The New Confusion Hill: Rising Above a Dangerous Situation

2005 Confusion Hill Slide

 

In 2005, the slide on the north side of Confusion Hill rolled across the highway yet again but this time worse than ever. It took many weeks to clear the debris and safely let traffic pass down one of the major corridors (Highway 101) through Humboldt County and to the northernmost reaches of California. Since 1996, the slide has been getting worse. The expenses and dangers to the North Coast keep increasing.

My husband was working there in January of 2000. The area had an earthquake of 5.4 magnitude after having what he termed “a series of significant storm events.” The existing masonry stone wall (in all probability the wall was part of my grandfather’s design) blew out leaving a 6 ft cavity under the south bound lane. The decision was made to retreat into the hillside 25 feet and put up a new roadbed.

Large scale construction usually involves incredibly hard work, much of it dangerous. (An average of 35 highway workers are killed each year). My husband remembers as they relocated the road, the crew ran into an area of shale. This loose rock had to be removed or else the road relocation would not happen. My husband was reluctant to send a man on an excavator out onto the area. He was afraid the slide would move causing man and machine to plunge into the river below. Eventually, though, the need for the road to be opened out-weighed the odds of an accident happening. Thankfully, the slide remained stable and no one was injured. The bravery of the man who did the work is absolutely unknown to the public and I don’t even know his name but without people like him, we couldn’t maintain our roads and our lifestyle here in Humboldt County.

Much of the work was done at night that winter of 2000 to minimize traffic problems. Of course, this added to the danger. In the photo below you can see the 1930’s masonry wall as well as get an inkling of what frightening conditions are dealt with by the construction workers.

 

Confusion Hill at night 2000
At one point a trench across the highway for a culvert exceeded the depth of OSHA rules and the construction foreman was rightfully unwilling to order his crew to enter the trench. When the sides of a trench get too deep, there have been many cases (here is one and another both resulted in the death of a man) where the walls have collapsed on the workers either suffocating or crushing them to death. But the work had to be done if the highway was to be opened. So who hand dug out the area? The foreman and my husband shoveled it out, at night, by themselves. Neither of them were willing to endanger others but they were also unwilling to keep the road closed and cause more damage to the North Coast economy and more delays for residents living here.
Unfortunately, not all travelers are grateful for the work that goes into the roads. I know it can be frustrating to wait a long 2o minutes or more and then see workers apparently lounging on their shovels. It might be helpful to remember that their work surface is your road. They can’t work when you are driving. So often they work frantically for twenty minutes while drivers wait fuming and then the poor workers wait frustrated while people drive by yelling obscenities.
Or sometimes the drivers do worse. Once, on this same project, a white van sped dangerously past the flagman’s stop sign until he was hampered by a crane and a watertruck parked near each other. While my husband and the crew watched, the white knuckled driver paused only a moment before revving up, stomping on the gas, and literally scraping through the gap–doorhandles and mirrors flew in every direction–luckily no one was hurt and the CHP later stopped the van.

 

Every year the costs in maintaining the existing Confusion Hill roadbed seemed to escalate—Millions were spent (over 14 million between 1996 and 2003 and another $14 million in the 2005-2006 winter) but still the road continued to collapse

 

Confusion Hill 2005

Below, you can see the scope of the slide above the road.

Confusion Hill slide overview

 

The area was determined to be unstable and unfixable. The current project of moving approximately 1.5 miles of the road across the river and then back again across two bridges was begun in July of 2006. The project is slated to cost about $65- 70 million and be completed in 2009. The huge costs though are offset by the savings from no longer having to maintain the existing slide prone area. According to the Times Standard, the expense of the new work should “pay for itself” in 10 years.

 

Slide issues have cost local residents large sums of money, too. When the road is closed, businesses can’t send out products or receive needed supplies. A North Coast Journal article noted that Humboldt County farms produce only 10% of the food sold here. Most of our consumables are trucked in. Without the vital southern link, Humboldt County would soon experience difficulty getting in enough food for us locals.

 

In spite of the difficult winter, the new project rises up from the far hillside just north of Confusion Hill.

Confusion Hill 2008

 

It is easy to underestimate the scope of the bridges and the effort that is going into creating them. The work can seem to creep along for months to the untrained eye. Then almost overnight, a massive new structure shoulders its way upward out of the ground.

