Lester Gibson, a state highway engineer, led a pack train through the Big Sur area in 1918 to make the first survey for the location of the Coast Highway. Actual construction of the road began in 1921 when a contract was awarded to the firm of Blake and Heaney to build the portion of Highway One between Piedras Blancas Light Station and Salmon Creek. They completed the project in December of 1924.
In September, 1922, the same year that Senator Rigdon died, George Pollock Company of Sacramento began the first part of the road in Monterey County. They built Highway One between Anderson Canyon and Big Sur, completing the job in October, 1924. This was a particularly difficult portion of the road to build because of the remoteness of the site. Much of the material and equipment had to be brought in by barge to a sheltered cove near the middle of the project. As soon as the original grade was disturbed in this area, great quantities of material came sliding down, most of which wound up in the ocean. In fact, in one of these slides a power shovel fell more than 500 feet to the ocean and was destroyed. Using strenuous efforts, the contractor managed to complete the grading the day before the first rain of the season.
Two work camps were set up at Piedras Blancas Light Station and on the Big Sur River. By the end of 1924, a twelve mile section from San Simeon to Salmon Creek and a thirteen mile section from the village of Big Sur south to Anderson Creek had been completed. At this point work ground to a halt.
The allotment of money had been consumed and much of the work still remained. California’s Governor, Friend William Richardson, felt that the State could not afford to continue the project. There were no funds until another bond issue was passed, and work was resumed with prison labor. Thirty of the most difficult miles were still to be built between Salmon Creek and Anderson Canyon.
Convict labor was employed on the Coast Highway beginning in March, 1928. A bill providing for convict labor was authored by State Assemblyman B. B. Meek and passed by the legislature on August 8, 1915. The use of convict labor solved three problems simultaneously. It helped relieve the overcrowding in the state prison at San Quentin and was used as a method to help rehabilitate some offenders. At the same time, it answered the shortage of labor to work on state roads. Experience through the years showed that the cost of constructing highways using convict labor was about the same as it would have been using contract labor.
According to the 1915 law, prisoners were under the jurisdiction of The State Board of Prison Directors and guards were authorized to discipline prisoners, issue clothing, generally govern the prison camps and decide when and where prisoners should work on the roads. All the expenses involved were paid out of highway funds including food, clothing, medical care, construction and maintenance of the prison camps, and paying the guards. Prisoners received no pay but had their sentences reduced up to one day for every two days spent in camp.
On June 9, 1923, the State Legislature passed a new law introduced by Assemblyman Walter Schmidt of San Francisco. The revised law, which was in effect all during the time convicts were used in the construction of the Highway One, gave control of the camps and the prisoners to the Division of Highways but kept the responsibility for control and discipline of the prisoners with the State Board of Prison Directors. This allowed the Division of Highways to determine when and where prisoners worked. The new law also provided for payment of convicts of up to $2.50 per day. Actual pay on Highway One was $2.10 per day but, from this amount, deductions were made for all camp expenses including clothing, food, medical attention, toilet articles, transportation to the camp, construction tools and guarding. These deductions reduced the average pay to just under $0.34 per day.
The 1923 Act also provided for an automatic reward of $200 for the capture and return of an escaped prisoner. This amount was then deducted from the pay of all of the other prisoners in the camp.
By law, prisoners were only allowed to perform unskilled labor which constituted most of the work. Free personnel were assigned to supervise the convicts, drive trucks and operate equipment.
The first prison labor camp was established at Salmon Creek in March, 1928. It accommodated 120 prisoners plus 20 free men who worked north from that point. In July of the same year, a second camp was built near the mouth of the Little Sur River, about 18 miles south of Carmel. From this camp, workers constructed the road from Molera’s Ranch, a mile or two north of Big Sur, north to Rocky Creek, a distance of about eight miles.
When this portion of the road was completed, the convict camp was moved to Anderson Canyon where it remained for the duration of the project. From the new site, workers built the road south to Big Creek, about 46 miles south of Carmel. When this task was finished, the workers reconstructed and realigned the portion of the road from Anderson Creek to Big Sur which had originally been completed in 1924.
The workers housed at Salmon Creek began working north and completed the highway as far as Big Creek. In the process, the camp was moved north to Willow Creek and then to Kirk Creek.
On September 18, 1934, workers from the two convict camps working towards each other met and the final barrier was removed. A few official cars drove the entire distance from San Simeon to Carmel for the first time although much of the road was still under construction and was only one lane wide in places. In addition, many of the bridges had not yet been completed so these vehicles had to traverse steep detours into some of the canyons along the way, crossing the streams on temporary bridges.