Highway 35: Old La Honda Road Winds into the Past

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe stopped on Old La Honda road in La Honda, California, 2010. Photo: Grummblecakes.
1955 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe, stopped on Old La Honda Road in La Honda, California, 2010. Photo: Grummblecakes

Old La Honda Road was the precursor to present day La Honda Road (Highway 84) in the Portola Valley of California, south of San Francisco. It is very winding so if you want to bike or drive it, be prepared for a narrow roadway snaking around blind corners. When autos came into the mountains after 1900, signs were posted along the road advising drivers to “sound your Spartan” (the Spartan was a brand of automobile horn).

What the Garmin dashboard GPS display looked like at the top of Old La Honda Road, June 2007. The photographer, Antti T. Nissinen, commented that "Garmin tricked us big. Old La Honda Boulevard was not made for cars."
What the Garmin dashboard GPS display looked like at the top of Old La Honda Road, June 2007. The photographer, Antti T. Nissinen, commented that “Garmin tricked us big. Old La Honda [Road] was not made for cars.”

Turnpikes of Yesteryear

Old La Honda Road is based on several historic roads that were the equivalent of turnpikes or freeways in the 1860s and 1870s. Timber and other commercial interests were demanding access to their mountain properties, but the newly formed counties did not have the money to fund all of the requested roads.

Entrepreneurs were allowed to petition their county or state governments for a franchise to construct a road financed by their stockholders. They charged a user toll for the upkeep of the road. Stockholders rarely made money, and there were many complaints from travelers about the poor condition of these roads. Eventually, the roads were acquired by the counties, and turned into public thoroughfares that served ranchers and tourists.

The Knights Stage Line ran daily on Old La Honda Road, taking passengers from the train depot in Redwood City through the redwoods of La Honda and on to the beaches of Pescadero. 1897. Photo courtesy of Bud Foss and Bob Dougherty.
The Knights Stage Line ran daily on Old La Honda Road taking passengers from the train depot in Redwood City through the redwoods of La Honda and on to the beaches of Pescadero. 1897. Photo: Courtesy of Bud Foss and Bob Dougherty

Summit Landing

The area where Old La Honda Road crossed the summit was a center of activity in the late 1800s and was called Summit Landing. It is difficult to imagine the landing now, because all we see today are a long row of mailboxes and a redwood forest. The old foundations were filled in during the construction of Skyline Boulevard.

The Rapley house at Summit Landing, 1898. Photo courtesy of Portola Valley archives.
The Rapley house at Summit Landing, 1898. Photo: Courtesy of Portola Valley archives

Try to imagine the scene at the Summit Landing in the 1890s. On the southwest corner stood the spacious Rapley House and barn and the Summit Saloon. Another house and barn, surrounded by grazing sheep, was nearby. Tired stagecoach drivers and passengers could stop for some refreshment at the small Summit Saloon and play a few rounds of pool. At holiday time, local ranchers gathered there for dances.

It took a great deal of horsepower to haul even a single wagon load of grain, apples, and especially lumber up from the coast, so teamsters often stored their goods at the Rapley barn before hitching up a double load for the trek down the mountain to Redwood City or Palo Alto.

A group of summit area ranchers celebrate the Fourth of July at the Summit Saloon, 1906. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Rapley.
A group of summit area ranchers celebrate the Fourth of July at the Summit Saloon, 1906. Photo: Courtesy of Jimmy Rapley

Hallidie’s Wire Ropeway

South of the landing stood a large horizontal pulley that was the terminus of Hallidie’s Wire Ropeway, an overhead cable car system that ran up the hill on his ranch. It was powered by a steam engine at the lower terminus. The 7,241-foot-long wire ropeway, which Andrew Hallidie, known as the father of the San Francisco cable car built in 1894, was meant to be a demonstration for his clients in the mining business. It similar to a ski lift, and its buckets occasionally carried passengers for a scenic ride.

Andrew Hallidie, “the father of the San Francisco cable car.” Photo courtesy of Portola Valley archives.
Andrew Hallidie, “the father of the San Francisco cable car.” Photo: Courtesy of Portola Valley archives

Andrew Hallidie and his father had been in the wire rope business in their home country of England. They came to California in 1852 to join the gold rush but, like many others, found little gold. When visiting San Francisco in 1873, Andrew witnessed seven horses slipping to their deaths on a wet cobblestone hill and came up with the idea of powering the cars by a wire rope laid under the street. Now, he is known as the father of the San Francisco cable car system. He became rich and was a prominent citizen who became a politician and also served on many boards.

The 7,241-foot Hallidie wire ropeway ran from Portola Road to the summit, c. 1895. Photo courtesy of Portola Valley archives.
The terminus of the Hallidie wire ropeway on the summit near Old La Honda Road, c. 1895. Photo: Courtesy of Portola Valley archives
The terminus of the Hallidie wire ropeway on the summit near Old La Honda Road, c. 1895. Photo courtesy of Portola Valley archives.
The 7,241-foot Hallidie wire ropeway ran from Portola Road to the summit, c. 1895. Photo: Courtesy of Portola Valley archives

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the South Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) Tour by the Skyline Historical Society. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store

Much of the information in this tour comes from a book called The South Skyline Story by Janet Schwind and the Skyline Historical Society, 2014. It is a well-written, fun, and informative read, covering the Native Americans, through the early loggers and ranchers, commune dwellers, wine makers, conservationists, and homebuilders. You can get a copy at Alice’s Restaurant in Skylonda (the junction of Highways 35 and 84) or by contacting Skyline History President Chuck Schoppe by email, chuck_sch@hotmail.com, or phone, 408-867-9229.

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