May 29, 2002

Remaking the Grade

A new fund from Porsche will help repair original path to Big Bear Lake

Postcard image of the Clark Grade, circa 1919. (Putnam Valentine, Photographer)

Los Angeles Times

A volunteer effort to repair Clark's Grade, a 142-year-old dirt track that once was the only way up to Big Bear Lake, is the first beneficiary of a grant from Porsche Cars of North America under its new Cayenne Crossing program.

Porsche created the program to promote its entry this year into the sport utility vehicle market with the Cayenne and will donate funds to the restoration of historic roads and off-road trails across the country during the next few years.

A second donation in California, to be announced this year, will assist a Route 66 support group's effort to restore portions of the historic highway in the Mojave Desert and to install directional signs and historic markers along that portion of the route.

Porsche executives will not say how much they have dedicated to Cayenne Crossing, but it is expected to be a multimillion- dollar program.

The initial grant, announced Tuesday in ceremonies at the foot of Clark's Grade, will fund a three-year effort by volunteers with the nonprofit San Bernardino National Forest Assn. to repair the steep six-mile dirt track that began as a trail for pack mules in 1860. These days it is used by off-road driving enthusiasts but has been severely compromised by erosion.

"We call it a challenging four-wheel-drive trail," said Kris Assel, executive director of the forest preservation group.

Clark's Grade was opened in 1860 by rancher Hiram Clark as a way to get supplies from the Redlands area to miners working in Holcomb Canyon in the San Bernardino Mountains. The canyon, site of Southern California's largest gold rush, is just north of modern-day Big Bear Lake.

Clark's mule trail followed a steep series of switchbacks originally tramped out as a footpath in 1845 by explorer Benjamin Wilson, who climbed up from the Santa Ana River at the foot of the mountains behind Redlands.

Wilson found a deep valley when he crested the mountains and, after spotting many grizzlies, called it Bear Valley.

The valley then had only one natural lake, at its east end (now called Baldwin Lake), and remained unpopulated for decades. It was ignored even during the gold rush, when by 1866 there were 1,500 miners living in nearby Holcomb Canyon, said valley historian Tom Core.

And though busy, Clark's Grade "was just a crude mule trail that remained a trail until the 1890s, after the dam was built," Core said, and the valley floor was flooded to create what now is called Big Bear Lake.

Bear Valley was dammed in 1884 by Redlands land speculators who had found that oranges grew quite well in the area. They wanted to create a mountain reservoir to supply water so they could sell the otherwise-arid land for commercial groves.

The resulting lake initially was called Bear Valley Reservoir, then Pine Lake and Bear Lake. It finally became Big Bear Lake in the late 1890s because developers farther down the mountain had created a smaller lake they called Little Bear, which later became Lake Arrowhead.

After the reservoir formed and fish began breeding in it, the area was discovered by lowlanders and became a popular, though hard-to-get-to, retreat for visitors from Redlands, San Bernardino and even as far away as Upland and the eastern edges of Los Angeles, Core said.

The first automobile road into the area came up from Running Springs to Fawnskin in 1885. The valley got its first hotel in 1894, Core said, "and has been a resort area ever since."

To help boost tourism, a group of speculators formed the Bear Valley Wagon Road Co. in the early 1890s, he said, and turned the Clark's Grade mule track into a one-lane dirt road that could be traversed by automobile to provide a second route into the valley.

Because the road was only one lane and quite steep, traffic up and down the grade alternated.

A group would form at the bottom of the grade and the road would be opened to let them drive up, while a group of travelers leaving the valley would form and wait at the head of the trail, Core said. The last car in the upward group was given a flag, and when the driver arrived in the valley, he would hand the flag to the driver of the last car waiting in line to go down and the direction of travel would reverse.

"They had to do it that way because there were almost no places to pass, and it was so steep you didn't want to get caught heading in the wrong direction and have to back up," Core said.

Although an asphalt road from San Bernardino into the valley was built in 1924, Clark's Grade remained a popular secondary route until the 1930s, and it has never been abandoned.

"But it's in terrible shape today," Core said. "I lead tours up here and used to take groups down the grade, but the last time I did it, about three years ago, one car burned up its brakes and I decided it had deteriorated too much to do group travel anymore."

Assel said her foundation's volunteers spend hundreds of hours a year keeping fast-growing brush cut back along the edges of Clark's Grade but have not had the money for other maintenance.

With the Cayenne Crossing grant, the forest association will be able to provide funds to the U.S. Forest Service for grading and other repairs on the road, Assel said.

Some of the funding also will be used to prepare and install directional and informational signs along the route.

"The support from Porsche will enable us to do a lot of postponed maintenance," she said. "It will remain a four-wheel-drive route, but we'll be filling in eroded ruts, shoring up crumbling shoulders and making sure this historic route can remain open for the public to enjoy."

May 13, 2002

Does desert cross cross the line?

by Matt Weiser
High Country News

A white cross cemented atop a rock outcropping in Mojave National Preserve has become the center of a fight over religious freedom on public land. The six-foot cross, made of metal pipes, was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has served as a local gathering point for Easter sunrise services. But it could come down if the American Civil Liberties Union prevails in a lawsuit against the Interior Department.

Located south of Interstate 15 near Baker, Calif., the cross has faced increasing scrutiny since it was included in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve in 1994. The ACLU sued the federal government in March 2001 on behalf of former National Park Service employee Frank Buono, who considers the cross a federal endorsement of Christianity and an unacceptable union between church and state.

The National Park Service contends the cross is an historic memorial to war veterans. In January, state Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, tacked a rider to a defense appropriations bill, designating the cross as a national war memorial and appropriating $10,000 for a commemorative plaque.

For Wanda Sandoz, whose husband, Henry, has maintained the cross for 18 years, the cross is a reminder of America's war dead. But, she says, "I also think of Christ dying on the cross."

ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg says the cross is a religious symbol that does not belong on public land. "It's insulting to say this is a war memorial, when it obviously doesn't represent lots of people who fought and died for this country," he said.

The case will be reviewed this summer in U.S. District Court in Riverside.