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The long and winding road
Filed Sat Jan 17 22:30:03 1998
Californian staff writer

   Before there was an eight-lane Interstate freewheeling through Fort Tejon and the Angeles National Forest, a 20-foot wide piece of concrete wound over mountain ridges and through canyons between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

   Its name has withstood the passing of years far better than its usefulness, but the 83-year-old Ridge Route Road meandersalmost intact from the bottom of the Grapevine to Castaic as a winding link to an unimaginable past to days when traveling between Bakersfield and Los Angeles in a Packard or a Model T represented an exhausting, all-day affair.

   ``The old Ridge Route ... ,'' said former Kern County Sheriff Charlie Dodge, with a gleam in his eye, ``It had a lot of romance to it.''

   Even today, and even from the front seat of a newfangled 4-by-4, it still does.

   Dodge, just a truck-driving man back in 1928, has always considered the Ridge Route Road a national treasure, let alone a jewel of the Golden State.

   It just took a Torrance man, the U.S. National Forest Service and six long years of unwavering devotion to get the federal government last September to realize the same about at least a portion of the route.

   For all its charm, danger, uniqueness and historic value that have endured far longer than Sandberg's or the Tumble Inn or the dozens of other inns, cafes and service stations that once marked its path, a 17.6-mile unmaintained portion of the old Ridge Route Road through the Angeles National Forest is today on the National Registry of Historic Places.

   ``I loved to drive that old Ridge Route,'' said Dodge, who nightly trucked Los Angeles Examiner newspapers, movies and other goods to Bakersfield from 1928-1932, often taking 10 hours or more to complete the round trip. ``I've got an old brochure-like thing about the Ridge Route with photos from the 1920s and I pull it out every once in a while and look it over kind of relive some of my old days on the road.''

   The diligence of Harrison Scott, 60, and U.S. Forest Service archeologists Doug Milburn and Michael McIntrye has guaranteed that Dodge and anyone else with some imagination can experience at least some of the route's appeal firsthand.

   They had hoped to preserve a larger section, but objections from landowners along the route ultimately focused their attention on the 17.6-mile segment on U.S. Forest property south of Gorman.

   ``I hope it'll be with us forever,'' said Scott, a retired Pacific Bell engineer, who as a kid stumbled upon the old Ridge Route on a joy ride in his 1955 Ford, then made it his passion about 36 years later after introducing his son to the old route. ``Now that it's on the National Registry, that affords it a certain degree of perpetuity.''

   Buildings earn degrees of perpetuity, roads almost never do. But the National Park Service, the keeper of the National Registry, was convinced of the Ridge Route's exceptional historic value as the first major link between California's north and south. Now on the Registry, the road is eligible to receive federal funds to help aid its preservation.

   ``The Forest Service had for some time recognized that it was a National Registry-eligible property, but we probably never would have taken the time or expended the resources to formally nominate it to the National Registry of Historic Places,'' Milburn said. ``That's where Harrison came in, and he did amazing work.''

   According to historical accounts, the Ridge Route Road was one of the first products of the newly formed California Highway Commission and an $18 million state highways construction bond voters approved in 1910. Historians note that it may have actually saved California from splitting into two states.

   Crews operating primitive, mule-powered graders began clearing the Ridge Route's path in 1914. Because of extremely rugged terrain and no funds to use for blasting, the route from Castaic to Gorman took 697 turns. An Occidental College student figured out that motorists sputtering up and down the road's sometimes 7 percent grades made the equivalent of 97 complete circles over the 36-mile stretch and 110 circles over the entire 48-mile route from Castaic to Grapevine.

   The road opened in 1915 and was paved four years later with 41/2 inches of reinforced concrete, for a total building cost of $1.2 million. Fencing and 10-inch-high curbing kept the death toll from being worse than it was 31 died in accidents between 1921 and 1928, many resulting from runaway trucks and cars or drivers' failure to negotiate turns.

   Because cars and trucks had no fuel pumps, it was not unusual to see vehicles going up steep grades backward. Truck drivers often took drastic, almost stuntman-like measures to escape the heat that had built up in their cabs.

   ``I drove a truck and trailer up there in 1931 loaded with pipe and the best I could do was 8 to 12 miles per hour,'' said Frank Kaufmann of Taft. ``It was hotter than the devil. I'd stand out on the running board to get away from heat of the engine and I'd drive with one hand through the window.''

