The freeway changed everything | June 27, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

- June 27, 2008

The freeway changed everything

After 1964, the San Ramon Valley left behind its rural past

by Beverly Lane

Hay Days in 1958 was quite a party! Over four days it celebrated Danville's Centennial and put on a parade, carnival, aquacade, barbeque and Pioneer Belle contest. A special Valley Pioneer featured historical articles and a congratulations letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

That same year Danville Hotel owner and idea man Russel Glenn created the Danville Confederacy, which encouraged downtown stores to "create a town with a pleasing appearance." At one point he and his Confederacy committee announced that Danville had withdrawn from the 20th century and chosen to live in a simpler, older time. The Confederacy's slogan was "Old Century Leisure - New Century Convenience." Already in the works was one convenience, a new freeway.

In some ways these 1958 events reflected a community in the final throes of rural life, just as the boom years began. Danville changed forever when the I-680 freeway opened in 1964. Indeed, the '60s were truly watershed years for Danville. That decade saw school unification (1964) and huge debates over new educational ideas, the start of today's July Fourth patriotic events and parade (1962), Glenn's new Silver Dollar Banquet Room (1965) and two unsuccessful valley-wide incorporation elections (1963 and 1967).

County decisions created change as well: the planned unit development ordinance (1963) that was first applied to Sycamore and Greenbrook Homes; the assessor's decision that the "highest and best use" of ranch lands would be homes; and voter approval to join the East Bay Regional Park District (1964).

For years State Highway No. 21 was the only north-south road through the San Ramon Valley. As the population grew, increasing numbers of cars took that highway, and drivers came to dread the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Danville had 1,225 people in 1940; 3,585 in 1960; and 16,218 in 1970. Contra Costa County counted 100,450 people in 1940 and 555,805 in 1970.

The Valley was ripe to host the East Bay's inland freeway when the National Highway System began in 1956. And residents were unanimously eager to relieve the congested Danville highway. The specific freeway alignment was hotly debated and, finally, a mid-Valley route was chosen. A new road and offramp were named El Cerro. In 1962 a controversy over the Diablo Road access in Danville erupted; people vociferously objected to losing mature oak trees for an offramp. When the Chamber of Commerce supported the offramp, people called and threatened to boycott downtown merchants.

In due course the 6.75-mile freeway segment from Walnut Creek to Sycamore Valley Road was built by the Guy F. Atkinson Co. for $13.7 million. Gordon Ball Construction of Alamo made a bid as well, but came in second.

A three-day event called "Frontier 680" was chaired by Warren Scolin with Bill Hockins as Grand Marshall. Ninety-year-old pioneer Claude Glass cut the ribbon with County Supervisor Mel Neilson and Chamber President Cecil Borton looking on. Four parachutists landed on the pavement, and a procession with bagpipes, antique cars and Congressman John Baldwin paraded down the empty freeway on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1964.

One headline proclaimed "Happiness is a New Freeway!" Times reporter Donald Brand wrote "it's a time for great joy and jubilation (because) one of the Bay Area's worst continuing traffic jams is over."

John and Margaret May lived next to Danville Boulevard at the time. He went out to get the paper on Nov. 16 and came back to say to his wife, "It's as if a bomb has dropped and we're the last people on earth!"

The old Danville highway was indeed quiet as through-traffic bypassed the town. Drivers on the freeway admired the bucolic valley with its walnut and fruit orchards spread out on either side. When the Baldwin Ranch and others saw their annual assessments rise from $4,000 to $40,000, home developers took the opportunity, purchased the land and built new housing. Suburban Danville was born.

Yes, the freeway changed everything.

Sources: Valley Pioneer and Alamo-Danville Observer in 1960s, Contra Costa Times, Dec. 3, 1964


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