September 16, 2007

Mountains of problems for travelers


It wasn't until well into the 20th century that engineers finally made the journey between Los Angeles and Bakersfield fairly easy and safe.

By Cecilia Rasmussen, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Whether they've taken the Ridge Route, Highway 99 and Newhall Pass or Interstate 5, for more than 150 years travelers making their way between Los Angeles and Bakersfield through the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains have found the route a pain in the neck.

The current 40-mile stretch of the Golden State Freeway, which includes the Grapevine, is plenty steep and winding, but drivers should know that it is a big improvement on its predecessors.

It is the fourth in a series of highways cut through the rugged mountains. Entrepreneurs forged the first route, in 1854, by digging a 60-foot-deep, 240-foot-long gash on the eastern edge of the Santa Susana Mountains called the Newhall Pass, where the current Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways join.

Beale's Cut, as it came to be called, created a narrow, steep passage for horses, stagecoaches and foot traffic, and is credited with spurring the development of Los Angeles.

But the first automobile to cross the mountains, in 1902, had to travel upward in reverse to keep gasoline flowing to the engine -- and the cut's 30% grade was too steep for early cars.

Beale's Cut can still be found between Sierra Highway and the Antelope Valley Freeway, south of Clampitt Road. It was all but abandoned in 1910 when the 435-foot-long Newhall Tunnel was dug about a quarter of a mile west, with an incline of only about 7%.

Still, even the tunnel didn't solve the problem. It was too narrow and traffic jammed up at one end. Meanwhile, after voters in 1910 approved an $18-million state highway bond issue, California's engineers began planning a shorter, more direct route over the mountains, one that would save travelers 58 miles.

The 48-mile Ridge Route opened in 1915 at Castaic Junction, about five miles northwest of the Newhall Pass. It had 697 curves.

The Ridge Route was considered a major feat of highway engineering -- the first modern highway directly linking Los Angeles with the San Joaquin Valley -- and it helped link Northern and Southern California.

Horse-drawn graders had carved out the 20-foot-wide dirt road that zigzagged along the ridge tops so that it resembled a giant grapevine. But the 6.5-mile "Grapevine" segment of the route, from Fort Tejon to the San Joaquin Valley, had already been so named for a different reason by Spanish Lt. Francisco Ruiz, who, after hacking his way through thick patches of Cimarron grapevines in 1806, called the area CaƱon de las Uvas, or Grapevine Canyon.

In 1915, the Automobile Club of Southern California called the Ridge Route "the last word in scientific highway building." But four years later, about the time the paving was completed, the club wrote that because of the route's "tortuous" curves, steep grades and sharp drop-offs, it was "potentially one of the most dangerous in the world."

A maximum speed limit of 15 mph was supposed to provide safety. But scores of drivers ignored the limit and their cars tumbled into the canyons below. For those who made the trip safely, the Sandberg Hotel, built by Norwegian-born rancher Harald Sandberg, was a welcome sight near the top.

In 1921, the fancy Lebec Hotel opened in Kern County, about five miles north of the Sandberg, with 300 registered guests. It became a famed hideaway for such celebrities as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton and Bugsy Siegel.

Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in a wheat field near the Lebec Hotel in 1929 and spent time there experimenting with flying a glider. His wife, Anne, was quite fond of the hotel's chocolate malts, according to Harrison Scott, author of "Ridge Route: The Road That United California."

The hotel -- and the town that grew up around it -- got its name from a carving in the trunk of a massive oak: "Peter le Beck Killed by a Bear Oct. 17 1837."

Depression-era migrants flocking to California's fields in overloaded jalopies thought of the trip over the mountains as a route to a better life.

In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck describes the Joad family's brutal trek, one taken by many of those Great Plains refugees known as Okies.

Steinbeck described the moment when the Joads' car crested the top of a mountain road, and they saw the Central Valley:

"Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, 'Jesus Christ! Look!' he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses."

He could have been talking about the view from the Ridge Route, or the one from Highway 99, which opened in 1933. Highway 99, or the Ridge Alternate, was significantly shorter and much less curvy, though still steep and treacherous.

It cut the eight-hour Ridge Route drive in half time-wise, but still was the site of many a breakdown and much discomfort.

"In 1954, I drove my 1931 Willys Roadster up the Castaic Grade and on through the more modern Ridge Route [Highway 99], much of which is now covered with Pyramid Lake," retired veterinarian Charles Jenner of Los Alamitos said in a recent e-mail. "That was a tough drive as the Willys kept overheating." It took him two days to get from Los Angeles to Davis, he said.

In 1970, today's eight-lane, 40-mile section of Interstate 5 was completed.

Few people remembered the old roads that had gone before -- at least until Scott came along.

In 1991, the retired Torrance phone company engineer decided to drive the old Ridge Route for the first time since he was a teenager. He soon launched a one-man crusade to get a 17.6-mile stretch through U.S. Forest Service property from Castaic to Gorman onto the National Register of Historic Places. He succeeded in 1997. He also published his own history of the road.

"Only foundations, walls and steps are left from places like the Tumble Inn and Sandberg Inn," Scott said in a recent interview. The Lebec Hotel, he said, burned down in 1971.

Scott and a nonprofit group that he founded, the Ridge Route Preservation Organization, are working to maintain the roadway, which he describes as "poor and decaying." The group holds monthly work parties, helping the Forest Service clean drains full of dirt and debris.

The volunteers have put up nearly a dozen stone monuments paying tribute to area pioneers and colorful sites.

Scott is working to gain federal Scenic Byway status for the Ridge Route. It would be, he said, "just another notch on the gun belt that would allow our organization to build a museum and parking areas along the route."