Willits is a City in central Mendocino County and is considered the "Gateway to the Redwoods." Willits has been part of both US Route 101 and the Redwood Highway since their inceptions. Willits is also famous for the Skunk Trains of the California Western Railroad and the converted Willits Arch which graces former US Route 101 (Currently California State Route 20) on Main Street. Since 2016 US Route 101 has been moved off of Main Street in Willits onto the elevated Willits Bypass.
Part 1; the history of transportation through Willits
Willits lies within Little Lake Valley of central Mendocino County. The origin of Willits traces back to Hiram Willits who arrived in Little Lake Valley from Indiana in 1857. A small community known as "Willitsville" soon began to emerge which was renamed to "Little Lake" in 1861 upon the establishment of the first Post Office. The name of the community would change to "Willits" in 1874. Willits began to thrive around the tanbark industry and would incorporate as a City on November 19th, 1888.
Willits can be seen on the 1884 California Office of the State Engineer Map.
In 1907 the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (also known as the "Redwood Empire Route") was created through the consolidation of six railroads which were held by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. The consolidated railroads of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad largely had origins as logging routes or short lines. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad would functionally became complete during October of 1914 when the line was completed through the Eel River Watershed. The completed Northwestern Pacific Railroad put Willits on a line which would connect from Schellville north to Somoa.
More famously Willits is known for it's association with the California Western Railroad. The genesis of the California Western Railroad was in 1885 when the Fort Bragg Railroad opened between Fort Bragg eastward 6.6 miles to the Redwood mill at Glen Blair. The Fort Bragg Railroad was a operating division of the Union Lumber Company and was subsequently extended upstream eastward on the Noyo River to Alpine by 1904. The connection to Alpine was the beginning of passenger service on the Fort Bragg Railroad. The siding in Alpine was connected further east via stage route to Willits. In 1905 the line was renamed to the "California Western Railroad & Navigation Company."
By 1911 the California Western Railroad reached Willits and connected to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The inland rail connection to Fort Bragg proved to be popular with San Francisco Bay Area residents which led to a tourism boom in Willits and Fort Bragg. The beginning of the Skunk Train era of the California Western Railroad came in 1925 when gasoline powered motorcars were introduced to the line. These single unit motor cars had crude oil burning stoves which coupled with the gasoline engine gave off a pungent smell. A Skunk Train (M-100 motorcar) can be seen in the 1960s in this photo hosted by skunktrain.com.
In 1947 the line name was officially shorted to California Western Railroad. The California Western Railroad retired all of it's steam locomotives in favor of diesel in 1952. In 1970 the Union Lumber Company and California Western Railroad were purchased by the Georgia-Pacific Corporation. Georgia-Pacific sold the California Western Railroad to Kyle Railways in 1987. Kyle Railways continued to operate the California Western Railroad as a subsidiary of the Mendocino Coast Railway. The California Western Railroad was later shuttered due to not being profitable and was sold to local Mendocino Coast investors in 1996 who turned it into a heritage railroad.
The full California Western mainline between Fort Bragg and Willits is displayed on the 1935 Division of Highways Map of Mendocino County.
The history of what would become US Route 101 ("US 101") in Willits began with the approval of the 1909 First State Highway Bond Act. The First State Highway Bond Act was approved by voters during 1910 and was the genesis point of some of the most notable highways in California. Legislative Route Number 1 ("LRN 1") as originally plotted was a new State Highway which was designated between San Francisco north to Crescent City. The route of LRN 1 would be extended to the Oregon State Line during the 1919 Third State Highway Bond Act and was came be known as the Redwood Highway. The planned LRN 1 can be seen aligned through Willits via Main Street on the 1917 California State Automobile Association Map.
In November 1926 the US Route System was created. US Route 101 from San Francisco north to Crescent City was aligned over the Redwood Highway. Both US 101 and the Redwood Highway can be seen aligned through Willits on the 1927 Rand McNally Highway Map of California.
According to the May 1937 California Highways & Public Works US 101/Redwood Highway was greatly improved on the outskirts of Willits in 1937. An article references two ongoing projects anticipated to be completed during summer of 1937 which would eliminate 47 curves from US 101/Redwood north and south of Willits. The May 1937 California Highways & Public Works also notes that LRN 1 through Willits was constructed during 1917.
According to cahighways.org LRN 15 was extended from Ukiah to Fort Bragg via Willits as part of 1953 Legislative Chapter 1408. Thusly a planned leg of LRN 15 can be seen extending west of US 101 and Willits for the first time on the 1954 Division of Highways Map.
According to the November/December 1954 California Highways & Public Works the first four lane segment of highway in Mendocino County was opened as part of US 101 on October 31st, 1954.
