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Jun 21, 2008

May 20, 2007

Then and Now: The 'Bloody Bayshore'

Deadly wrecks inspired Highway 101

Been stuck in traffic lately on Highway 101? If you live in Palo Alto, it's pretty likely since it is hard to go much of anywhere on the freeway to or from our fair city, without at least occasionally finding yourself reading and rereading a car's bumper stickers. But the next time you find yourself swearing you'll never get near a freeway again, remember that 101 is not nearly as bad as what came before it.

As the car culture boomed in California in the '40s and '50s, city planners and lawmakers struggled to keep up with the pace of the ever growing traffic. The roads had not been built to handle the hordes of cars that now swarm the roads, creating traffic and safety nightmares. On the Peninsula, no road had the dismal safety record as the highway that led to Palo Alto. It was known as "Bloody Bayshore."

Where 101 now runs the length of the Peninsula, old Bayshore Highway once connected San Francisco and San Jose. Completed in 1937, the four-lane highway - divided by just a double yellow line - contained so many dangerous intersections and potential driving dangers that Bayshore fatalities were constantly in the news. In the '40s and '50s, the accident rate on Bayshore was twice that of the average California highway.

A combination of factors made Bayshore driving deadly. Dense traffic flowed out of San Francisco and San Jose, as drivers made the rush hour commute. Many treated the road as the freeway that had not yet been invented - rushing to get to and from work. A San Mateo Times story from the era quoted Police Captain James Logan as saying that "motorists have made a speed track of Bayshore, speeding at 50 or 60 miles per hour." Many accidents, he said, were due to "'third lane drivers' who were going to the outside lane of opposite traffic in order to 'make time,' and then force(d) their way back into the legitimate lane." Yikes.

Gruesome, head-on Bayshore crashes were common. With only the double yellow line dividing the racing traffic on either side, many accidents involved drivers swerving into oncoming traffic. Sleepiness, drunkenness, and speeding were often factors. Other times, the reason was unknown, such as on March 13, 1953, when Betty Ireton of Palo Alto died in a spectacular head-on crash. The car of the 35-year-old mother of three veered over the center line and smashed full-force into a car driven by former Stanford rugby star Vance Sheffey. The middle-of-the-night crash was so explosive that it reportedly woke up residents a mile around. Ireton's car actually leap-frogged Sheffey's and came to rest on the other side of the highway with her license plate literally embedded in the wreckage of Sheffey's vehicle. Somehow Ireton's husband managed to escape with just minor scrapes and bruises. Both Sheffey and Mrs. Ireton were dead at the scene.

Many other accidents came at precarious intersections on Bayshore Highway. There were frequent traffic lights and drivers attempting to make left-hand turns across opposing traffic. Some of these turns ended up being fatal as drivers miscalculated the speed of the oncoming cars.

On June 8, 1957, at the Colorado and Bayshore intersection in Palo Alto, 42-year-old San Jose resident Marion Scott was making a left-hand turn. Attempting to beat oncoming traffic onto Colorado Avenue, she was hit, nearly head-on, by a vehicle driven by 45-year-old Thomas Mitchell of San Mateo. Mitchell's car caught on fire and Scott died instantly.

The drive to do something about the dangerous road began in the Palo Alto media. Palo Alto Times editor Eleanor Cogswell began the crusade against "Bloody Bayshore." Local residents wrote letters, signed petitions and protested at a "Bloody Bayshore Day." Eventually, public pressure and the 20 years of gruesome Bayshore headlines resulted in the new Bayshore Freeway replacing the old highway, largely along the same path. Although 101 is often vilified by drivers today, it is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

For more Palo Alto history go to "Then and Now" writer Matt Bowling can be reached at

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