The opening 75 years ago of what we now know as the original Caldecott Tunnel was a gala affair complete with riders on horseback reenacting the Spanish settlement of California and a mock blowing up of blocks covering the west portal to mark the opening as men in uniform saluted.
The west portal also had large loudspeakers atop the portal for the crowd at the highly attended event to hear the remarks of dignitaries.
This week’s “Berkeley: A Look Back” column describes the festivities and the hazards of taking the old route:
The big news in Berkeley 75 years ago this week was the official opening of the Broadway Low Level Tunnel (now the Caldecott) on Sunday, Dec. 5, 1937. The two-bore tunnel cost some $4,500,000 paid for with Federal grants, and state and county funds.
An 800-person “civic breakfast” began the festivities at the Claremont Hotel, followed by an opening ceremony at the West Portal at 12:30, with the Berkeley Municipal Band playing. Gov. Frank Merriam cut the ribbon, drove through the tunnel with a ceremonial escort, and officiated at ceremonies on the east side.
Spectators parked on the highway and walked 500 feet to the west portal; traffic wasn’t allowed through until both ceremonies were complete, at 3:10 that afternoon.
An estimated 4,692 cars an hour passed through at an average speed of about 20 miles an hour that evening and “heavy traffic continued up until 11 o’clock” at night.
It should be remembered that the tunnel did not connect with the wide, and often congested, freeways of today. Instead, traffic descended on the west side to Ashby Avenue or Broadway in Oakland.
“A tunnel pierces the hills and a barrier which has long been a hindrance to the free flow of commerce and the mingling of the people of two great California Counties is removed” a full page ad by the City and Chamber of Commerce in the December 4 Gazette read.
Businesspeople on both sides of the tunnel had aspirations. Berkeley merchants hoped and expected that Contra Costa residents would travel into Berkeley to shop. Contra Costa realtors hoped that Berkeley residents would be enticed to homes and new subdivisions beyond the hills.
The tunnel was celebrated as a quick and convenient route to cross the hills, and a safer alternative to the steep, winding, two lane roads over the hills.
In fact, the Friday night before the tunnel opened a woman died in a car crash on the Fish Ranch Road.