About 515 miles of highway winds through Los Angeles, connecting the 10 million residents of Sylmar in the north all the way to the coast of San Pedro. Since the opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, they have proved vital to the region, but their construction has not come without significant social costs: neighborhoods razed to the ground, residents displaced, entire communities split in two by the vast transport infrastructure. In his latest book, Freewaytopia: How Freeways Shaped Los Angeles, author Paul Haddad takes readers on a whirlwind journey through the history and lore of Los Angeles’ sprawling highway system. In the clip below, we take a look at the 110 Harbor Freeway where the first live traffic updates by helicopter took place.
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Over the next four years, the Harbor Freeway began to coalesce. Press warnings went out with each new exit as they came online: Olympic. Washington. slason. Nearly all were accompanied by the kind of theatricality that defined the era. One of the initiations was a shapely model named Ann Bradford, who wore a sash with the words “Miss Freeway Link” – certainly one of the more awkward female honorifics concocted by a Chamber of Commerce. Even the highway’s longtime nemesis, Kenneth Hahn, couldn’t resist attending the opening of 124th Street. When the ribbon was cut on September 25, 1958, Hahn boasted that the highway—now 10 miles long—was already LA’s second busiest, after the Hollywood Freeway. When it’s finished, he said, it will carry more traffic than “any street, highway or highway in the world.”
The immense popularity of the Harbor Freeway – even in unfinished form – did pose some teething problems for motorists. The Downtown section turned out to be a confusing grid of bridges and ramps that required quick lane changes and sudden start-stops. As anyone who’s gone south from the Hollywood Freeway to the Harbor Freeway can attest, the maneuver requires a “Frogger”-style thread from the needle through three lanes within a quarter of a mile, so you don’t involuntarily enter one of the Downtown ramps. . The nerve-wracking exercise is compounded by incoming Arroyo Seco motorists crossing the same three lanes of the opposite direction – left to right – seeking the exits you are trying to avoid.
Performing either move is nothing short of a navigational baptism for novice drivers. Some drivers can’t do it at all. Such was the case for Greg Morton, a thirty-four-year-old management consultant whose ordeal made him famous for a short time. In March 1958, just south of the Four Level, Morton attempted to weave to the right from the fastlane. Suddenly a car veered into its lane and Morton panicked. He wedged the wheel to the left and got stuck on the central median strip, which at the time was just a raised concrete strip with planters every twenty feet. These planters were a problem for Morton. He didn’t feel like he could get a “running start” to rejoin the stream of whizzing cars. So he waited for a break in traffic. And waited. And waited. When he was stranded, he tried to signal 18 passing police vehicles for help. Only one stopped. “You got yourself up there, didn’t you?” reprimanded the officer. “Just start your engine and drive away.” That’s exactly what the police did.
It got so bad that Morton eventually held sway. He took a beach towel from his suitcase and started sunbathing on the central reservation. Perhaps this strange spectacle eventually led to a Good Samaritan helping this obviously delirious person. The stranger was a civilian on a motorcycle who promised to call from a pay phone for help. Sure enough, a sympathetic officer arrived within minutes and stopped traffic long enough for Morton to escape the median. In all, the Highland Park resident was stranded for an hour and a quarter.
When Morton was asked about it later, he was shocked, but took it all easy. “I would have given twenty bucks if there had been a phone, as there should have been, that I could have used to call for help,” he said.
Maybe Kenneth Hahn was listening. Four years later, Hahn—then a provincial supervisor—was the driving force behind the installation of roadside payphones. Hahn posed for a photo at one and made an emergency call. It was on the Harbor Freeway.
While payphones had to wait a few more years, 1958 saw the first routine traffic reports from helicopters. Before that, highway conditions were performed by roaming cars or sporadic airplane flights. Radio station KABC was the first to leave the gate with Operation Airwatch. Every weekday morning and afternoon, traffic jockey Donn Reed delivered rush hour updates from the cockpit of a Bell whirlybird. It was an instant hit with motorists and Reed had the proof. One morning he asked all drivers who saw his helicopter to blink their headlights. Six out of ten cars did.
The fact that so many commuters signed up may have saved the life of a three-year-old girl waddling through traffic on the Harbor Freeway. Reed had his studio start programming so he could alert drivers to her presence. As cars slowed down and stopped, she strayed off the main road, no worse for the wear.
Not surprisingly, the Harbor Freeway saw the bulk of the traffic updates. In 1958, more than 318,000 vehicles per day passed through The Stack. That same year, the Dodgers began their first season in Los Angeles after moving from Brooklyn. Home games were played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while the team waited at their permanent field in Chavez Ravine. Built for the 1932 Olympics, the Colosseum’s football field was not designed for baseball, just as the dense Exposition Park neighborhood was unsuitable for battalions of cars blocking the streets from spring to fall. Parking lots around the Colosseum could only accommodate 3,400 vehicles, forcing most motorists to pay to park on people’s lawns or to park on the street. A Phoenix fan who flew in to catch the game then had to walk twenty-four blocks to find a taxi to his hotel — a longer journey than his plane ride.
Crushing traffic around the Colosseum drifted a mile or more in each direction backwards on the Harbor Freeway. The delays created a stereotype of Dodger fans that persists to this day: “Fans have already arrived in the third inning,” said sports journalist Rob Shafer of the Pasadena Star News. Usually, however, Angelenos were so enamored with their Boys in Blue that any inconveniences were met with wry humor. “The only thing the Dodgers forgot to bring when they moved to Los Angeles was the New York subway,” one newspaper joked. When Liberace had the audacity to perform at the neighboring Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena during a Dodger game, Rob Shafer swore the traffic on the Harbor Freeway created “some sort of human collective blood pressure record.”
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