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The old 99: Discovering downtown Bakersfield's forgotten highway

Beale Clock Tower at 17th and Chester, looking northbound, is seen in this photo courtesy of the Kern County Historical Society.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) – Three intrepid history buffs from the Kern County Historical Society have discovered decades-old photographs revealing U.S. Route 99's forgotten path through the heart of downtown Bakersfield.

Between 1928 and 1933, Route 99 went right up Union Avenue and continued onto 18th Street, a two-lane highway.

"It's basically a period of time when Kern County was starting to boom, and still booming," Historical Society President Ken Hooper said. "The Padre Hotel was built in 1927. You have a lot of business coming into what today we call East Chester area, and it was a natural fit.

Earlier this month, the Historical Society, in collaboration with City Council, put up 10 signs throughout downtown Bakersfield marking the old highway's path.

"We're showing people, yes, we do have a history. And yes, it's interesting," said Stephen Montgomery, a board member for the Historical Society.

While most of downtown Bakersfield is completely modernized, remnants of the past are everywhere. An old tire repair shop across the street from Cafe Smitten was a stop along the old 99 for travelers needing a quick fix.

After 1933, the highway was rerouted to where it is today to accommodate for a faster commute.

"We try to celebrate what we have, keep ahold of it," Hooper said.

A thoroughfare once forgotten, now celebrated as a passage to memory lane.

"A community has to change and develop and grow," Montgomery said, adding that the signs tracing the highway's history are important. "It's just a part of the fabric as we move toward the future."

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to the historic highway as "highway 99," along 18th Street. It has been corrected to U.S. Route 99 along Union Avenue and continuing onto 18th Street. The broadcast refers to the Stars Theatre as a movie theater. It is a live-performance theater.

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