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Drive the High Country
March/April 2001
By Paul Lasley

(Published with permission graciously granted by Westways magazine)

Each day, thousands of motorists travel Interstate 5 north at high speeds from greater Los Angeles to the vast Central Valley. But few Drivers imagine the history that can be found high on the lonely ridges of the San Gabriel mountains.

Nothing less that the destiny of California hung in the balance when in 1912 surveyors began work on the original Ridge Route. The feat was so daunting that many said the road couldn't be built at all. Powerful political interests, entrepreneurs, and engineering geniuses all played a part in creating this highway in the sky.

The road got its name because it followed the ridge line of the mountains, a crossing so difficult that one time there was serious talk of splitting the state in two. Southern California interests, including the Auto Club, worked to make the road a reality and preserve the state as one. The road was finished in 1915. Today, you can still drive a portion of the original Ridge Route - more than 30 miles of bad road, spectacular views , and history.

Highway through Time

As you head north on I-5 from Valencia, you're actually driving the Ridge Route's forth incarnation. Exit at Parker Road. At the end of the ramp you'll see a sign that reads RIDGE ROUTE. Make a right turn and head through the suburbs around towering Castaic Dam. Once past the new development, the road becomes a gentle, well -maintained two-lane affair that parallels I-5;s southbound lanes for a short distance as it undulates among grass-covered hills.

A water tank on your right is close to the former site of Cornelia "Nellie" Martinez Callahan's shack, where she sold gas and "pop" to motorists. "Queen Nell,"as she was known, homesteaded the land in 1909 and occasionally warned of trespassers with her shotgun. A short way beyond, one of the mental electric towers marks the former spot of the Owl garage. On your right, you'll see a large private residence surrounded by pepper trees. Just below it was the site of the Ridge Road House. A favorite with travelers in the 1920's for its "reputed very fair lunch," the Road House did not have indoor plumbing but was considered comfortable.

By now it should be obvious that this drive is about many placers that are long gone. Here and there you might see a wall or a foundation - all that remains of some long-lost dream. But the real reason to drive the road is the road itself. As you're reliving history, you're also seeing a relatively unspoiled part of California. In spring, the hills can turn into colorful gardens of purple Owl's clover, golden poppies, and splashes of blue and white lupine. Tall white flower spikes of yucca are everywhere. The rest of the year, the golds,silvers, and reds of the native foliage accent sage - and chaparral-covered hills. Where fires have burned, fresh green growth surrounds charred manzanita branches.

Rough Road Ahead

Soon the two-lane road ends, and rough pavement and potholes begin. The original road, surfaced with oil and gravel, was paved with concrete in 1919 and then improved a bit with asphalt between 1925 and 1933. As you drive, you'll learn to watch for huge potholes and places where the plants along the roadside are working hard to reclaim the turf.

You'll also come to respect the men who carved this wonder from the rock without the help of much heavy machinery. The complete road from Castaic to Gorman had more than 600 curves and some 110 full circles. The concrete pavement was only 20 feet wide, and guard rails and turnouts were few. There was just enough room for the early Model T's and Packard touring cars to pass a fully loaded Mack or Reo truck with primitive brakes and chain drive.

The fact that you can drive the Ridge Route today is largely due to the efforts of Harrison Irving Scott, a retired Pacific Bell engineer who, with the help of U.S. Forest Service archaeologists Doug Milburn and Mike McIntyre, was largely responsible for portion of the original Ridge Route being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

"Early drivers had to lean out of the window to see if cars and trucks were coming around the curves," Scott says. "One curve was named Deadman's Curve and the area below it the Junkyard. I've driven the road in a friend's Model T, and it's a real grind to make it up the hills. Your really needed water along the way for the radiator."The road dips down, crosses Templin Highway, and continues up the next hill, where you'll spy a NOT A THROUGH ROAD sign. After a rainstorm or washout, the U.S. Forest Service does lock gates on a part of the road, and if you find a closed gate, you'll have to turn and retrace your drive. If the weather's been good, you shouldn't have a problem getting through, but take the potential effects of weather seriously. "I was turning on the road after a particularly band rain," Scott says. "The mud was very deep and slippery. I almost went over the side."

No Room At The Inns

As your continue, to the right are good views of Castaic Lake. Look to the west to see the earlier Ridge Route Alternate and today's I-5. At this point you're traversing what was called Serpentine Drive, which ends at Swede's Cut, the largest earth-moving project along the road. Watch out for big rocks. Press on and you'll come to a wide spot in the road and the stone foundations of the Tumble Inn. A 1928 tour book lists "rooms, dbl. $2, meals, gas, free camp space, water and rest rooms. A small resort of far-reaching vista." Stop and take a look at the remains; the name Tumble Inn is carved into the top step.

Farther along the road you'll pass Granite Gate, a large rock outcropping. Along this stretch, the carriage trade always stopped at Sandberg's Summit Hotel. Cadillacs, Packards, and Studebakers crowded the parking lot, and rooms were advertised as having running water and toilets. Although there were rumors of gambling and prostitution, they haven't been substantiated.

Suddenly the old, rough road ends and you find yourself on smooth pavement heading down to Highway 138. Here, the road offers sweeping valley vistas and , in the far distance, views of the Mojave Desert's hills. At the bottom of the grade, turn left on Highway 138, then right on Gorman Post Road, the old route to Gorman, originally the Butterfield stage stop between L.A. and Bakersfield. At Gorman you can rejoin I-5.

Nothing more remains of the old Ridge Route except glimpses of pavement from I-5 as it heads down the Grapevine, named not for the many curves but rather for the grapevines you can still see growing in the canyon.

The drive from Castaic to Gorman takes about three hors with photo stops. Take your time and listen for the memories on the wind of those who labored long to make the road a reality, and for those who work to keep such memories alive.


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