Altamont Pass: Travel Memories of Four Individuals
Edited by Wes Hammond
The Summit School at Altamont. Many children attending this school used four-wheel horse drawn buggies or two-wheel sulkies to reach their classes. Photo from Wes Hammond. [Click to enlarge]
People who traveled over the Altamont Pass 65 to 80 years ago have a variety of vivid memories. People using this route today in a modern car, and not familiar with the history of it, cannot have any idea of the concern of past motorists. They cannot conceive that the gentle curves, lack of traffic, and a summit elevation of 721 feet had once been a problem.
In the time period of 1920-1938 that this article covers, many things were different. Automobiles did not have the horsepower they have today and a loaded truck was very slow. It might have a top speed of 25 MPH. The Lincoln Highway crossed the Southern Pacific Railroad at two locations. One was to the west of town, and one to the east. At that time, it was a very busy railroad with many long freights, especially refrigerator cars full of fruits and vegetables headed for eastern markets. This caused backups as motorists waited at grade crossings. It has since been removed.
This highway was the main route for travelers from the San Francisco Bay Area to the valley cities of Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and, in some cases, Los Angeles. It was also used by many vacationers headed to the mountains east of these cities. On a Sunday afternoon, westbound traffic could crawl. As traffic and auto speeds increased, motorists became impatient, and accidents increased by the dozens. In 1938, the California Highway Department completed a new eight-mile bypass about one mile south of the original road. The following four stories are from the memories of individuals who traveled the original route through Altamont.
Clyde Hammond - Age 101 - Auburn
About 1920, my older brother Everett (the father of Wes Hammond) and I made a trip between Bowman (Auburn) and Oakland via Sacramento, Tracy, Altamont, Livermore and Hayward. I do not actually remember passing through Altamont, but as you will read, you will see we had a number of problems that kept us busy physically and mentally. At this time Everett was in a partnership in a tire recap business in Oakland, but just why we were making this trip together I don't recall. I do remember though that it was his car and that we had a supply of five tires and tubes as spares. The tires were used ones and the tubes had patches and there were boots in the tires. Everett must have had a feeling of what was to come.
By the time we had crossed over the Altamont Pass and reached Livermore, we had used all five tires. A series of one flat after another depleted all the spares. We had been traveling on well-used tires, and since the Lincoln Highway had only been completed five years earlier, it was not in the best of condition. I'm sure the condition of the road contributed to our tire problem. We had to buy a new tire in Livermore, but Everett didn't have any money, so I paid for the tire. I remember that parts of the highway were in good condition with packed gravel, and there was even a portion with concrete pavement between Galt and Stockton. We had left Bowman at 10:00 am and it took sixteen hours to reach Oakland. We did not take time to stop to eat -- just to change tires!
Robert Kindblad - Age 87 - San Leandro
My father owned a 1916 Chevrolet sedan with a fabric top and fabric side curtains with isenglass windows. During the early 1920s, we traveled from Oakland to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe many times, and our travel route took us through Altamont. I was 10 to 12 years old and my memories are of the wind and that it seemed like it was always blowing. The fabric on our car vibrated and shook terribly. This created a great deal of noise, and these sounds created by the wind remain in my memory. (Ed.: The wind is very strong through the Altarnont area and today it is being utilized with hundreds upon hundreds of wind powered electric generators.)
Frank Cardoza - Age 90 - Montaque
This 1926 Kleiber truck is still owned by Frank Cardoza. Using this truck and pulling a 1928 Trailmobile trailer, Frank used the Lincoln Highway between Tracy and Dublin/Hayward hauling tomatoes and baled hay. In June 2001 at the Reno convention of the American Truck Historical Society, Frank was awarded the prestigious Founders Award. This honor is given to a select few men who started in the trucking business prior to 1935 and remained for 30 years or more. Photo from Wes Hammond. [Click to enlarge]
In 1928 at age 18, I purchased a used 1926 Kleiber two-ton flatbed truck and a new four-wheel Trailmobile trailer and started my own trucking business. (Ed.: The Kleiber truck was manufactured in San Francisco and they were very popular in California. They ceased operations in 1937.) The trailer did not have dual wheels or brakes. Four-wheel trailers were called "pups."
During 1929 through 1934, I drove the Lincoln Highway/US 50 through Altamont many times. At this time, I was living in Centerville (now part of Fremont), and I drove the fifty miles to Tracy. In the Tracy area, I took on a load of either tomatoes or baled alfalfa hay. I took the tomatoes to canneries in either San Jose or Hayward and the hay to the many dairies in the Centerville area. The Altamont Pass had a summit of only 721 ft, but for a 1926 truck and trailer with full load, this was quite a pull. I had to do a lot of shifting gears to keep up to speed, which would have been about 20 to 25 mph. Coming downgrade and on curves, I had to be very careful of my speed. A trailer without brakes was difficult to control, and without dual wheels, the trailer tended to be top heavy and it could roll over very easily. My round trip for these drives took me eight to ten hours.
The town of Altamont had a general store, a hotel, a service station, and a school. I remember this small town as being very busy. Local farmers did a lot of their business here and they arrived in town driving either a horse and wagon or a Model T Ford. The school kids did not have buses for transportation and they arrived at school in horse-drawn buggies or two-wheel sulkies.
Wesley L. Hammond - Age 75 - Modesto
Your editor, Wes Hammond, made several trips a year through Altamont between 1936 and 1938 in this 1936 Ford. Photo from Wes Hammond. [Click to enlarge]
In 1936, my dad received a World War I bonus of about $900.00 for service in England and France. (He had been a truck driver with the 43rd Aero Squadron.) We needed better transportation and Dad decided to use the bonus money for a new car. After looking at Chevrolets, Plymouths, and Fords, he decided on a Ford. I was ecstatic, we could now travel much farther then the 15 to 25 miles that we were limited to with the 1926 Essex we had had before.
At this time, we were living in Irvington (now part of Fremont), and we made one or two trips a year to visit Dad's relatives in Auburn, and these trips took us through the Altamont Pass. My memories are of the traffic during the 1936-1938 years. On a Sunday afternoon, when we were returning home, the westbound vehicles could be bumper-to-bumper, and there were usually several accidents.
I can remember this because of the reaction of my mother to this problem. Mother was not a good traveler, and she detested this kind traffic even though my dad was a very good driver. She would suck in air and gasp at anything that she thought could be considered a close call, even if it was only applying the brakes quicker then normal. As a 10-to-12 year old, these sounds registered on me as how bad the traffic was. Even though she worried much more then she should have, the traffic was a problem, and in 1938, the Altamont Pass section was bypassed.