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Ridge Route's Scholar
October 13, 1997

By Bob Pool
(Published with permission graciously granted by the Los Angeles Times)

The 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 for motorists.   

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

"Most 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."

Historian 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.

Proposals 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.

Milburn 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."

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