

Post War Developments

Following World War II, travel to the parks resumed its upward trend and by 1950 use of the Tioga Road had increased more than 30 per cent above the pre-war level. Correspondence increased, too, both favoring and condemning the middle 21 miles of the Tioga route. While some feared damage to the park’s scenic values would result if the route agreed upon in 1935 was built, many more feared the old road itself and worried about the more personal damage to themselves or their cars while negotiating the “horse-drawn” alignment of the remaining section of the Great Sierra Wagon Road.

The latter point of view became dominant as the travel picture changed. Larger cars and increased use of house and camping trailers made the old road a nightmare for many drivers and passengers alike.

The American Automobile Association warned, “It is not unusual to find people . . . unused to mountain roads, who just go to pieces, freeze at the wheel and park their cars in the middle of the road to wait for the Park Rangers or a kindly motorist to drive their cars the rest of the way.” (115) And such was the none too happy picture on many a crowded summer day.

The general tenor of the many complaints being received was that the road was not only freightening to drive but was completely unsafe, a trip over it being tantamount to committing suicide. The facts do not bear this out. In actuality accidents on the old 21 mile section were so few that “a statistical analysis is all but impossible. Our records are not complete for the early days of use, but it is believed that no lives have been lost on the narrow highway since automobile travel was initiated in 1915.” The primary problems were road jams on steep slopes due to vapor lock, “dented fenders, house-trailers caught between trees, mechanical failures and the overheating of many people’s tempers when a speed of 20 miles per hour was alien to their experience on a narrow mountain highway.” (116)

Other complaints were more reasonable and to the point. “While perfectly safe (since one must drive it slowly), it imposes undue anxiety on the driver.” (113) “I feel this road is . . . unsafe for inexperienced drivers.” (114) An experienced driver summed up the general feeling against the road thusly, “These 21 miles are the most exasperating I have ever driven. I will personally guarantee there isn’t a trickier road anywhere. It is a good deal like a roller coaster, only rougher! But if your car’s in good shape and you are confident of your driving skill; if you are looking for an adventurous route and breathtaking scenery, there’s no better place to find them than along the Tioga Pass Road.” (115)

If the Tioga Road was to adequately serve the public it needed immediate improvement. Although the routing had been long approved, World War II delayed action and considerable discussion was to ensue before construction began.

During the late 1940’s and early ’50’s, a series of alternate routes were suggested by individuals and conservation groups. One plan, the “high-line” route via Ten Lakes and the northeastern slopes of Mt. Hoffmann was proposed by Superintendent Thomson. The Park Service again sought the advice of foremost experts in the field.

William E. Colby, an esteemed San Francisco lawyer, noted conservationist and Sierra Club officer, in concert with fellow Yosemite Advisory Board members J. P. Buwalda and Duncan McDuffie replied, “This is a subject to which the Yosemite Advisory Board has given very careful consideration over a long period of years. The proposal to route the road north of Polly Dome is, in our opinion, a grave mistake, because it would intrude a road into an area that is now and will remain wilderness in character if the road is not built.” The Board endorsed the Park Service’s original plan throughout.

Accordingly, it was determined that the 21 mile central section of the Tioga Road would follow the route as proposed by the Service and as strongly endorsed by the Yosemite Advisory Board. There remained, however, the question of standards what would be the most appropriate construction standards for the new central section and who would be the best qualified person to undertake this study? Director Wirth was able to secure the services of the country’s most outstanding authority in this field in the person of Walter L. Huber. Mr. Huber was not only a noted consulting engineer and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, but a nationally recognized authority in the field of conservation. He was a former president of the Sierra Club and present chairman of the National Parks Advisory Board. Mr. Huber had often been called to advise State and Federal agencies contemplating construction where esthetic considerations were important.

After field and office studies Mr. Huber advised, “I feel that the Tioga Pass road is and must remain essentially a park road. For this purpose I consider the 20 foot width of pavement to be satisfactory, i.e., two 10 foot width travel lanes. For the “Section in Through Fills,” I would recommend that the 3' 0" shoulder on either side of the pavement be widened to 4' 0". I note that this is to be a stabilized base native grass shoulder.” I hope this specification will be retained with insistence, otherwise, shoulders are soon coated and from the motorists’ viewpoint look the same as pavement; thus we have in effect a 24 foot pavement without shoulders and once the motorist is over the edge he is often in trouble.” He approved the Park Service standards on the remainder of the road, i.e., 2 foot shoulders. (117) These recommendations

Clouds Rest and Half Dome from Olmsted View
[click to enlarge]
Clouds Rest and Half Dome from Olmsted View
were accepted by National Park Service and Bureau of Public Roads officials and were incorporated in the final road plans. (119)

Actual construction began in 1957, with contracts let that year for clearing and grading 6 miles on the west end of the 21 mile section and 4.5 miles of the easternmost portion. (121) At that time the total cost of re-doing the 21 mile section was estimated at $4,658,000. (120)

Preservation of scenic values was uppermost in the minds of all connected with the project. If slight realignment would save an unusual natural feature — an ancient juniper, a lodgepole pine grove or glacial erratic boulder — the change was usually made. (121)

At this time Director Wirth pointed out, “There were changes made in the plans for the Tioga Road which took into consideration several of the suggestions made by the conservation people . . . I think the final decision was a good decision which took into consideration the many problems confronting us. No road ever reconstructed in the National Parks has had the detailed study and consideration that has been given to the Tioga Road. The route and standards were under intense study for 31 years . . .” (122) (123) Associate Director E. T. Scoyen summed up, “When the debris of construction operations is cleaned up and the project fully completed, I am sure there will be virtually unanimous approval of this road which is designed to present to the motoring public a sample of high Sierra park wonderland . . . I am sure that hundreds of thousands in future years will be thankful for this opportunity to receive enjoyment and. inspiration from superlative scenery.” (125)

During the winter with construction halted, plans were completed and bids were let and accepted for the remaining 10 miles of the 21 mile section. (118)

The full 21 mile central section was completed and officially opened to the public on June 24, 1961. The cost was $5,491,000. The cost of the western and eastern sections was $1,450,000, or a total cost of $6,941,000 for the 46 miles from Crane Flat to Tioga Pass.

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