Confusion Hill 2008

 

Because for most of us the formations are rising at such a distance that even massive machines look like crawling ants, it is difficult to remember the dangerous hard work men and women do there almost every day. Imagine dangling over 200 feet above the riverbed in order to extend the thrusting edges of this:

Confusion Hill 2008

 

The current resident engineer, Sebastian Cohen (who along with my husband, Kevin Church, provided many of the photographs for this blog) says the project is currently on time and on budget—with 40% of the project completed so far. The bridges (see below for an artist’s rendition) will save not only money, but time and, most importantly, probably save lives as the longer Confusion Hill remains unfixed the more likely it is that some worker will die keeping the road open for the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tip of the hat to Fred who reminded me of the links to the cameras trained on various road sites including these 3 on Confusion hill-north, south, and Bridge construction.

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38 comments

  • The bluffs between Garberville and Redway just slid clear across the road about 4:00pm. The road is closed, both officially and physically.

  • The bluffs between Garberville and Redway just slid clear across the road about 4:00pm. The road is closed, both officially and physically.

  • Ernie, Do you have a pic up on your blog?

  • Ernie, Do you have a pic up on your blog?

  • Kym, I had no idea Kevin had dug in that trench! He’s a brave man!

    Is this the first time the bluffs between Garberville and Redway have slid and blocked the road?

  • Kym, I had no idea Kevin had dug in that trench! He’s a brave man!

    Is this the first time the bluffs between Garberville and Redway have slid and blocked the road?

  • Yes, he was brave and so are lots of the guys/gals who work on the roads. Dad could tell you some great stories about when he was in Caltrans. I remember once the roller lost its brakes and he rode the machine all the way to the river.

    No, this isn’t the first time. The Bluffs come in to one degree or another every year it seems like.

  • WOW! What awesome pictures. Btw, my hubby knows your hubby. LOL. Welcome to Humboldt county, eh?

  • WOW! What awesome pictures. Btw, my hubby knows your hubby. LOL. Welcome to Humboldt county, eh?

  • Jen, have they worked together on a job? How terribly inbred this county is! Forget the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Here everyone is just one degree away from Knowing everyone else and three from being related;>

  • Jen, have they worked together on a job? How terribly inbred this county is! Forget the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon. Here everyone is just one degree away from Knowing everyone else and three from being related;>

  • Just a minor correction, Kym. Even though it makes a great story, your dad wants the world to know that he did not ride the roller all the way to the river, a distance of over 200 feet. The brakes did go out on the roller but being much younger, and consideraly more agile, he was able to leap from the roller before it dropped over the edge of the bank. That bit of excitement happened in the late 1960s or early 70’s.
    Those of us who have been in this area for a many years, probably remember when Hwy 101 ran through Redway, across the bluffs and on south through Garberville. When the bluffs came down between Redway and Garberville, everything came to a stop. I have set in several traffic backups for long periods of time awaiting the Cal Trans workers to open it back up. That stretch of highway is no longer the resonsibility of CalTrans. Since Hwy 101 now bypasses Redway and Garberville, the County Road Department is now in charge of the old road. and considering the number of miles of County road and the small budget they have to work with, they do a very good job of keeping these old rural roads in pretty good condition.

  • Just a minor correction, Kym. Even though it makes a great story, your dad wants the world to know that he did not ride the roller all the way to the river, a distance of over 200 feet. The brakes did go out on the roller but being much younger, and consideraly more agile, he was able to leap from the roller before it dropped over the edge of the bank. That bit of excitement happened in the late 1960s or early 70’s.
    Those of us who have been in this area for a many years, probably remember when Hwy 101 ran through Redway, across the bluffs and on south through Garberville. When the bluffs came down between Redway and Garberville, everything came to a stop. I have set in several traffic backups for long periods of time awaiting the Cal Trans workers to open it back up. That stretch of highway is no longer the resonsibility of CalTrans. Since Hwy 101 now bypasses Redway and Garberville, the County Road Department is now in charge of the old road. and considering the number of miles of County road and the small budget they have to work with, they do a very good job of keeping these old rural roads in pretty good condition.

  • Why do you always take my childhood stories and mess with them. Please don’t tell me if Dad didn’t run naked through Leggett. I can’t bear my great stories to all melt away;>

  • Why do you always take my childhood stories and mess with them. Please don’t tell me if Dad didn’t run naked through Leggett. I can’t bear my great stories to all melt away;>

  • I’m sorry but I must protect your dad’s reputation. And, no, he did not run naked through Leggett. Although, there is a story to be told about that incident. But, first, you had better check with him for the details.

