(In this article from 2009, I tell the story of a dedicated group of volunteers who are trying to bring the Ridge Route – a forgotten highway that kept California from splitting into two states – back from the dead.)
“I used to get paid to move rocks for the Highway Department and hated it, and now I come here every month and do it for free,” laughs Caltrans retiree Dave Omieczynski.
Omieczynski is a member of the Ridge Route Preservation Organization (RRPO), a group of volunteers dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the Ridge Route, the first major automotive link between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Joaquin Valley.
The Ridge Route first opened in 1915 and was paved four years later using mule-powered graders. The 20-foot wide ribbon of concrete hugged the top of the San Gabriel and Tehachapi Mountains – often precariously – as it climbed over the Tejon Pass.
A trip along the thoroughfare from L.A. to Bakersfield took 12 hours, and could be a harrowing experience. Since funds for blasting were non-existent at the time of its construction, its engineers were forced to follow the contours of the hills. This created nearly 700 curves in one 36-mile stretch between Castaic and Gorman.
The road was just wide enough for two Model-T’s to pass, and to jump one of its few curbs could send a vehicle tumbling hundreds of feet down a canyon.
Stretches of the route were so steep that it was common to see cars, which lacked fuel pumps at the time, going up backwards.
In spite of these hardships, it was such a vital link between northern and southern California that some historians feel it actually prevented the state from splitting in two.
Much of the original road has been covered over by the 5 freeway, but a 17.6 mile stretch which runs through the Angeles National Forest was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1997.
This section has been closed to the public since floods washed out parts of it in 2005. But one Saturday a month the gates are opened to allow a group of RRPO volunteers entry for the “privilege” of cleaning drains and clearing rocks in hopes of re-opening the old road in the near future.
Many of the volunteers travel a great distance, including the group’s president, Harrison Scott, who is known to all as “Scotty.” Scotty is a retired Pac Bell engineer who lives in Torrance, ninety minutes to the south. For nearly twenty years he has been the driving force behind the group’s efforts, and has written two books on the Ridge Route.
“I first drove across the Ridge Route when I was a teenager after I purchased my first car,” says Scotty. “Many years later I brought my teenage son here. I was struck by the fact that there’s really no other place in California where you can drive on an original highway. It pretty much shows how travel looked back in the early part of the twentieth century. I got interested at that time in preserving it for the future.”
I am at the Ridge Route this particular Saturday morning at the invitation of my friend Mike Simpson, who is the group’s secretary. Mike was one of the only volunteers in the caravan who wasn’t in a pickup or Jeep. But since he’s familiar with every inch of the road, he maneuvers his Toyota Tercel around its spaghetti-curves and axle-eating potholes with the grace of a Formula One driver.
A true multi-tasker, Mike tells me the history of the road while changing gears; constantly keeping an eye out for clogged drains, collapsed hillsides, and boulders that could be used for retaining walls.
“This is a great spot to see the evolution of automobile travel across these mountains,” he explains, motioning several hundred feet below us. “We’re driving on the original Ridge Route from 1915. In the distance you can see Highway 99, which was also known as the Ridge Alternate Highway. It opened in 1933. And between the two is the 5, which was finished in 1970. Each in turn made the previous road obsolete. The road we are on hasn’t seen much use since the 1930s.”
The volunteers spend the first part of the day gathering boulders to repair a rock arch at the site of Tumble Inn, one of several hotels that once dotted the sides of the road. Later, we gather here for lunch.
I seek shade from the triple-digit temperatures along a wall that survived the vandalism that claimed the hotel decades ago. While the group nibbles on sandwiches, Scotty regales us with more tales from the road’s storied past.
“The Ridge Route was a real engineering marvel in its day,” he says. “Its designers had to go to Germany to learn how to build this type of road. It hadn’t been done over here until then.”
Lunch ends, and volunteers Linda Marsee and Maggie Smith, who earlier had supplied us with home-made cookies, unfurl a large photo of a section of the route and ask everyone to sign it.
As a newbie, I feel unworthy placing my autograph alongside those of folks who had sweated on the highway for years, but the group insists.