Around 50 of the Glen Ellen faithful showed up at the Glen Ellen Community Church last month for an illustrated talk on the roads and bridges of Glen Ellen. Organized by the Glen Ellen Historical Society, the talk was delivered by Arthur Dawson, a local ecologist and cultural historian. Dawson’s talk was given in the Mayflower Hall of the church, itself an historical meeting place over 100 years old.
Because Glen Ellen lies where the Calabasas and Sonoma creeks converge, it is traversed by many creeks and rivulets. Dawson’s lecture followed the development of roads and bridges from the time of the woolly mammoth 12,000 years ago, and other early creatures to pound a trail up and down the Valley. Later, native peoples – the Pomo and Coast Miwok – formed a network of paths and trails following the easiest low-lying routes from one point to another.
Paths naturally became roads. Roads were surveyed starting in the 1850s, while creek crossings continued to be built. With the arrival of Northwestern Pacific and Carquinez railroads in the late 1880s, visitors from San Francisco arrived in droves. When automobiles arrived around 1915, muddy roads began to be paved, and cement guardrails built, many still visible along Highway 12.
One of the oldest bridges, and the only brick bridge in the county, is the tiny bridge on O’Donnell Lane. Built for horse and pedestrian traffic, this narrow bridge was constructed from yellow bricks made just down the road at the O’Donnell Brickyard.
The town’s most prominent bridge is in the center of town and crosses almost directly over the confluence of the Sonoma and Calabasas creeks. The main road from Sonoma traveled up along Calabasas Avenue – now Arnold Drive – so wagons and stage coaches would have originally forded the creek at Gibson’s Ferry, according to “A Walking Tour of Glen Ellen” by Bob Glotzbach.
The first wooden bridge was built at this spot in 1870. A single-span steel suspension bridge replaced it in 1890 and older citizens may remember playing under that steel bridge, swinging from overhanging trees into the swimming hole below. Kids could fish and sell shrimp for 1 cent each to tourists. The bridge was rebuilt again in 1939 as a concrete double span bridge.
Dawson also showed an alarming proposal from the 1960s, when state officials proposed a major freeway through Sonoma Valley, with off-ramps and large cloverleafs, paralleling Highway 101. This plan was thwarted by citizens who were defenders of the rural character of the Valley.
Following Dawson’s talk, the traffic committee of the Glen Ellen Town Forum discussed current problems of speeding, narrow roads, bike and pedestrian lanes, and more. Their efforts are aimed at building safe roads and bridges, while maintaining Glen Ellen’s cherished rural character.