October 13, 1997
TIMES STAFF WRITER
(Published with permission graciously granted by the Los Angeles Times)
left turn that Harrison Scott took on a whim one day
while traveling down a country road north of Los Angeles took him
on a detour that lasted Six years. He shouldn't have
been surprised, though. For about 83 years the stomach-grabbing
mountain highway between Castaic and Gorman that they call the Ridge
Route has caught motorists unaware.
But Scott's long, strange trip ended in Washington, where he persuaded
federal officials to list the remaining part of the unusual hilltop
roadway on the National Register of Historic Places.The designation
which in California had been granted before only to the Redwood
Highway north of San Francisco will help preserve the 30-mile Ridge
Route, officials said. Historians agree that the twisting
ribbon of concrete long ago replaced by Interstate 5 is a link to
the past like no other. Workers using horse-drawn dirt
scrapers zigzagged from ridge top to ridge top to carve the 20-foot
wide roadway across the western San Gabriel Mountains in 1914. Five
years later they paved it. The first direct route between Los Angeles
and Bakersfield represented a dizzying accomplishment, at least
workers had wrapped the road around hills to minimize earth
moving. And that meant that there were 697 curves, which forced
drivers to make the equivalent of 110 complete circles as they crossed
the mountains. In 1933 the state opened "the Ridge
Route Alternate," a three-lane road with fewer curves that
would eventually be designated California 99. The new highway was
widened to four lanes in the 1950s. In the late 1960s it was rebuilt
again, emerging this time as the high-speed interstate.
The abandoned Ridge Route, hidden in the mountains east of I5, was
all but forgotten. Both the state and Los Angeles County quit maintaining
it, leaving it up to Angeles National Forest officials to have the
rockslides that occasionally covered it cleared away.
Except for petroleum and electric utility employeesworking on pipes
and power poles that cross the mountains, the travelers using the
Ridge Route were primarily nostalgic old-timers and occasional sight-seers.
That's where Scott came in.
retired Torrance phone company engineer first discovered the Ridge
Route in 1955. He was 18, and he stumbled across the abandoned highway
while enjoying the newfound freedom of driving his first car. His
next encounter did not come until 1991. Scott was traveling with
his l6 year-old son on I5. As their car labored up the steep five-mile
grade north of Castaic, the teenager commented on the difficulty
of crossing the mountains by car. Scott laughed. "If
you think this is tough, you should see what the real Ridge Route
looks like," he told his son, James. Scott decided
to show him. He pulled off the freeway at Templin Highway and drove
east about a mile until he came to the original Ridge Route. There,
he turned left and headed north. To the amazement of
father and son, the curvy concrete road was still passable. "Jimmy
was astonished at the type of road it was. I was astonished that
the road was still open," Scott recalls.
pair spent the next 90 minutes driving over 30 miles
of switchbacks before encountering a county road crew at the Ridge
Route's intersection with California 138 at Quail Lake.
Scott stopped and asked who maintained the Ridge Route. Nobody,
he was told. Well, somebody ought to be trying to preserve it, he
remembers thinking. It turned out he would be the one.
Back home, Scott began calling around for ideas about a historic
designation. The state Office of Historical Preservation finally
told him that he would have to make a federal case out of it because
most of the Ridge Route lies on U.S. Forest Service land.
Officials of Angeles National Forest were intrigued when Scott approached
them. Michael McIntyre, the forest's chief archeologist, assigned
archeologist Doug Milburn to initiate the paperwork
asking that the roadway be listed on the national register.Milburn
quickly determined that a complete, documented history of the Ridge
Route would be needed for it to be listed. He asked Scott to be
his legman. For the next five years Scott found himself
in libraries and university archives when he wasn't out on the Ridge
Route itself counting culverts, hunting for the crumbling foundations
of long demolished gas stations and talking to old-timers who remembered
the highway in its heyday. "I had no idea what I was getting
into," said Scott,60. "The nomination was kicked back
to us twice. We had to identify anything on the road of significance,
the sites of old inns and garages, survey markers."
