Monday, December 24, 2012

Interstate 10: Harbinger of Change

It was the summer of 1961.

A small army of workers and machines toiled in the sun, laying concrete for a new freeway.

As the town watched, the coming of Interstate 10 was a harbinger of change. In a few decades, a small-town became one of the Inland Empire’s most progressive, modern cities.   

The freeway, just like the Transcontinental Railroad before, brought waves of new people and changed the course of our history. But it’s uncertain whether a freeway through our downtown was always in our destiny. Old timers still talk about a fascinating bit of local history that would have changed things in a big way.

It seems that in the 1950s, freeway engineers drew lines on a map that would have had the freeway skirting downtown and instead following Cherry Valley Boulevard before dropping down into Banning.

With hindsight, we can look back and see how the alternate freeway route would have drastically changed our landscape. For one thing, the old downtown along Fifth Street would have survived. But in doing so, the growth that made Beaumont so strong and vibrant might have passed us by—or at least looked much different than it turned out—and rural Cherry Valley would have grown up alongside a freeway.

In the end, the idea to run the freeway through Cherry Valley never got traction, and the freeway came to Beaumont, easily allowing us to reach any destination in the Inland Empire and beyond.

Freeway history

Looking back a half-century to see how the path of the freeway changed Beaumont, let’s revisit the days when plans for the interstate captivated the whole town.

On June 14, 1961, a story by John Hunter in The Beaumont News began this way:

“Here’s the answer to the freeway question: It will open to traffic through Beaumont about the middle of July.”
In the story headlined, “Six Lanes in Progress —Expect Freeway Opening by The Middle of July,” Hunter gave readers an inside look at the busy scene.

More than 200 workers, many of them local residents, worked on the job. The section of freeway through Beaumont called for 110,000 tons of concrete. But that was “piddling” compared to the 2,800,000 tons of dirt (hauled largely from the Stewart Ranch) to raise the freeway above Beaumont’s old downtown.

Some adventurous teenagers got a sneak peek of the freeway before all the traffic. They hopped a chain link fence and strolled across the lanes, walking to the Fox Theatre in Banning.

Before the freeway, the heart of Beaumont was along Fifth Street. But the original downtown was razed to make way for I-10. The freeway’s route today is just south of old Highway 99, now called 6th Street.

Workhorse of the interstates

More than a half century has passed since the freeway opened. Nowadays, an average of 120,000 cars and trucks zip through Beaumont along the interstate on a given day. The freeway is a main artery for national and international trade as a NAFTA highway and keeps goods and traffic flowing smoothly to vital destinations such as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The freeway also is a major tourism route to Palm Springs and the Colorado River, supporting the gaming and hospitality industries, which provide many jobs for area residents.
While Beaumont has grown alongside this major thoroughfare, the community has always maintained a unique hometown flavor and can-do spirit to go along with the progress that helped make our city what it is today.