The lifeline of the South Valley community has a history almost
as long as the road itself
Imagine so many head of cattle being herded down a dusty, dirt Monterey Road that it takes hours for them all to pass by. Imagine the days of wooden sidewalks and hitching posts to tie your horse to as you shop downtown.
In the days before the U.S.101 Highway became the main route for connecting South County to San Jose, the only thoroughfare that ran through the center of both Gilroy and Morgan Hill was known as Monterey Road.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the current 101 bypass was constructed, diverting traffic around both cities.
As more changes are made to the historic route, here’s a look back at the important role this road has played in the southernmost communities of Santa Clara County.
Gilroy got its start in 1850 when Santa Clara County officials began deciding which wagon trails were to become “county roads.”
The area was called Pleasant Valley back then, and it became a stage stop along the San Jose to Monterey Road.
Seeing a business opportunity, early settler James Houck built an inn and a livery stable along Monterey Road. When the illiterate Houck placed a cigar box on a post for incoming and outgoing mail on Monterey Road, he became the first South County “postmaster.”
By the time Pleasant Valley was incorporated as the Town of Gilroy in 1867, it was the third largest community in Santa Clara County with a brewery, a flour mill and a distillery along Monterey Road.
The Santa Clara & Pajaro Valley Railroad Company connected Gilroy to San Jose, completing a depot on Monterey Street in 1869, which made the community the hub of the south Santa Clara Valley.
Diana and Hiram Morgan Hill built their estate, Villa Mira Monte, 10 miles to the north of Gilroy, between the railroad and Monterey Road in 1886.
Many visitors would request the train stop at the “Morgan Hill’s Ranch,” which is how Morgan Hill got its name.
In a collection of memories called “When They Were Plums,” Jack Martin, a South County native, recalled that when cattle were driven north down Monterey Highway on the way to market in San Francisco, he and his friends liked to climb the trees by the road and watch them go by. They would race ahead of the herd to reach their favorite tree. Once in the tree, the boys would admire the cowboys who kept the cattle in line – and hope they could be just like them when they grew up.
Martin also recalled people dressing up and “cruising main” in their horse-drawn buggies on Monterey Street.
“The girls would usually wear long dresses and gloves; they would also carry a parasol and sit next to the men at the reins,” he described.
Under Spanish and Mexican land grants (called “ranchos”) dating back to 1778, a vast stretch of land that includes present day Morgan Hill had remained one of the largest Spanish land grants for nearly three quarters of a century.
When the great land grants were subdivided into parcels that began going on the market in 1892, a flyer was distributed in order to lure more farmers to the riches of Morgan Hill, promising, “Land can be had for from $20 to $100 an acre. There is no malaria and the climate is beneficial in rheumatic and lung diseases.The district has only been opened up since 1892 but there is already a flourishing little town of some hundreds of people with four churches, a good schoolhouse, and no saloons. Being on the main line of the new through coast route the rate of progress will no doubt rapidly increase.”
In the early 1900’s, “Monterey Street was included as part of a state highway system brought from Gilroy to San Jose as a way to promote tourism and deal with the growth of the automobile as a touring car,” said historian Elizabeth Barratt.
Don Chesbro owned the first car in Gilroy and learned to drive in 1909.
According to the City Council minutes for April 7, 1913, the estimate for paving Monterey Street from city limit to city limit in Gilroy at a width of 24 feet was predicted to cost $34,806, which was nearly $12,000 more than the normal yearly income of the city.
In the May 16, 1914, issue of the Gilroy Advocate – the first weekly newspaper in South Valley – noted that “our citizens are rejoicing over the completion of the Monterey street pavement – It is one of the finest streets in the state, and being on the State highway, thousands will pass through our city.”
This prediction proved true, and as U.S. 101, downtown Monterey Street became the center of activity for Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
In the 1950s, Morgan Hill and Gilroy experienced an economic transformation from agricultural centers to suburban residential communities.
