Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Like some of the very people who drive on them, a few Los Angeles streets have achieved the height of fame. Sunset Boulevard lent its evocative name to Billy Wilder's classic film noir. Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard appears on millions of television screens each New Year's Day as the route of the Rose Parade. And to many around the world, Pacific Coast Highway instantly conjures up images of surfers, convertibles, and movie stars. (In L.A., we're more likely to think of traffic, wildfires, and landslides.)

But fame belies the humble origins of these celebrity streets. Horses once casually left droppings where shoppers stroll today along Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. A dusty wagon road alongside the Ostrich Farm Railroad eventually became Sunset Boulevard. A century ago, Los Angeles was a much emptier place, and what today are major thoroughfares were then dusty cow paths through open countryside or pockmarked roads rutted by wagon wheels.

Even in dense downtown Los Angeles, street conditions brought complaints to Angelenos' lips. "After heavy winter rains mud was from six inches to two feet deep," groaned merchant Harris Newmark in his memoirs, "while during the summer, dust piled up to about the same extent." Mud often mingled with contributions from livestock. Dust was such a problem that street sprinkling enterprises were counted among the city's public utilities. Angelenos like Newmark would have to wait until 1887 for the city's first paved streets: Main, Spring, and Fort (now Broadway).

Macadam paving, followed by concrete and asphalt surfaces, eventually helped Los Angeles' roads shake their rustic character. But the following images—culled from the region's rich photographic archives—show some of Southern California's most famous streets before they achieved stardom.

Note: Despite the title, not all the photos here necessarily depict unpaved roads. As Matthew Roth of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives noted in an email, "dirty roads with a lot of gravel strewn across them" are often mistaken for dirt roads in old photos.

Sunset Boulevard

Here, two girls walk down Sunset Boulevard at Gower Street in 1907 (courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection):

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

A 1905 view of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Here's Sunset at Normandie in 1905, also courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Hollywood Boulevard

Here, workers grade Hollywood Boulevard, then named Prospect Avenue, circa 1899 (courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection):

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

A topless automobile carriage races down Hollywood Boulevard near Sunset in 1904 (courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library):

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Wilshire Boulevard

In 1910, the unpaved western terminus of Wilshire Boulevard, then named Nevada Avenue in the city of Santa Monica, was part of a race course. Here, (courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection):

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Here's a 1912 view of Nevada Avenue (now Wilshire) in Santa Monica, courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Colorado Boulevard (Pasadena)

A circa 1890 view of Colorado Boulevard, then named Colorado Street, in what is now Pasadena's bustling old town district, courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Third Street (Santa Monica)

Santa Monica's Third Street is another popular shopping street today, but in 1891 it was the unpaved road seen here courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Here, also courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection, is Third Street's intersection with Broadway circa 1900—complete with horse droppings:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Santa Monica Boulevard

Here's Santa Monica Boulevard circa 1900, when it was a narrow one-lane path running parallel to an interurban rail line (courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library):

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1)

This one-lane road along the coast north of Santa Monica, seen here in 1905 courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library, eventually became Southern California's famed Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

The wagon road that eventually became PCH once passed through a natural formation named Arch Rock, seen here courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library:

Photos of L.A.'s Most Famous Streets When They Were Dirt Roads

Top image: An automobile drives down Sunset Boulevard during the road's construction, circa 1925. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.


Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. A version of this post previously appeared on KCET.org.