   When the road opened in 1915, motorists had their choice of routes to get to Los Angeles from the San Joaquin Valley and vice versa, but chose the Ridge Route. Despite following every mountain contour and its 15 mph speed limit, the Ridge Route Road was a far more direct route to Los Angeles than the ``Midway'' route through Mojave and the Tehachapi Mountains, cutting the distance to Los Angeles by nearly 58 miles.

   Despite its hundreds of sharp curves, hazards and steep grades, the Ridge Route Road was considered the Cadillac of the superhighways, an engineering marvel. It is no longer, but it still invites traffic.

   About two-thirds of the route is maintained and serves as one of the more well-traveled roads in the Fort Tejon, Lebec and Gorman areas. The ``historic'' segment offers a unique experience to adventure seekers who have their wits about them and time on their hands. As it curves through forest land, the road remains in the same condition in which it was left in 1933 when funds for its maintenance dried up.

   In 1933, a straighter, three-lane road known as the Alternate Ridge Route opened to the west and cut time between the valley and Los Angeles even more. With few people traveling the original route, most of the small businesses and inns that had relied so heavily on the traffic were forced to close.

   ``There was nothing for them after they built the new road,'' Kaufmann said. ``But prior to that, they built so many of them.Cars would stop and put water in their radiators and get something to eat. People could make a good living off that cause there wasn't anywhere else for people to go.''

   Finally, Interstate 5, built in 1960, rendered even the Alternate Ridge Route obsolete, but only slightly disturbed the path of the original road.

   From Castaic to Fort Tejon, paved and unpaved roads follow the same path as the original road for nearly the entire stretch.

   Intermittently from Fort Tejon, the road is cut off by the northbound lanes of I-5.

   All along the 48-mile stretch from Castaic to Grapevine, entrepreneurs set up shop to cash in on the steady flow of cars, buses and trucks. Heading north from Castaic, there was Martin's and then the National Forest Inn. Then a few miles further and there was the Reservoir Summit, the Halfway Inn and then the Tumble Inn all offering modest accommodations, camping, food and services of a mechanic, who kept very busy.

   ``In the '20s and '30s, not too many trucks had air brakes, they were mostly mechanical brakes,'' Dodge said. ``You had to be very careful. You went up slow, and you came down slow (speed limit was 15 mph). The savior for many on the Old Ridge Road were the banks (sides of the hills). If you began to see your brakes burning, you headed for the banks and you'd `bank'

   Still heading north, the refined traveler might have stopped at the slightly swankier and more discriminating Sandberg's Summit Hotel, where a sign was posted out front: ``Truckers or dogs not allowed.''

   More relief was available closer to Gorman known as Ralph's in those days, named after the founder of Ralph's supermarkets at Holland's Inn and Caswell's. The truly rich and famous passed them all up in favor of the magnificent Hotel Lebec, which until its fiery demise in 1971 sat majestically off the Ridge Route just north of where the settlement of Lebec is now.

   After negotiating hundreds of nauseating twists and turns, the Big Kahuna lay ahead Dead Man's Curve, off to the immediate west of where the Tejon exit is now. Many met their maker there, but those who successfully negotiated its roundhouse turn could soon get some stress relief in Grapevine.

   Historians and writers have told of life and commerce on the route, but Scott's probing instincts now make it possible to draw a more vivid picture of the route. To satisfy criteria for ``Historic Place'' consideration, Scott had to find out exactly where everything was. For six years, he turned over rocks, climbed down ravines, spun countless reels of microfilm, attended antique
postcard shows, tracked down historians and interviewed people who knew life along the route.

   ``I had to know everything there was to know about the road,'' said Scott, who spent thousands of hours and dollars acquiring historic post- cards and photos. ``Every turn, every culvert, every boundary marker. Everything. It was a laborious, god- awful sequence. I'd never do it again.

   ``But I'm very happy the road is recorded, preserved, and preserved at a high level. It would have gone south otherwise. That's
my tiny bit of contribution.''

   Much of the route today remains susceptible to the whims of developers. For certain now, at least 17.6 miles of the Ridge Route Road will endure. It still haunts Scott that he and the Forest Service had to abandon efforts to protect more of the road. ``That was a damn tough concession to make,'' Scott said.

   But in the end, it pushed preservation of the road's most historic and romantic portion toward a successful conclusion. A good thing, because the old route couldn't take another runaway crash ending.

Copyrightę 1998, The Bakersfield Californian

Published with permission graciously granted by The Bakersfield Californian

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