  • I’m sorry but I must protect your dad’s reputation. And, no, he did not run naked through Leggett. Although, there is a story to be told about that incident. But, first, you had better check with him for the details.

  • Ok I want to hear about Neil running naked through Leggett, or whatever the true version may be!

  • Ok I want to hear about Neil running naked through Leggett, or whatever the true version may be!

  • Sorry that I didn’t get a photo of the slide, it was too far away.

    Sorry that I didn’t reply sooner, my computer at home is having ESTO problems. (Equipment Smarter Than Operator)

    Sorry, I don’t want to know about Neil running through Leggett naked!

  • Sorry that I didn’t get a photo of the slide, it was too far away.

    Sorry that I didn’t reply sooner, my computer at home is having ESTO problems. (Equipment Smarter Than Operator)

    Sorry, I don’t want to know about Neil running through Leggett naked!

  • Now, I’m going to have to find out the true story! Rats, I like my version.

    Ernie, I’m sorry you are having computer problems. That drives me crazy!

    Hopefully the slide is open now.

    Are you sure you don’t want to hear about Dad and Leggett (my version is very funny (and a wee bit scary). I’m not sure about the stick-in-the-mud true version though.

  • Now, I’m going to have to find out the true story! Rats, I like my version.

    Ernie, I’m sorry you are having computer problems. That drives me crazy!

    Hopefully the slide is open now.

    Are you sure you don’t want to hear about Dad and Leggett (my version is very funny (and a wee bit scary). I’m not sure about the stick-in-the-mud true version though.

  • The slide is still closed as of 9:23.

    You can tell on Neil if you have to, but it just doesn’t seem right to think about Neil, naked, running through Leggett!

    There is no sense in trying to lead a respectable life, your kids will do you in anyway…what the heck, tell us.

  • The slide is still closed as of 9:23.

    You can tell on Neil if you have to, but it just doesn’t seem right to think about Neil, naked, running through Leggett!

    There is no sense in trying to lead a respectable life, your kids will do you in anyway…what the heck, tell us.

  • Mom, we have popular acclaim for the story. I’ll get Dad’s version but I warn you, if it’s not funny enough, I might use mine;>

  • Mom, we have popular acclaim for the story. I’ll get Dad’s version but I warn you, if it’s not funny enough, I might use mine;>

  • Nice site, Kym. Thought I’d come visit. I’m pretty familiar with the northern CA coast, as we hang out some around Port Orford. Good ol’ 101.

    Lafe

  • Nice site, Kym. Thought I’d come visit. I’m pretty familiar with the northern CA coast, as we hang out some around Port Orford. Good ol’ 101.

    Lafe

  • Wow! Great post, Kym. I do appreciate all the efforts of Caltrans and find the road construction in and around Humboldt county amazing.
    I didn’t know the road was closed until I read your blog. Another plus for blogs!

  • Wow! Great post, Kym. I do appreciate all the efforts of Caltrans and find the road construction in and around Humboldt county amazing.
    I didn’t know the road was closed until I read your blog. Another plus for blogs!

  • The 101 closure in 2005 took quite a long time to fix indeed. I was trying to get to Truckee from Humboldt but had to stay in Redway. It probably kept me safe from all the road hazards along the way though.

  • The 101 closure in 2005 took quite a long time to fix indeed. I was trying to get to Truckee from Humboldt but had to stay in Redway. It probably kept me safe from all the road hazards along the way though.

  • Hopefully, Caltrans will get the bridges built before Confusion Hill really goes!

  • Hopefully, Caltrans will get the bridges built before Confusion Hill really goes!

  • I read this and realize the hypocrisy. It’s wrong to damage a hillside when logging, but OK for people who want new roads. And heaven forbid if the railroad tries to reopen–can’t have all that erosion and noise and impact. But it’s OK to spends hundreds of millions on 101 and all it problems so we can drive our cars, right?

    Totally hypocritical.

  • I read this and realize the hypocrisy. It’s wrong to damage a hillside when logging, but OK for people who want new roads. And heaven forbid if the railroad tries to reopen–can’t have all that erosion and noise and impact. But it’s OK to spends hundreds of millions on 101 and all it problems so we can drive our cars, right?

    Totally hypocritical.

  • Bob, Anything human beings do changes the environment I think. I try to weigh the potential good and the harm. To me, Confusion Hill seems like a good use of manpower and money–the railroad here doesn’t. Elsewhere, where the land is more stable I think mass transit should be developed at the expense of roads.

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