Livingston's 'Blood alley' no longer so ominous

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comMarch 18, 2013 

— A stretch of road once ominously dubbed "blood alley" might not seem so imposing today, and that's just how local stakeholders want it.

The parcel of Highway 99 that runs through Livingston is a smooth ride, but years ago, it had a different look with many more hazards.

Diverting Highway 99 to remove a dangerous signal-controlled intersection, where the highway met Livingston Cressey Road, was a chief accomplishment in the '90s.

But there have been other improvements that have gone unnoticed or have been largely forgotten. One of those upgrades was completed in 1939 and is turning 75 years old.

An underpass that used to bring drivers on Highway 99 safely beneath railroad tracks doesn't get as much traffic as it once did since the highway has been improved and diverted, but it still sparks a lot of memories for folks who grew up in Livingston.

Former City Council member Babs Ratzlaff, 74, who moved to Livingston as a kid in 1946, said she remembers playing along the highway near the underpass.

"I've spent many years here playing on the freeway and dangling my feet from the side of the freeway," she said. "My mother would've killed me, but we would play here."

Ratzlaff isn't the only person with fond memories of the highway and underpass.

Stan Elems, 81, grew up in Livingston, but left for Modesto in the '50s. He recalls playing inside the overpass structure as a kid and waiting for trains to come across.

"As a kid, we'd go down and crawl in the understructure when the trains came," he said. "We'd go down there and wait for the trains to go over."

That section of Highway 99 has seen drastic safety improvements since then, Elems said. Now, it's time to fight to maintain the thoroughfare.

As Highway 99 has evolved through Livingston, the memories haven't always been good ones.

The stoplight intersection, the last stoplight along Highway 99, was the cause of hundreds of injury crashes and a couple dozen deaths.

Ratzlaff's husband, Wilbur, died in a crash along the section of highway in 1985.

Her husband and father were volunteer firefighters who responded to many emergencies along that stretch of road.

"My husband a couple times would come back and would just be really upset because people had died," she said.

Truckers passing Livingston always felt relief after making it through the dangerous stoplights, Ratzlaff said. "Like they say, it was blood alley," she noted.

But the makeup of Highway 99 has changed in the area. What was once a dangerous, tragedy- inducing highway is now an unimposing roadway.

The road that passed under the railroad crossing is now called Campbell Boulevard, and Ratzlaff said a lot of younger people don't know the history or age of the structure. "I really don't think anyone knows that it's 75 years old," she said. "The reason I know it is because it's my birthday."

The transition of the freeway was a badly needed one, Ratzlaff said. "It was a long time coming," she said. "But now we're finally there."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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