California Governor Frank Merriam then took a white-hot branding iron and cut the leather strand in two. What was then called the Livermore Pass Highway was officially opened.
The opening on Aug. 4, 1938, of the four-lane freeway — now the Altamont Pass section of Interstate 580 — created the first divided highway through the hills between Livermore and Tracy, eliminating an accident-plagued bottleneck in the state highway system.
Now, three-quarters of a century later, with four more lanes added to the original four, the Altamont Pass is an always busy, sometimes jammed, key freeway element in this region.
The original four-lane freeway comprised the present eastbound lanes. The four separate westbound lanes were completed in 1970 to the north of the original route.
It is a familiar eight miles of pavement — now desperately needing an overlay of asphalt to smooth out the numerous rough spots — for Tracy commuters and a main route for cars and trucks traveling day and night between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area.
Before the freeway was opened in August 1938, cars and trucks often traveled bumper to bumper through the twists and turns of the original two-lane Altamont Pass Road, a torturous journey on most days.
The Tracy Press described the old road as “a very dangerous road” and the location of numerous accidents, many of them head-on collisions.
As auto and truck traffic continued to increase in the 1920s and 1930s, the California Highway Commission was pressed to break the Altamont Pass bottleneck.
Finally, in July 1937, the commission awarded a contract for construction of what it said was the state’s main highway project of that year — the Livermore Pass Highway Project. Construction was promised to be completed in a year, and it was only a month late in fulfilling that goal.
Tracy residents, especially those involved with the Tracy Chamber of Commerce, closely followed the construction progress, and in July 1938, Mayor Bill Larsen and Chamber Secretary-manager L.H. Grady were involved in planning the opening ceremonies.
On the morning of Aug. 4, 1938, a breakfast for state and local officials was held in Livermore, and the cutting of the lariat with a branding iron — reflecting Livermore’s cowboy heritage — was held at 10 a.m.
Once opened, a caravan of some 75 cars headed east across the hills toward Tracy.
Once in Tracy along Highway 50 (11th Street), the 175 participants filled the Tracy Inn Rose Room for libations and lunch. Speaker was Ray Judah, chairman of the California Highway Commission.
He pointed out the importance of providing a better connection between the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area, noting that the new four-lane freeway has only 15 curves compared to 60 in the old two-lane Altamont Pass Road, which is still in use today.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.