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Old Highway 399, Part 1: Ojai Freeway (CA 33) in Ventura

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There is nothing like a route that ends at the sea, and US 399 is no exception; US 399's southern terminus has always been the City of San Buenaventura in California, better known as Ventura, the county seat of Ventura county (753,197 [2000]), with a population of 106,744 [2006]. Ventura traces its history back to the famous Fr Junipero Serra (see US Highway 395 Part 2 for his biography and his original mission in San Diego), who founded the Mission de San Buenaventura at the mouth of the Ventura River in 1782. San Buenaventura is the Spanish name for the Franciscan St. Bonaventure, a 13th century Catholic theologian and philosopher who was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Sixtus V in 1588. This mission was Serra's last; only a small portion of the mission remains today along Main Street (old US Highway 101) a couple blocks east of old US 399 on Ventura Avenue (Ventura Ave is in Part 2). After California was ceded to the United States with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the region, regarded as relatively difficult to access by transport in those days, remained the domain of local landowners and squatters even after the incorporation of the modern city in 1866. One of these landowners was railroad tycoon Thomas Scott, who sent his assistant Thomas R. Bard westward to handle his holdings; Bard, in turn, established the local oil industry with the Union Oil Company in 1890, over which he presided; Union Oil was the source of the original Union 76 gas brand, became the famous Unocal during a 1983 corporate reorganization, and is today now part of Chevron (or, as some prefer, the former Standard Oil of California). The original Union Oil offices in Santa Paula still stand and are a state historical landmark. At their peak, the Union Oil fields in Ventura produced some 90,000 barrels a day, and many are still in operation. Oil is a constant theme along US 399, and we'll encounter many oil fields all the way to the end in Bakersfield.

Despite the presence of the oil industry and the nearby citrus groves (another original member of Sunkist Growers along with Riverside), the area remained lightly settled into the 20th century due to the steep and hazardous Conejo Grade to the south, and the inconsistent beach route north (or, as an alternate, the difficult Casitas Grade through the inland route to Santa Barbara, today traversed by CA 150). The Conejo Grade and the rickety beach routing became the initial alignments of US 101 in 1928, but US 399 was the first dependably passable inland route built in the region as the Maricopa Highway (Legislative Route Number 138 Ventura-Coalinga [1935, 1955]), not completed until 1933 (the particularly stunning and difficult mountainous portion is the subject of Part 3 and Part 4). By 1930 the region barely had over 10,000 residents for the first time, but did not explode to its current size until the construction of the Ventura Freeway (modern US 101) between 1959 and 1969; by 1970, the region boasted nearly 60,000.

[An unmarked US 399 in 1934, CHandPW 8/34.] Although the state had always intended a road from Ventura to Bakersfield and designated it for survey as early as 1913 (for more about that, see Part 3), US Highway 399 was not an original US highway as designated with the first designation of US highways in 1926. Instead, it was added in 1934 (without a number initially, as the 1934 California Division of Highways map at right shows, and eventually assigned US 399 as the third and southernmost spur of US 99) as a connector from the coast to the inland Central Valley when its construction was completed; this portion of the highway was LRN 138 [1935, 1955] between Ventura and the Cuyama Valley. The original routing of US 399 in Ventura, as we mentioned above, is Ventura Avenue and was built more or less in the valley of the now greatly diminished Ventura River, splitting the western coast ranges with its flow in antiquity. US 399 follows this routing until Oak View, when it deviates along a parallel grade and connects to the modern Maricopa Hwy north of Ojai and Meiners Oaks. The old surface street alignment connects to the modern and common routing into Casitas Springs more or less directly, so we will do it as the second of two parts in this region (i.e., Part 2).

However, the last and latest incarnation of US 399 in Ventura was the Ojai Freeway, today signed as the southern portion of CA 33 when US 399 was decommissioned by the 1964 Great Renumbering. The California Division of Highways had always intended a freeway to access the mountain communities, and as such the first segment of the Ojai Fwy opened as US 399 in 1956 from Stanley Avenue to just north of Shell Road; it was extended south to the new Ventura Fwy in 1962-3. After US 399 was decommissioned, the entire portion of US 399 from Taft (Part 6) to Ventura became part of an extended State Route 33 and the Division of Highways continued to expand the now renumbered freeway, this time opening the northern segment up to Casitas Springs in 1970. However, the eventual plan to extend the Ojai Fwy up to, well, Ojai, was never realized; today the Fwy still ends well short of its namesake and the old surface routing of US 399 continues to carry the route as modern CA 33 into the hills. A lot of old signage persists on the Ojai Fwy, which is why we will blow this entire Part on it.

