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).

 

Discover the Odd Fellows Rocks

Ever visited the Odd Fellows Rocks? Most folks don’t even know they’re here. But they’re a fascinating and easily-accessible site along the old Emigrant Trail, near the top of Carson Pass!

Several jubilant emigrants paused here between August 25 and 27, 1849, after successfully ascending the infamous “Devil’s Ladder” — one of the most difficult stretches that overland emigrants faced in the entire overland journey. These pioneers honored the occasion by painting their names and the dates of their visit on the large clusters of rocks they found at the top.

Names painted on the rocks today include “C.C. Hammer” and “E.C. Farrary” — although a transcription from the 1930s lists them as “J.G. Hammer” and “F. G. Farren.” The names have been painted over many times in an effort to preserve them and it’s possible that transcription errors have crept in.

And yes, you can still see the pioneer’s names! Well, some of them, anyway. The original white-lead inscriptions have been painted over multiple times now, in an effort to preserve them. Some may have been corrupted a bit by this well-intentioned “preservation” effort. And unfortunately, time and erosion have erased some of the signatures entirely from the rock. But many full and partial names still remain. And oh, don’t we wish we knew what happened to each of those early visitors!

They’re called the “Odd Fellows” inscriptions because many of the writers also left the tell-tale three-ring symbol associated with the Odd Fellows’ motto: friendship, love, and truth. As for the passing emigrants themselves, we haven’t yet been able to trace the history of many of the rock-signers. But among the still-legible names is at least one emigrant whose later exploits we have been able to find.

R.E. Wilhoit signed this document as County Auditor in 1864, directing the San Joaquin Co. Treasurer to pay the County Assessor $23.21 for services from August to November.

R.E. Wilhoit was just 20 years old when he stopped at this spot in 1850 to add his lettering to the already-graffitied rocks. (Yes, Wilhoit was here a year after the original Odd Fellows group passed by.) At the time, of course, this young man had no way of knowing what his future in California would hold. But it turned out to be golden indeed!

Like so many eager emigrants, Wilhoit mined for a time at Mokelumne Hill and other Gold Rush towns before eventually moving on to Stockton in 1852. There he became a noted citizen, holding a variety of important public posts including stints as County Recorder, County Supervisor, and City Councilman. In later life Wilhoit evidently decided to “follow the money”: he became a banker. Eleven years after his difficult journey up Devil’s Ladder, Wilhoit married Delia Dwelley and together they would have six children. It was a future the 20-year-old probably never envisioned on that hot summer day when he paused to scrawl his name on the rocks in 1850!

A second emigrant whose name is still visible is F.P. Belcher, who also left us the date of his visit: “Aug 24, ‘49”. Although we don’t know this Belcher’s identity for sure, it’s possible this was the same F.P. Belcher who was born in 1830 and arrived in California with his two younger brothers by covered wagon from Woodstock, Illinois. That F.P. Belcher found employment as a freight hauler in the “truck and van business;” lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco before moving to Oakland; married a woman named Louise Hamilton; and had five children. If indeed it is the same person, he would have been about 18 years old when he left his moniker on this pile of rocks.

And who were “P. Slater” and “Ray Holms”? We have just one clue and no more: a 1930s listing identifies a “Peter Slater” as having written on these rocks.

There’s yet another tantalizing inscription tucked among the names: “McHenry County, Illinois” is written in at least two places. Perhaps this was the home county that some emigrants had just left; or it might have been the name given to their wagon train. We haven’t had any luck (so far!) in tracing any of the names with certainty back to that particular location. But that F.P. Belcher we mentioned, from Woodstock, Illlinois? Well, Woodstock just happens to be the county seat of McHenry County. Hmm.

Several early Carson Valley-ites also appear to have ties with that same McHenry County, Illinois, too. Pioneer settler Emanuel Penrod was said to have hailed from there. And Joseph Raycraft, Sr. married his wife Ellen back in McHenry County, where he owned a farm, before leading a wagon train west.

