Gateway Drive was almost ‘Easy Street’

September 5, 2020

Madera County Historical Society
This crowd was boarding the train at the Madera Depot in 1911. On the other side of the train was F Street, which 55 years later became Gateway Drive.

In the beginning, the street running north and south just west of the Southern Pacific tracks was just plain old F Street, but in time it became State Highway 99 and emerged as a major artery through town.


The businesses along F Street (Highway 99), especially the restaurants and gas stations, prospered, and everybody was happy until the State Highway Commission decided that it wanted to turn Highway 99 into a freeway. That created a crisis, which led to the renaming of F Street.


The folks from Sacramento wanted to divert Highway 99 at the south end of town and run it along H Street. At first, Maderans went along with the idea, but then they developed second thoughts.


Did they really want the west side of Madera to be split from the businesses on the east side? Did they really want to reroute Highway 99 away from the businesses that had grown up along the old F Street? The closer it came for Freeway 99 to become a reality, the more heat the discussion generated.


The first salvo came in April 1954, from J. Gail Stewart, a local businessman and chairman of the city planning commission.


“The freeway would split the town into two commercial islands, separated by a huge ditch, high fence, and screaming traffic,” Stewart claimed. “This would mean splitting the business of our Yosemite Avenue merchants in half,” Stewart continued.


Gail Stewart’s views on the proposed H Street section of the new freeway were followed by a storm of objections, including those from a group of F Street merchants, which included Stel Manfredi, Sirio Del Bianco, Lorino Tordini, Julius Dominici, and Emilio Armi. Then came the bombshell; the powerful voice Superior Court Judge Stanley Murray was added to those who opposed the new highway plan. He came out adamantly against the idea, but he brought more than just talk to the table. He brought the law.


Judge Murray informed the public that state law prohibited the highway authorities from closing any street in Madera to put in the freeway without obtaining permission of the city council. This, of course, put the council squarely in the driver’s seat because the H Street freeway could not be dug through Madera without closing streets, or so it was thought.


This raised the debate to a completely new level. Now those who opposed the H Street freeway plan could simply lobby their local officials; they didn’t have to fight Sacramento.


On Friday, April 9, 1954, a meeting at the Hacienda Motel in Fresno was held, and all parties came loaded for bear. Forty people attended, and among these were Judge Murray, attorney Denslow Green and David Hanhart. Also in attendance were city councilmen Darwin Shebelut and Irvine Schnoor.


The Madera contingent announced that they were putting the matter up for a vote. The people would decide whether or not the H Street ditch would be dug. If they voted against the proposal, the council would refuse to sign off on the project. At that point Chester Warlow of the State Highway Commission stepped up to the plate.


If the Madera group thought they were going to intimidate him, they were sadly mistaken. Warlow listened to the objections, which bordered on legal threats, and then dropped a bombshell of his own.


In response to a question, “If the vote is heavily against H Street, will you give that consideration?” Warlow answered, “The Commission will just ignore it.” That was all the Maderans needed to hear. This was going to be war, and it appeared the council held all the cards. Looks, however, were deceiving.


When the Maderans got back home, Judge Murray rallied the troops, encouraging them not to back away from their opposition to this tyranny from Sacramento. “So Warlow will pay no attention to what the people say,” Judge Murray reminded the folks. “Then the people should pay no attention to what Warlow says!” The voters were encouraged to get out and express themselves on the issue and let the council decide. 


In the summer of 1954, the people spoke and with great clarity. They overwhelmingly turned thumbs down on the H Street proposal. They had done it; tiny Madera had slain the Sacramento giant. There would be no H Street freeway. The community leaders had been vindicated, but then Warlow played his trump card.


It was true that the State could not build a freeway without the city council’s consent if the plan called for closing any city streets. But what if the State decided not to close any city streets? Then it could proceed at will, and this is what Warlow communicated to the city fathers.


“An agreement is needed in order to close off streets and depress the Freeway, but we could build the Highway along H Street without closing any streets. We could build the freeway at grade and place stop signs at every intersection, and anyone trying to get across would have to pray to make it,” Warlow warned.


In the end, that is how the State won. Madera could see it was the Highway Commission that really held the trump card, and it would reroute Highway 99 along H Street one way or the other. It was useless to fight it.


So the freeway was built; no streets were closed, and what was formerly F Street and then Highway 99 was renamed. In 1966, the town held a contest to rename F Street, and Mrs. William Coyle won the $50 prize with her entry, “Gateway Drive.”


“Easy Street” came in second place.

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