Taking a walk down memory lane, Barratt recalled how much she and her friends enjoyed Monterey Street when they were young.
“When I was a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s, we would leave Gilroy High after school, and we’d head down Monterey Street to the Wentz Rexall Pharmacy (now Garlic City Coffeehouse) for a cherry coke,” Barratt remembered.
She also remembered Lee Miller’s boutique, which sold DuBarry makeup and the Ladies’ Toggery, which had been there since her mother was young.
She recalled Howard Electric, where the Betty Boop store is now, where people could buy an Elvis Presley 45 for 98 cents.
In 1952, the busiest block on Gilroy’s Monterey Street consisted of 41 businesses between Fifth and Sixth streets. Today it remains the busiest block with 30 businesses, but with five storefronts standing empty.
Growth accelerated rapidly from the 1970s as Silicon Valley developed and workers were attracted to South Valley’s small-town atmosphere and reasonable housing prices. As traffic became increasingly heavy, Monterey Street became known for its many accidents.
“The part of Monterey just north of Morgan Hill was known as ‘Blood Alley’ because so many people had accidents,” recalled Eunice Coates, a 40-year Morgan Hill resident.
A concrete barrier was finally erected between the lanes until the 101 bypass diverted traffic away from the downtown areas in the early 80’s, greatly reducing the number of fatalities.
“I can remember getting out on the passenger side instead of the driver’s side when we would park downtown because in summer, the traffic volume was just non-stop,” Barratt said.
With Morgan Hill’s increasing Silicon Valley influence, the downtown became less a place to shop for farm supplies and bib overalls and more a street of upscale specialty shops and epicurean delights, anchored by a popular bookstore.
Today with its Community and Cultural Center and the newly refurbished Morgan Hill Playhouse which features live plays and musicals, downtown Monterey Road remains a magnet for community interaction.
Since Gilroy’s Monterey Street’s loss of U.S. 101 status and the building of more than 150 outlet stores on the fringes of town beginning in the 80s, Gilroy’s downtown has struggled to find its heart.
Charles Coachman, owner of Coachman Antiques at 7499 Monterey St., closed his thriving antique business last year in protest of proposed plans to build a low-income medical clinic near his business.
Of Morgan Hill’s downtown, he said, “They’re 10 years ahead of Gilroy. They have a specific plan set up in Morgan Hill, and it’s to have retail businesses on their street fronts. They have a beautiful downtown, and I think Gilroy can have it, too.”
Bill Lindsteadt, executive director of the Gilroy Economic Development Corp., referred to the ongoing street and sidewalk construction on part of downtown Monterey Street.
“We’re working on it,” he said.
Today’s Monterey Street is a mixture of gaming rooms and abandoned and rundown shops with bars on the windows. But it is also home to bookstores and theaters, coffee houses and cafes, and fine wines and French chefs as new business owners bring their hopes and dreams to historic buildings such as Gilroy’s 1905 Old City Hall building.
Monterey is a street for collectors and treasure seekers who search among the wares of more than 60 antique dealers.
It is a street of parades and festivals, mariachi dance clubs and taquerias, murals and art galleries.
Over the past five years, the northern Morgan Hill end of Monterey Road has once again seen a steady increase in traffic as an alternate route for commuters from San Jose to Morgan Hill when traffic on U.S. 101 comes to a standstill during peak hours.
In the past five years, the southern Gilroy end of Monterey Street has been the site of a building boom as it becomes a popular rest stop for truckers and travelers alike, offering an oasis for the road-weary: inexpensive fuel, space to park large vehicles, a convenience store, showers, FAX machines, overnight accommodations and restaurants. Monterey Street is the exit of choice as truckers travel the U.S.101 Highway.
Once again Monterey Street plays a role for the tourist and the transportation of goods from one part of California to another, just as it did when Gilroy was a stage stop 154 years ago.
As much as times change, some things still remain the same.