On NB US 101 (and, on this portion, CA 1), the modern Ventura Fwy, approaching the Ojai Fwy, with the first advance signage for the route (now CA 33). US 101 remains a major highway in California, one of the few US highways that still exists in the state, let alone sees major traffic volumes. Although truncated south of Los Angeles, at its greatest extent it went all the way to San Diego as the southern portion of the Pacific Highway and crossed into Mexico as Mex 1. There is still a "continuation" in British Columbia as BC 101, although it has always terminated in Olympia, WA at old US 99/modern Interstate 5, and remains the primary arterial for the Pacific coast through all three states.

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The fascinating Southern Pacific Coastline railbridge over US 101, one of my favourite landmarks along the freeway.

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North of CA 33/old US 399 is the very long old beach alignment of the Ventura Fwy. While seven miles between exits is hardly a record, it is certainly very unusual for Southern California.

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Approaching the junction at 101 PM 30.

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Northbound Ojai Fwy (CA 33/Former US 399)

Merging onto NB CA 33.

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First NB postmile, at PM 0.17, crossing Main St (old US 101). The postmiles on the SB CA 33 alignment are amusingly inconsistent and we'll look at them on the return trip. This is roughly where the original 1956 freeway started.

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Got that, truck drivers?

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Advance signage for Stanley Avenue, the first exit.

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First CA 33 shield.

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Distance signage leaving Ventura. It would have been nice if Bakersfield were signed too, but this only goes as far as Taft.

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Stanley Ave exit.

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PM 1.5 and advance signage for Shell Road.

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NB CA 33/old US 399.

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Shell Rd exit.

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Notice the "Pipeline 1" that CA 33/old US 399 crosses (it also crosses Pipelines 2 and 3). These are still in operation and are part of the original Ventura oilfields.

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This is the end of the 1956 freeway and the beginning of the 1970 extension. Some of the postmiles are also signed on the Jersey kerb.

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Keep those pumps, um, pumping.

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By the way, it is indeed literally a pipeline, running right under the freeway. Hope they're up to earthquake code, or there's going to be a big, black, sticky mess someday and it won't be the freeway asphalt.

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Curving around into the hills as we start to converge on our old routing coming up from the east.

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Advance signage for Casitas Vista Road, the last exit of the current Ojai Fwy.

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El Camino Real bell and signage, commemorating the original King's Highway established with the founding of the Spanish missions in Alta y Baja California. Missions were laid out along the linking trails and roads that made up the King's Highway in such a way that the next mission was approximately one day's ride on horseback apart, which remained true into the motor age of the 1920s. I'm going to talk about this more extensively someday when I finish my US 101 exhibit (promises, promises), but CA 33/old US 399 from Ventura up to Ojai is part of the original El Camino Real routing between San Buenaventura and Santa Barbara; the beach routing of US 101, despite being called El Camino Real by the California legislature, was actually not part of the original routing proper. This is one of the remaining concrete bells dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, it is no longer legislatively part of the official route and this one seems to be maintained locally.

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Approaching the single lane pinch at the end of the freeway. This is a big choke point during local rush hour.

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Last exit for Casitas Vista Rd.

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Last PM (6.2 on the callbox).

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End freeway.

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Southbound Ojai Fwy

On the southbound side of the freeway are some fascinating little relics, so we'll look at them, including this aggressively signed left merge and exit at the Stanley Ave exit. For an extreme example of left merges and exits on older California freeways, see Interstate 215 in Old Highway 395 Part 17.

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Approaching the US 101 junction at the SB-only Main St exit. This was part of the Ventura Fwy project, built originally in 1963 although these signs are newer.

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Faintly visible in the last picture is this one, an END 33 shield. Although US 399 of course does not traverse the whole extent of modern CA 33, I threw in the other END 33 as a bonus in Part 6.

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One of the original US 101 signs still stands at the junction. Notice the odd shape of the US shield, which was standard at the time but rarely used, and that there is no background fill.

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Compare with the US 101 shields here at the separation and with those at the Main St exit.

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Now for a little fun with postmiles as we play everyone's favourite game, Where The Heck Does 33 End? Let's start here, just a few hundredths of a mile (allegedly) before the end as we cross over US 101.

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But, here's R0.00 ... and we're not anywhere near the end of the ramp!

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Caltrans seems to completely ignore the spurious 0.00 because this overhead gets 0.02 instead.

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When we merge with US 101, there is no terminal postmile past that, but ...

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... we know it must have ended, because the next one we hit is US 101.

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As we loop around, here is a 2005 picture showing the other and more common way the Division of Highways used to post US highway shields, also taken in Ventura, this time along US 101 itself. While it too lacks a background fill, the shape resembles the US shield more than the distorted look of the one at the south end of the Ojai. This particular sign at the CA 126 junction is now down (I found it in a stack of unrelated images), but there are a few still around, including one in Mountain View on the modern freeway.

Continue to Part 2

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