The Story of the Ridge Route (Part 1)

First, of course, came early game trails and Indian footpaths. When the Spaniards arrived, their carreta roads made use of those same rough tracks. They’d follow the route of today’s Temple Street north through what we now call Hollywood to reach Cahuenga Pass. Then it was onward to San Fernando, crossing the foothills at Newhall and up San Francisquito Canyon before veering east to Elizabeth Lake. Eventually the rude track emerged from the mountains at Quail Lake and Gormon Station, then dropped down Canada de Las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon) to reach the plains of San Joaquin Valley.

For Episcopal bishop William L. Kip, who undertook that journey to tend souls at Fort Tejon in 1855, it was a four-day ordeal by mule-drawn wagon. By 1858 the speedy Butterfield Overland stage reportedly was able to cut the time from L.A. to Tejon to a speedy 32-1/2 hours, though passengers would have arrived considerably jostled by the experience.

Auto Club of So. Calif map from 1912, showing the early route to Bakersfield winding east through Lake Elizabeth.

The road itself remained a twisty dirt path well past 1900. Early Gorman settler Mary Ralphs described the trip by horse-drawn buggy from Gorman to Bakersfield as a day-and-a-half journey. In the opposite direction, to L.A., the trip took two days plus, broken up by layovers at Lake Elizabeth and Newhall. And the difficulties weren’t limited to just the hours and the dirt and the bumping. No, that old road also required fording a creek close to sixty times, according to Bakersfield historian Lawrence Weill.

But that was the old wagon days. And then came the automobile!

One of the earliest motorized journeys along the old wagon road – gleefully reported by the Bakersfield Californian in April, 1903 – was that of adventurers T.E. Baker and F. Hughes, who accomplished their 150-mile drive from L.A. to “Kern City” in 31 hours’ driving time – miraculously, “without one single breakdown.” A heavier-footed motorist with the inauspicious name of Jackson Graves ventured over the same primitive dirt road in the summer of 1911, spanning the distance from Saugus to Bakersfield in a mere 12 hours.

By then, the motoring public had become a large enough lobbying group that even the government began to take notice. When a three-person California Highway Commission was formed in 1911 (a branch of the  Department of Engineering), one of their primary missions was creation of an auto-worthy road between Los Angeles and the fertile, oil-rich San Joaquin Valley — preferably by a more direct route than the long, leisurely, easterly jog of the old wagon road.

Surveys for just such a new highway were ordered on January 25, 1912 and actual surveying began the following September, led by engineer W. Lewis Clark. For the next eighteen months, with mules carrying their equipment, the survey party hacked and chopped their way through some of the most survey-inhospitable landscape imaginable.

“[C]linging to the precipitate walls of canyons where no pack mule could keep his feet, across ravines and along the crests of the mountains, the surveyors fixed their stakes, and, link by link, laid the lines along which this mighty highway should run,” as a 1916 California Highway Bulletin later enthused.

Surveyor W.L. Clark on the left.

Once that preliminary survey was completed, a few months of wrangling followed over the best route. And, of course, real money was needed to actually build the new road.

Luckily, series of state road bonds had already been issued, beginning in 1909 with enabling legislation for an $18 million bond issue (which became effective on December 31, 1910 after voters approved). Despite bearing favorable interest rates of four and five percent, those bonds found few at first. They “have not been readily salable,” a newspaper column confessed in February, 1913.

That hurdle was finally surmounted by assuring bond purchasers that road construction would begin in the county with the most bond purchases. Voila! L.A. financiers quickly snapped up some $270,000 worth of bonds. Work on the new Tejon route was finally ready to begin!

A second bond measure, passed by the Legislature in 1915 and quickly ratified by the voters, kicked in December 31, 1916, adding another $15 million to the state’s road-building coffers. And a third bond issue was approved at a special election July 1, 1919 – authorizing a whopping $40 million more. Yes, the new automobile-owning public was all for better roads!

Grading for what was initially termed the Tejon Route (soon more popularly dubbed the “Ridge Route”) began on Sept 22, 1914. A second stage of the grading contract was let that December. And just a year later, once the fills had been given a few weeks to settle, the new roadway was finally “thrown open to travel” in October, 1915.

Where once there had been only mountains and sage, depressions and gullies, a neatly-graded, freshly-oiled roadway now opened its arms to eager travelers. The brand new road became “instantly popular with the motoring public.” Total length: 30 miles. Total width: 24-feet of graded road bed. Cost for grading: $450,000.

In place of grades once as monumental as 20 percent, the new Ridge Route touted much gentle slopes said to be no greater than six percent. That benign figure, however, may have been measured only by the eye of a friendly beholder rather than by instrument. In real life, a few grades still reached a fairly steep seven percent. But even those were a big improvement over the old wagon route.

The new oil-graded Ridge Route was indeed an engineering marvel. And the feat was accomplished almost exclusively by manpower and mule-drawn Fresno scrapers. A steam-shovel and dynamite were used only on a single especially difficult cut (known as the “Big Cut” or “Culebra Cut”). And that particular undertaking moved an astonishing million cubic yards of earth and rock.

Postcard of the “Big Cut” (also known as Culebra Cut or Swede’s Cut) circa 1920. (Dustman collection)
The Culebra Cut as it looked in September, 1992. (Dustman photo)
A steam shovel being used in highway construction (1916 Calif Hwy publication).

As the road left the mountains on the north, engineers nixed the notion of simply paving over the original old wagon track down Grapevine Canyon. For one thing, that early wagon road included onerous 20% grades. Simple observation also convinced them that leaving the roadway in the belly of the canyon would mean constant erosion from spring rains and snow runoff.

Instead, the road-builders decided to loop the new roadway across the hillsides in a series of gentle bends that moderated the drop and weren’t as prone to erosion. The result was a series of sweeping, swooping curves across the foothills of Grapevine Canyon. They made for many accidents. But also for many dramatic photos.

The Grapevine Grade, circa 1923. On the back of this postcard was the handwritten notation: “1200 turns in 20 miles; 30 miles on straight-away into Bakersfield.”

With its much-welcomed opening in 1915, the newly-graded Ridge Route now cut 24 miles off the distance between LA and Bakersfield compared to the old Bouquet Canyon route – and saved more than twice that versus the Tehachapi road.

“Winding to the Summit” was the caption of this early postcard. There’s one small wooden guard rail barely visible just left of the third car.

The Ridge Route was, they said, southern California’s magnum opus in mountain highway construction. And the scenery was magnificent. As the S.F. Chronicle enthused in 1916, the new road traverses “the wildest of southern California mountain country, a section previously known to only a few ranchers and oil companies.”

A contemporary California Highway Bulletin offered a similarly glowing description:

Enraptured by the panoramic beauty of the scenery at every dip and turn of the road, the traveler is lulled into happy forgetfulness of the fact that but a few brief seasons since where he now rides in cushioned and upholstered luxury, mountain goats and coyotes monopolized the solitudes of these perpendicular canyon walls and mountain ledges.”

Magnificent views there might have been. But a driver’s attention really needed to be glued to the roadway. Estimates varied of the number of twists and turns in the new route. One viewer counted a total 697 turns, which taken together represented a dizzying 110 complete circles. Written on the back of the an early postcard was another motorist’s own computation: “1200 turns in 20 miles”!

Many were the stomachs that didn’t appreciate all that twisting and turning.

Something had to give. And within a very few years, it did.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Story of the Ridge Route!)

Looking toward Black Mountain from the Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).