Two more potential but harder-to-prove connections:   newspaper records listing the  members of passing of emigrant trains tell us Ira Luther and J.A. Rhodes were among a Michigan wagon group planning to cross the Missouri River on May 16, 1849. That same day, the “Spartan Band” train — from none other than McHenry County, Illinois — was also assembled beside Missouri River. Included among the Spartan Band’s members was a man named James H. Van Sickle — certainly a familiar last name for Carson Valley folks!

Did early Valley settler Ira Luther join up with the folks from McHenry County on his journey west? And was “James” Van Sickle any relation of our well-known local Van Sickle family? That’s probably a “no” for Ira Luther, at least as far as joining an 1849 McHenry County wagon train for any length of time. Luther did own property in Ogle and Stephenson Counties, Illinois, roughly 70-75 miles from McHenry. But an unverified account by Ira’s son claims Ira contracted cholera in Missouri in 1849, finally making made the journey West in 1850 by schooner and rounding the Horn to land in San Francisco. So for now these are just tantalizing  possible further connections to McHenry County, Illinois.

We hope you’ll pay a visit to the Odd Fellows Rocks to see the pioneer names on the rocks for yourself, and check out their homage to McHenry County. (Directions to get there are given below.) Be sure to gaze down at the Devil’s Ladder itself while you’re there, and imagine emigrants hauling their wagons and animals up this incredibly steep climb. It rises an amazing 700 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. For the true flavor of what that meant, here’s how the emigrants themselves described the experience:

After two hours’ hard work lifting at the wheels, whipping our tired teams, and using language not becoming church members, we gained a resting place and well did we need one. After a short rest we are again on the move; the way is now more smooth but very steep and crooked; a man to every wheel, and one to every horse and mule; a few steps and then a rest.” John Hawkins Clark, 1852.

The most astonishing thing respecting the road is that any man of common sense should have first thought of taking a wagon over it.” William Tell Parker, 1850.

Once successfully at the top, some emigrants tossed their hats in the air in celebration, making the “echoes of the Sierra Nevada acquainted with the mode of cheering in good society!” as one wrote in his diary.

Others simply left their names here on the rocks — a happy sign to commemorate their passing. They probably never imagined that visitors would stop by to read their names 170 years later.

The Emigrant Trail winds through the trees near the Rocks. It’s a serene and beautiful place.

Like  to visit the Odd Fellows Rocks for yourself? Here are directions!
Take Hwy 88 headed west toward Carson Pass. Just before you reach the summit, watch carefully for a paved road on your left and turn left (carefully!) onto this paved road. A day-use parking fee applies in this area, so look for the pay drop just after you make the turn. Once you pay the parking fee, follow the paved road the short distance downhill to a cul-de-sac parking area at the end. Be sure to pause here to read the interpretive sign (it includes great illustrations!) and admire the stunning overlook!

Stop to read the interpretive sign and enjoy the beautiful view of Red Lake below.

At the low end of the cul-de-sac, a dirt trail on your right will lead you into the forest where you can gaze down on a trail (on your left) — and see the near-vertical trail they called the Devil’s Ladder. It’s a great section of the Emigrant Trail to actually hike later, if you’re adventuresome enough!

This path to your left dropping down into the canyon below was known as the Devil’s Ladder!

To find the Odd Fellows Rocks, follow the trail on your right that leads upwards and away from the Devil’s Ladder. A short distance uphill, you’ll reach a rocky bench — and will spot the large pile of rocks with white lettering. (They’re above the cul-de-sac and overlook the spot where you parked.) This is the spot where thousands of weary emigrants and animals rested and regrouped after the climb.

Notice the brass plaque set into the rocks, placed by the Odd Fellows of California in 1941. Also notice the three interlocking rings of the Odd Fellows symbol painted on the rocks in two places in this photo.

Before returning to your car, take time to search out the Unknown Pioneer’s Grave, which is hidden in the trees between the Odd Fellows rocks and the paved road that you drove in on. This monument was erected to honor an anonymous pioneer who died here in the wilderness after months of arduous travel, never reaching the fabled gold fields.

Grave of an unknown pioneer who made it to California — but not to the gold fields. Like to see what this site looked like 50 years ago? Here’s a link to an old Frasher postcard of the grave from the 1940s!

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