Popular landmark's colorful history featured in historian's lecture.
Hidden along the ridges of the Tehachapi mountains north of the Santa Clarita Valley, a winding narrow road still exists that played an essential role in the transportation history of Southern California.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, September 6, Harrison Scott, Executive Director of the Ridge Route Preservation Organization and author of the recently published book “Lost Hotels on California's Historic Ridge Route,” will deliver a talk to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society on the history of the famous Ridge Route, the first road to serve as a direct connection between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley and points north. The lecture will take place at the historic Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction within William S. Hart Park at 24101 Main Street in Newhall.
Throughout the history of Los Angeles and into the early years of the twentieth century, the San Gabriel and Tehachapi Mountains formed a formidable barrier to travel between Northern and Southern California. Transportation between the two halves of the state was so difficult in fact that there was talk of dividing California into two separate states.
The completion of the Ridge Route in 1915 between Castaic and the Grapevine represented a landmark improvement for California travelers. To illustrate the importance of the Ridge Route in California history, Harrison Scott aptly titled his first book (considered the definitive history of the road) “Ridge Route, The Road that United California.”
Prior to the 1850’s, the only way to cross the mountains to the north of Los Angeles was either by foot, on horseback, or to navigate a treacherous trail through a canyon just to the east of present day Newhall Pass. In 1854, Los Angeles transportation king Phineas Banning hired workers to make a 30 foot cut through the summit of what was then called the San Fernando or Fremont Pass.
Banning was the first man to drive a stagecoach over the pass. His wild ride was immortalized in the first book published in Los Angeles, “Reminiscences of a Ranger” by Major Horace Bell. Bell described the ride: “He cracks his whip, tightens his lines, whistles to his trembling mustangs, urges them to the brink of the precipice and they are going down! Rackety, clatter, bang! Sometimes the horses ahead of the stage and sometimes the stage ahead of the horses — all, however, going down, down, with a crash.”
“Finally the conglomeration of chains, harness, coach, mustangs and Banning were found in an inextricable mass of confusion — contusions, cracks and breaks … piled in a thicket of chaparral at the foot of the mountain.”
“Didn't I tell you?” said Banning. “A beautiful descent, far less difficult than I anticipated.”
In 1863, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors commissioned Edward F. Beale to improve on the cut created by Banning. Beale deepened the cut to 90 feet, making the ascent through the pass somewhat easier. The passageway became known as Beale’s Cut, which can still be seen today along Sierra Highway in the Newhall Pass. For his efforts, Beale was allowed to charge a toll to anyone crossing his cut over the next 20 years. The ascent through Beale’s Cut was still quite difficult; early automobiles often had to drive backwards through the cut to avoid flooding their carburetors. Beale’s Cut was bypassed in 1910 with the completion of the Newhall Auto Tunnel.
While the auto tunnel greatly eased travel over the Newhall Pass, motorists heading to Northern California still had to take a long circuitous path up San Francisquito Canyon to the Lancaster-Palmdale area, then cut back along the route of present day Highway 138 to the Grapevine Grade into the San Joaquin Valley (known as the “Tejon Pass Route”). Alternatively, the “Tehachapi Route” would take travelers through Mint or Bouquet Canyons to Lancaster, Mojave and across the Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield.
Between 1912 and 1913, a road survey was undertaken along the crest of the Tehachapis, which determined the feasibility of a more direct route over the mountains. Construction of the Ridge Route began in 1914 between Castaic and the Grapevine, much of the work being done by mule drawn “Fresno Scrapers.” The road was completed in October, 1915 at a cost of $450,000.
Compared to the old Tehachapi Route, the Ridge Route shortened the drive between Bakersfield and Los Angeles by 58 miles. It was, however, a perilous road consisting of 697 curves with the equivalent of 110 complete circles. The original road surface was rock and shale until it was paved with concrete in 1919. The road was widely used throughout the “Roaring Twenties” with such colorful roadside stops as the Ridge Road House, National Forest Inn, Tumble Inn, and Sandberg's Summit Hotel.
The Lebec Hotel between Gorman and Fort Tejon was a favorite hangout for such Hollywood stars as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, as well as gangster Bugsy Siegal. The heyday of the Ridge Route ended in 1933 when it was mostly bypassed by the Ridge Route alternate Highway 99. Eventually Highway 99 was replaced by the current Interstate 5, which was completed between Los Angeles and the Central Valley in 1970.
Harrison Scott first stumbled upon the Ridge Route in 1955. He returned again in 1991 with his son, and was surprised to find the old road still drivable and in its original state. He became determined then to get this historic highway preserved. After eight years of intensive research, and with the help of Angeles National Forest archaeologists Michael McIntyre and Doug Milburn, Scott was able to apply for and obtain National Register historic status for the road. In so doing, Scott is credited with being both the savior of and the world's leading expert on the Ridge Route.
Unfortunately the road sustained heavy damage in the rainstorms of 2005. But with the help and determination of Scott's organization, the damaged portions of the road are being rebuilt. The road may be reopened as early as the end of this year. The Historical Society is honored to host Harrison Scott at the Saugus Train Station. He will also be signing copies of his new book.
The general public is welcome. Admission will be free. For more information on this and other upcoming programs from the SCVHS, please call Pat Saletore or Alan Pollack at (661) 254-1275. Website: www.scvhs.org.