The distribution of the Mexican Land Grants in the early 1840s gave rise to the coast road from San Luis Obispo north, more or less along its current path, to San Carpoforo Creek. It went wherever necessary to connect the residences of the rancho owners. To call it a road is a bit of an exaggeration. In actual fact, it was more of a trail suitable for people on horseback, pack animals and cattle. Carretas (two-wheeled carts drawn by oxen) were mainly used on the rancho where they were first made but could be taken along the road. The continuous passage, especially of cattle, eventually widened the trail until it was passable by wagons.
The earliest record of the coast highway in the Cambria area comes from the diseño of the Rancho Santa Rosa. This sketch map submitted by Don Julian Estrada with his application for the land grant in 1841 shows the “Camino Real” coming north approximately along its current route. After passing Estrada’s house just north of the present intersection with Highway 46, the road curves gradually inland, crossing Santa Rosa Creek in the area of Coast Union High School. From here, the road follows Santa Rosa Creek toward the ocean and then north parallel to the present Highway One but a little farther inland to San Simeon Creek.
Though neither of these towns existed in 1858, the road at that time passed through the “main street” of Harmony, paralleling the present Highway One for a couple of miles and then turning inland following Perry Creek. The road then turned toward the coast following Santa Rosa Creek on the west side to Cambria. The road crossed the creek at the place where Bridge Street would later be and reached the coast just south of San Simeon.
By 1868, the path of the coast road in the Cambria area had changed markedly. After passingrough Harmony about one quarter mile east of the present highway, the road paralleled the highway crossing to the west side of the present road just south of the current intersection with Highway 46. It then paralleled the present highway on the west, up Dawson Grade, until it reached the present Eton Road. This portion of the path of the road can still be easily seen by observing the location of the old, shorter power poles which were along the road between Harmony and Eton Road. From here the road went up Eton approximately to the current site of Cambria Nursery and Florist, and then down the side of the ravine opposite Burton Drive. After passing through the “Tin City”, the road crossed Santa Rosa Creek at Bridge Street and followed Bridge through the Community Cemetery and along the ridges until it returned to the coast just south of San Simeon Creek.
There was no bridge at the Bridge Street crossing of Santa Rosa Creek. Both the 1892 and 1895 Sanborn maps show Bridge Street as being an “inclined road to creek” on the side of the creek nearest to Main Street. In fact, it is likely that Cambria residents used this street to gain access to the creek for water and for the washing of clothes. The 1886 through 1895 Sanborn maps show Chinese laundries on both sides of Bridge Street near Santa Rosa Creek. Bridge Street got its name from the fact that, in the portion above Main Street, a drainage ditch ran along the west side and it was necessary for residents to construct short bridges from their property to the street.
Cambria was founded at the intersection of the coast road and Santa Rosa Creek Road. The portion of what is today called Main Street between Santa Rosa Creek Road and Bridge Street was then known as Santa Rosa Creek Road. There was no Main Street at the time. In 1865, H. Phillip Kaetzel homesteaded 160 acres adjoining the Rancho Santa Rosa. His homestead occupied the land immediately north of Santa Rosa Creek and immediately east of the rancho border which ran in a northerly direction, parallel to Bridge Street, starting at a point behind where Cambria Tax and Financial Services is, across Main Street from Heart Glass Gallery where Hampton’s 76 station used to be. Shortly thereafter, William Grant and George W. Lull leased a portion of Kaetzel’s property and built the first general merchandise store in the area, less than 1000 feet from the current intersection of Bridge and Main Streets. This structure still stands and is commonly known as the Music House or the Duncan House. By 1867, the Grant and Lull store had moved to the southeast corner of Bridge Street and Santa Rosa Creek Road (Main Street) and the Cambria post office was established there.
By 1874, the coast road in the Cambria area had changed again. In that year, R. R. Harris, the county surveyor, prepared the first complete map of the County of San Luis Obispo. This map shows the road from San Luis Obispo to San Carpoforo Creek essentially in its present location except in the Cambria area. Here the coast road followed the 1868 path until it crossed Santa Rosa Creek at Bridge Street. Then it followed Bridge Street to Main Street where it split with one route going down the present path of Main Street to Moonstone Beach Drive and the other route going somewhat farther inland and joining the first route just south of San Simeon Creek. The second route had a branch from it going north to the ranches of Leffingwell and Pilkey. These roads, together with Santa Rosa Creek Road, were the only officially surveyed roads in the area.
In 1888, in response to the requests of Cambria citizens, the county moved the coast road approach to Cambria again. Instead of coming down “Cambria Hill” by way of the ravine opposite Burton Drive and crossing the creek at Bridge Street, the road now came down the hill approximately along the current route of Burton Drive and crossed the creek on a newly constructed bridge at Lee Street (Burton Drive). This bridge was replaced with the current concrete structure in 1968.
In 1922, a concrete bridge was built across Santa Rosa Creek on what is today Main Street. After that, the coast road through Cambria followed Main Street from its intersection with Ardath, across Santa Rosa Creek Road, and through the town to Moonstone Beach Drive. It then followed Moonstone Beach Drive north to its present intersection with Highway One. The steel bridge along Moonstone Beach Drive over Leffingwell Creek was not built until 1932 so, presumably, the creek was forded until then. By 1924 this was an oiled and improved road. In 2009 the steel bridge was replaced with a new concrete structure.
After WWII, traffic increased along Highway One and, in 1958, it became a tidal wave when Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument was opened to the public. The road through Cambria was choked with congestion until, in 1963-1964, Caltrans completed the “Cambria Bypass” which carried the road along its present route.