Through the Hills--The Grove-Shafter Freeway

By Dennis Evanosky---California Highway 24 carries traffic from Oakland to Contra Costa County through a set of four bores known collectively as the Caldecott Tunnel. A second, earlier road, California Route 24, also played a role in moving traffic from Oakland into the neighboring county. 

Route 24 began near Oakland City Hall and ran north on Broadway to College Avenue. Traffic turned left onto College to reach Ashby Avenue, where it turned right. Eastbound Ashby led drivers to Tunnel Road near the Claremont Hotel. Cars and trucks then had to climb a winding Tunnel Road to its namesake and the Caldecott Tunnel’s predecessor, the Inter-County Tunnel. Locals called this unpaved, unlit affair the “Kennedy Tunnel” for William Kennedy, the man whose property the tunnel pierced.  

The Inter-County Tunnel opened with a grand ceremony not far from Route 24 at Oakland’s Idora Park on November 4, 1903. For 34 years—until the opening of the Broadway Low Level Tunnel—the Inter-County Tunnel served as the only way through the Oakland hills.

On his website, California highway historian Daniel Faigin tells us of an interesting “twist” in the tunnel. “The Kennedy Tunnel had a four-foot elbow in the middle,” he writes. “Diggers had miscalculated the meet-up.” The “twist” was only part of the problem. In 1931, California’s Joint Highway District Number 13, with Thomas Caldecott as its president, deemed Tunnel Road “narrow, crooked and inadequate.”  

The state drew up plans to build a public highway and tunnel to replace not only the circuitous road to the inadequate Kennedy Tunnel, but the tunnel itself. Faigin says that by 1935, some 30,000 cars were passing—one at a time—through this dark, narrow tunnel every week.

In 1935, the state designated portions of Broadway and College Avenue in Oakland and of Ashby Avenue and Tunnel Road in Berkeley as California Route 24. Drivers took this winding way to reach the Inter-County Tunnel.

When they opened in 1937, the two new tunnels—christened in the singular as “Broadway Lower Level Tunnel”—changed Contra Costa County from bucolic to burgeoning. Commuters poured through the tunnels, creating havoc on Oakland’s streets, especially during the morning and evening commutes. Once the tunnels opened, drivers no longer had to take the long way around through Berkeley, up Ashby Avenue and onto Tunnel Road. Instead of turning onto College Avenue from Broadway, drivers could simply stay on Broadway and, at Patton Street, access the road that led directly to the tunnels.

In Building the Caldecott Tunnel, Mary McKosker and Mary Solon tell us that by the late 1950s some 83,000 vehicles were jamming Oakland’s streets daily, many on their way to and from Lafayette, Orinda, Moraga, Walnut Creek and other points east. The state had to do something.

McKosker and Solon write, “By 1958, the state had approved an eight-lane highway from the Eastshore Freeway to the Broadway Lower Level Tunnel. The Eastshore Freeway was then part of Highway 17. Today that freeway belongs to interstates 80 and 580 just north of the Bay Bridge access.

With that 1958 state approval, California Highway 24, as we know it today, was born. The Oakland City Council went along and “voted to green-light the State Highway Commission’s plans, angering citizens who felt the decision was a concession to outside interests at the expense of Oakland residents,” Jeff Norman tells us in Temescal Legacies.

Norman writes that a citizens’ group called “The North Oakland Home Defenders” went to court to block the project, known as the Grove-Shafter Freeway. The state named the freeway for Grove Street and Shafter Avenue, the streets that it had originally planned to incorporate into the freeway. (Grove Street was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 1984).

The Home Defenders’ lawsuit contended that the agreement between the Oakland City Council and the highway commission was unconstitutional because it transferred the city’s legislative powers to the state. The State Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in 1960. That same year the state decided to add a third bore to the Broadway Lower Level Tunnel and opted to change the tunnels’ name to honor Caldecott. In 1964 the Caldecott Tunnel’s third bore opened, and work began on the highway that the state had approved some six years earlier.

Construction on BART began in earnest in 1966, adding woe to the misery the Grove-Shafter neighbors were feeling. On its way through North Oakland, BART used a portion of the roadbed of the defunct Sacramento Northern Railroad for its right of way. BART had to make its own way through the hills. Workers completed the Caldecott Tunnel’s companion, a 3.2-mile-long affair that accommodated trains traveling in both directions in February 1967.

In the meantime Caltrans had cut a pair of swaths, one on each side of the BART right-of-way for freeway construction. The state condemned and destroyed everything in the way. “The Bank of America building came down in 1966, along with dozens of shops, churches and public buildings in Rockridge and Temescal,” a Rockridge resident told Norman. “The State Highway Commission decided what route the Grove-Shafter Freeway would take, with little regard for the disruption of neighborhoods.”

Caltrans also condemned and moved hundreds of homes. This led to a lawsuit against Caltrans that stalled completion of the project for more than 10 years. By 1972 traffic was flowing north on Highway 24 from the Eastshore Freeway. The lawsuit filed that same year put a halt to construction on the portion of the route that carried traffic south to today’s Interstate 880. The suit claimed that the state was not providing adequate housing to replace the homes it had condemned to make room to build the freeway. That lawsuit put a stop to construction of what would later become Interstate 980, the topic for next month’s article.


(Courtesy of Oakland Wiki: Cars travel through the Inter-County Tunnel. From 1903 to 1937 this dark, narrow tunnel was only way through the Oakland hills.)

(Courtesy or John Harder: This aerial view shows the Rockridge BART station and Highway 24 under construction in the 1960s. Today, traffic on College Avenue travels directly beneath the station. In order to accommodate the station and freeway, the state had to reroute Keith and Shafter avenues to the left of the freeway in this photograph and Miles Avenue to the right. The freeway bears Shafter Avenue’s name.)

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