The 1958 Division of Highways Map shows CA 20 extended through Willits via Fort Bragg-Willits Road to CA 1. This extension of CA 20 included a multiplex of US 101 north of Ukiah into downtown Willits. It is not fully clear why the planned route of LRN 15 was abandoned in favor of incorporating existing Flower Road and Fort Bragg-Willits Road as part of CA 20/LRN 15 .
The July/August 1958 California Highways & Public Works notes that CA 20 was extended to Fort Bragg via Willits in 1957. A citation notes Fort Bragg-Willits Road was significantly improved via a Federal Aid Secondary Program to State Standards.
The March/April 1963 California Highways & Public Works references a planned 12.2 mile freeway segment of US 101 being adopted as a bypass of Willits. The adopted freeway alignment is cited to have a planned beginning at the Northwestern Pacific railroad underpass south of downtown Willits with a northern termination point at Reeves Creek.
According to cahighways.org the southern segment of the Willits Freeway was constructed to Haehl Creek by 1969. This segment of the Willits Freeway bypassed the Northwestern Pacific Railroad underpass which is now part of Walker Road. US 101/CA 20 can be seen following the southern segment of the completed Willits Freeway on the 1970 Division of Highways Map.
According to cahighways.org the late 1980s/early 1990s saw a series of environmental impact and engineering studies take place to determine the viability of a freeway bypass of Willits. Ultimately this resulted in a February 2008 route adoption of the Willits Bypass. The Willits Bypass alignment carried substantial differences compared to the 1963 Willits Freeway. The Willits Bypass was conceived as a four lane freeway alignment but the project was met with heavy resistance. Ultimately the Willits Bypass was constructed as a Super Two Freeway and was dedicated on November 3rd, 2016. The opening of the Willits Bypass saw US 101 realigned whereas CA 20 remained on Main Street. Main Street north of Flower Street/CA 20 in Willits wasn't relinquished until it was fully repaved by Caltrans in late 2018. The sketch below illustrates the differences in the route of the Willits Bypass compared to the once planned Willits Freeway.
Part 2; exploring former US Route 101 in Willits on Main Street and Walker Road
Modern US 101 southbound on the Willits Bypass approach accesses it's original alignment via Exit 573 to Main Street. Downtown Willits is signed as 1 mile south from Exit 573 whereas CA 20 is signed as 3 miles away.
Former US 101 southbound on Main Street enters the City of Willits.
Former US 101 southbound on Main Street enters downtown Willits and intersects Commercial Street.
Willits Station (also known as the Skunk Depot) can be found on Commercial Street about a quarter mile east of Main Street. Willits Station opened in 1915 as a replacement for the original 1902 station. Numerous California Western Locomotives and rolling stock can be found at Willits Station.
Former US Route 101 south on Main Street passes through downtown Willits and picks up CA 20 westbound at Flower Street at Route 20 Postmile MEN R33.15.
Former US 101 south/CA 20 west on Main Street crosses under the Willits Arch approaching the Northwestern Pacific Railroad overpass.
The Willits Arch is actually the refurbished second Reno Arch. The second Reno Arch was originally installed on Virginia Street (former mainline US Route 395) as a replacement for the first Reno Arch in 1963. The second Reno Arch originally displayed "The Biggest Little City In The World."
The second Reno Arch was replaced by the third Reno Arch in 1987. The second Reno Arch was subsequently put into storage until it was donated to the City of Willits. The second Reno Arch was redesigned as the Willits Arch in 1995 and was installed on Main Street. The Willits Arch now reads "Heart of Mendocino County" headed south on Main Street and "Gateway to the Redwoods" headed north.
Former US 101 south/CA 20 west on Main Street heads south from downtown Willits and merges in with the current Willits Bypass at what is now Exit 568. Just prior to the ramp to the Willits Bypass the route of Main Street passes Walker Road.
As noted in Part 1 Walker Road was part of US 101 and CA 20 prior to the first segment of the Willits Freeway being completed in 1969. Walker Road terminates at Northwestern Pacific Railroad Subway and does not directly access modern US 101/CA 20. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad Subway is very narrow and carries a clearance height of 14 feet.
Headed northward present CA 20 east/Main Street still bears evidence of US 101 as several reassurance shields can still be found.
Part 3; a drive on modern US Route over the Willits Bypass
As noted in Part 2 the Willits Bypass begins on US 101 southbound at Exit 573.
US 101 south on the Willits Bypass ascends a 1.1 mile viaduct structure dedicated to U.S. Navy Seal Jesse Pittman. The Willits Bypass viaduct crosses over the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and Commercial Street as a Super Two Freeway.
US 101 south on the Willits Bypass expands to a four lane freeway approaching Exit 568. US 101 south picks up CA 20 east at Exit 568.