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Assault on Devil's Slide: A 150-Year Tale of Man Versus Mountain 

Wednesday, May 1 2013
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The sacks are due for San Francisco. Ever since they discovered gold up north a couple decades ago, all sorts of folks have poured into that city, each bringing a new mouth to feed. The crops, though, are on the other side of the mountain, grown in the fertile earth along the San Mateo coast. To transport the produce, there are two options by land: a long, circuitous trek around the southern tip of the mountain range, or a northward slog through the mountain's rocky wilderness. But the most efficient route is by sea, around the peninsula and into the Bay. Which wouldn't be a problem if there were any accessible harbors nearby. But there are only cliffs.

So a few farmers built these chutes to get their produce onto the ships bound for the boomtown. They were a response to the mountain standing in the way of developing markets. The ramps were a massive construction enterprise, but worth the trouble — owning a chute means collecting fees from every farmer who needs to use it. That is, as long as it's built sturdy enough to withstand the pounding surf. The waters are not as generous as the land, and the ship sways like a drunk pendulum. It's an innovation that solves some problems, but is far from a perfect solution.

"Grab the bucket!" a man shouts. Building up friction on its slide, a sack has burst into flames. This happens on occasion.


San Mateo Supervisor Ted Lempert sees his district suffocating. A few weeks back, in January 1995, a storm unleashed the full power of the Devil's Slide. Tons of rock, heavy with moisture, crashed into the ocean and covered the roadways. By the time county officials could measure the damage, a long stretch of Highway 1 had sunk five feet. It would be closed for months. Commutes would lengthen. Tourism would stop. Restaurants, beach-side boutiques, and ocean-view inns would lose money.

The phone in Lempert's office rang and rang and rang over the coming days. What are you going to do about this? Constituents demanded a solution, and Lempert had none. Worse, Lempert had been the most vocal opponent to the county's long-standing official fix to the Devil's Slide problem: a highway through the valley to the east of the mountain. He'd echoed environmentalists' claims that the so-called inland bypass would be an ecological disaster. But protecting nature doesn't seem as important to folks when they can't drive to work or are about to lose their jobs because their employers are hemorrhaging money. At least one "Impeach Lempert" sign has already popped up along the highway.

He sits at the head of a long table inside the San Mateo Board of Supervisors conference room. Beside him is Ruben Barrales, the only other supervisor to oppose the bypass. And before them are eight of the smartest geologists and engineers that Lempert could corral. Lempert is out of ideas, but perhaps one of these experts can think of something. A Hail Mary, he figures.

Caltrans brass, as well as almost every local official, is pushing hard for the bypass. Generations of them had given buckets of political sweat and blood to the cause. The proposal first emerged during the 1950s highway boom. Americans, with money in their pockets and shiny cars in their driveways, were taking to the road. A mammoth six-lane highway, parallel to I-280, suited these sensibilities. San Franciscans and Oaklanders could pile their families and picnic coolers into Chevrolets and trek down to the beaches of Half Moon Bay, patronizing local business along the way.

But as the environmental movement of the '60s and '70s gained steam, opposition to the bypass swelled. Not only would the project destroy the valley's ecosystem, the activists argued, it would trigger the kind of subdivision development boom that could wipe out the Bay Area's final frontier of rural life — the ranches, the fields of apricot trees, the lush rolling hills. So the activists sued the county, on environmental grounds, tying up the proposal in courts for decades.

Caltrans relented a bit. Seeking compromise, officials scaled down the plan to a two-lane highway. But the activists kept up the blockade. They had their own proposal, a Marine Disposal Alternative. The MDA was no less ambitious than the bypass. The project would stabilize the Slide by widening the mountain's base with a manmade earthen foundation sloping from the cliff to the water.

Geologists found this idea absurd. It would be a temporary solution, at best, lasting only until the newly formed lower slope succumbed to the inevitably violent erosion. Still, Caltrans had to at least make it seem like they were considering this alternative. So in the early 1990s, the department sent an exploration team to survey the area. A group of three or four scientists maneuvered a whaling boat through the waters below the Slide, deploying a bottom-sounding device to locate its base. Like most days, the surf was ferocious. It flooded the deck. Caltrans officials overseeing the project from the shore watched in horror as the boat capsized. The scientists managed to swim to land. And that was the end of the Marine Disposal Alternative.

As Lempert's experts begin pitching their ideas, though, it soon becomes clear that even the brightest minds can't come up with anything much better. Raise the roadway! Except that doesn't address the unstable cliff face that makes it vulnerable to collapse. Install drainage holes to keep the rocks light and compressed! Except all it takes is one big rainstorm to overwhelm the setup. A viaduct! Except the relentless tides would clobber the construction, then eat away at the elevated roadway's columns.

And on and on it went. Eventually, a bearded man near the door speaks up. His name is Doug Hamilton, and he is a geologist. He was looking forward to this meeting. He was on his couch, watching the news when he learned about the rockslide. Curious, he pulled out some aerial photographs from an old project he'd worked on around there. And that's when he saw it. A possible shortcut. From the area north of the Slide to the area south of the Slide. Right through the mountain.

About The Author

Albert Samaha

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