Yes, there is a way around Last Chance Grade

By Chuck Blackburn January 03, 2014 03:19 pm

How time has flown by since April 2011 when I approached Del Norte Triplicate Editor Richard Wiens about writing articles about this community and its people.

He knew a little about me in this community and about my book, “Kneebockers,” and had confidence that I could put out some interesting stuff. I would like to thank Rich who is now both the publisher and editor, along with his wife Laura Wiens, who helps edit my articles. “Thanks, guys.”

In my retirement — “what retirement?” — I feel that I want to be a part of this community’s endeavors to survive and advance to the next level of success in economic development, a great place to visit and a comfortable place to live in a rural American atmosphere. Transportation is vital to this area both by good roads that are safe, by airplane with United Express and our airport, and by sea in boats.

During my tenure on the Board of Supervisors, I had many committee assignments and one of those was on the local Del Norte Transportation group that was called “El Tico,” with Caltrans participating. I was its chairman for a year and a half in 2005 and 2006.

I really enjoyed that group, particularly its work on improving highways 199 and 101. Much was discussed and some good things happened, particularly the safety projects on 199, straightening curves and widening certain sections of dangerous roadway.

We put a lot of effort into the Cushing Creek project at the top of Crescent City hill on 101. Because of environmental restrictions, the three options for a safer route were discarded and a less safe choice was chosen, which later proved deadly.

The first curve at the top of the mountain as it heads down to Crescent City has always been dangerous. During construction in 2005, concrete K-rails separated southbound from northbound traffic, but after the project was completed, the K-rails were removed, which grabbed my attention right away.

Caltrans said that with the new surface and a wider curve, it would be safer. In a short time two different T-bone accidents took seven lives.

As chairman of El Tico, I brought in Steve Wakefield, our dedicated first responder and chief of our fire departments, and Don Jordan, then commander of our Highway Patrol, to give their opinion of the safety of that curve. Within six months, we had a new concrete wall in that section to separate the traffic. I thanked Caltrans for its quick response in creating a safer road.

My life now is centered on a project to bypass Last Chance Grade, which has been falling 1,000 feet into the Pacific for years. I met Roger Gitlin when he and wife Angie came to Del Norte County several years ago and as we built a friendship I shared my history of 101 and Last Chance Grade.

I remembered distinctly in March of 1972 after heavy rains, Kurt Stremberg lost his parents when the road disappeared beneath them. This was during the Jaycees eighth-grade basketball tournament when I was coaching basketball at Crescent Elk School. The buses heading north had to empty their players and coaches out and they had to walk by the precipice. It still is like it was yesterday in my mind. I knew Kurt Stremberg at the time and I know the impact it had on him and his family.

After Roger won the election for the Board of Supervisors we still met occasionally and this always was a topic of discussion. Roger contacted  Kurt and the three of us met to form a citizens committee to support the concept of a bypass on the east side, or the Wilson Creek side, of the mountain.

I knew for many years that my old guiding buddy on the Klamath River shared the fact that there were two surveys conducted in the late 1920s. Ed Hughes worked in 1930 and 1931 on the current 101.

With that in mind, Roger, Kurt and I struck out on a course to get the attention of Caltrans and Redwood National Park for a plan to survey a route and tie back into 101 north of Last Chance Grade.

Roger lined up a field trip with Green Diamond Resources to look at a potential easement through Green Diamond right-of-way for the bypass.

In late July we met Andy and Ruth Anne on a spectacular trip from Wilson Creek Bridge up the N-200 logging road northward past Last Chance Grade. Andy had maps and also an iPad with GPS readings, which showed exactly where we were in relation to 101, Last Chance Grade and Redwood National Park.

At our northernmost point, Andy showed our position to the top of the hill above Last Chance Grade, just south of Damnation Creek Trail. He said, “There’s 101, Last Chance,” and that we were no more than a quarter to a half mile from where we were parked on the N-200 Road and 101.

“Wow,” that blew us away. We figured that it was no more than three to three and a half miles back down to Wilson Creek Bridge southward. Thanks to Neil Ewald of Green Diamond, Andy and Ruth Anne for the adventure.

Our course is set and we have accomplished a lot. We have the support of the City Council, hopeful support of the Board of Supervisors soon, support of the Smith River Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, the Yurok Tribe, Harbor District, Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Center, with individual support of businesses, Rumiano Cheese, Alexandre Dairy, Cal-Ore Life Flight. We are working on support of Sutter Coast Hospital and Pelican Bay State Prison. All of these letters are being sent to the Del Norte Transportation Commission, Tamera Leighton, executive director.

Personal contact has been made by Roger with the project director of Last Chance Grade. Since 1997, $34 million has been spent on fixing the problem with an additional $9.2 million to continue the “fix.”

Our comments are centered on, “It’s not if it gives way into the ocean, but when it goes.” I know with my geologic background that the fragmented cliff with shale-like rock and its strata makeup will continue to shear and give way. I look at all the drilling, pounding, tons of materials and pavement that adds to the stress of that section of road. Just look at that section as you fly by it on United Express and look at the 1,000-foot shear of that mountain.

Over the years as I grew up in this community, I have valued the relationships with many loggers, fishermen (commercial and sport), bulb growers, farmers, dairy folks and many business people. I learned much from them over the years. It has helped form me as a person who cares about Del Norte County and its communities.

Folks, this is crucial for all of your individual and group support. We have survived floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, tough economic times. Together we have power. We need to relate this powerful message to Caltrans and National Parks. Contact us — Roger, Kurt or me — if you have questions or have solutions.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Reach Chuck Blackburn at 954-7121.