It was tough going at first for the fledgling history buff.
historians wouldn't give me the time of day I ran into a lot of
fences at the beginning," he said. "After a while when
people saw I was serious, doors started opening."
Scott found original Ridge Route design plans that showed how three-eighths-inch
steel reinforcing bars were placed in the 4-inch-thick concrete
and how curbs were built next to steep drop-offs. The curbs were
supposed to keep cars from sliding over cliffs and to prevent rain
runoff from undermining the pavement. He traced the
road's financing, discovering that its $1.2-million cost was covered
by a 1909 bond issue that taxpayers didn't pay off until 1965.
Auto Club signs placed at frequent intervals along the road warned
that a 15-mph speed limit was strictly enforced, making for a slow
trip over the mountains. The curves and terrain were
rough on flivvers' brakes and engines. So entrepreneurs offering
food,lodging and auto repair service were quick to cash in. Old
maps and tourist guides helped Scott pinpoint where primitive motels
and garages had stood. Places such as the Half-Way Inn featured
tiny clapboard cabins and Richfield gasoline, while up the road
the nine-room National Forest Inn offered 75-cent lunches and overnight
accommodations for $2 or for a mere 50 cents if a traveler just
wanted to pitch a tent out back. Stories fetched from
microfilmed newspaper files sketched out characters such as Harold
Sandberg, who built a hotel out of rustic logs near the Ridge Route's
summit and charged $4 for double rooms, 85 cents for lunch and $1
for dinner. More significant were Scott's discoveries
about the road's role in unifying California. The route
crosses a rugged area at the confluence of three mountain ranges,
the San Gabriels, the Sierra Madres to the west and the Tehachapis
to the north. "Before the Ridge Route went through,
the state was seriously considering breaking into north and south,
with the Tehachapi Mountains being the dividing line," Scott
said. "People in the north felt separate from people in the
south. The Ridge Route healed that rift."
Kevin Starr-who feels the Ridge Route helped fuel the tourism that
put Los Angeles on the map starting in the l920s--agreed. "There
were speculations from 1860 on about dividing California there were
about 30 movements trying to do it," said Starr, state librarian
of California. "That mountain barrier is really where Southern
California begins. Anything that surmounts that has a certain drama
to it." Starr compared the unifying effect of the
Ridge Route with that of the federal interstate highway program
initiated by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Local historians say attention to the mountain roadway is long overdue.
"Because of Harrison's work, the Ridge Route is receiving the
recognition it deserves as a truly historic link," said Paul
Kreutzer, executive director of the Heritage Junction Historical
Park in Newhall and former president of the Santa Clarita Valley
Historical Society. The national register listing
will give the Ridge Route a level of protection that could keep
it intact for generations, said Paul Lusignan, a National Park Service
historian in Washington who helps maintain the register.
to alter the roadway will require a federal review, and there is
potential for rehabilitation grants that could help maintain the
route, he said. Few roadways are among the 67,000 national register
listings, because "there aren't a lot of highways, frankly,
that maintain their integrity," Lusignan said.
The nomination papers filed by Scott and Milburn did a good job
of tracing the history of the route and explaining its value, he
said. So good, in fact, that Lusignan sent a copy for in-laws John
and Petty Maloney to read. They live in Santa Clareta, near the
southern end of the route.
said the historic designation will not apply to the last few miles
of the Ridge Route near Castaic. That portion lies outside national
forest boundaries and has been altered by repaving and by rerouting
that made way for I5's construction. Scott said federal
funds may be available for historic markers that could offer a self-guided
tour of the Ridge Route. Old photographs depicting the various inns
and garages and old-time travelers might be included on signs along
the roadway. In his mind, he said, he already sees Packards
and Overland touring cars and the outline of the rustic Sandberg
Hotel each time he drives up the Ridge Route. "It's
another world up there," Scott said. "It's beautiful."
back to top