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Ridge Route history: The long and winding road

In 1998, then-Californian staffer Andy Kehe chronicled the history of the Ridge Route. Below is an edited version of that piece.

Before there was an eight-lane interstate freewheeling through Fort Tejon and the Angeles National Forest, a 20-foot wide piece of concrete wound over mountain ridges and through canyons between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

Ridge Route Road was one of the first products of the newly formed California Highway Commission and an $18 million state highways construction bond voters approved in 1910. Historians note that it may have actually saved California from splitting into two states.

Crews operating primitive, mule-powered graders began clearing the Ridge Route's path in 1914. Because of extremely rugged terrain and no funds to use for blasting, the route from Castaic to Gorman took 697 turns. An Occidental College student figured out that motorists sputtering up and down the road's sometimes 7 percent grades made the equivalent of 97 complete circles over the 36-mile stretch and 110 circles over the entire 48-mile route from Castaic to Grapevine.

The road opened in 1915 and was paved four years later with 41/2 inches of reinforced concrete. Fencing and 10-inch-high curbing kept the death toll from being worse than it was — but 31 died in accidents between 1921 and 1928, many resulting from runaway trucks and cars or drivers' failure to negotiate turns.

Because many early cars and trucks had no fuel pumps, it was not unusual to see vehicles going up steep grades backward. Truck drivers often took drastic, almost stuntman-like measures to escape the heat that had built up in their cabs.

“I drove a truck and trailer up there in 1931 loaded with pipe and the best I could do was 8 to 12 miles per hour,” said Frank Kaufmann of Taft. “It was hotter than the devil. I’d stand out on the running board to get away from heat of the engine and I’d drive with one hand through the window.”

When the road opened in 1915, motorists had their choice of routes to get to Los Angeles from the San Joaquin Valley and vice versa, but chose the Ridge Route. Despite following every mountain contour and its 15 mph speed limit, the Ridge Route Road was a far more direct route to Los Angeles than the “Midway” route through Mojave and the Tehachapi Mountains, cutting the distance to Los Angeles by nearly 58 miles.

Despite its hundreds of sharp curves, hazards and steep grades, the Ridge Route Road was considered the Cadillac of the superhighways, an engineering marvel.

In 1933, a straighter, three-lane road known as the Alternate Ridge Route opened to the west and cut time between the valley and Los Angeles even more. With few people traveling the original route, most of the small businesses and inns that had relied so heavily on the traffic were forced to close.

“There was nothing for them after they built the new road,“ Kaufmann said. “But prior to that, they built so many of them. Cars would stop and put water in their radiators and get something to eat. People could make a good living off that cause there wasn’t anywhere else for people to go.”

Finally, Interstate 5, built in 1960, rendered even the Alternate Ridge Route obsolete, but only slightly disturbed the path of the original road.

From Castaic to Fort Tejon, paved and unpaved roads follow the same path as the original road for nearly the entire stretch.

Intermittently from Fort Tejon, the road is cut off by the northbound lanes of I-5.

All along the original 48-mile stretch from Castaic to Grapevine, entrepreneurs set up shop to cash in on the steady flow of cars, buses and trucks. Heading north from Castaic, there was Martin’s and then the National Forest Inn. Then a few miles further and there was the Reservoir Summit, the Halfway Inn and then the Tumble Inn all offering modest accommodations, camping, food and services of a mechanic, who kept very busy.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, not too many trucks had air brakes, they were mostly mechanical brakes,” onetime Route truck driver and Kern County Sheriff Charlie Dodge said. “You had to be very careful. You went up slow, and you came down slow. The savior for many on the Old Ridge Road were the banks (sides of the hills). If you began to see your brakes burning, you headed for the banks and you'd ’bank’ her.”

Still heading north, the refined traveler might have stopped at the slightly swankier and more discriminating Sandberg’s Summit Hotel, where a sign was posted out front: “Truckers or dogs not allowed.”

More relief was available closer to Gorman, known as Ralph’s in those days and named after the founder of Ralph’s supermarkets at Holland’s Inn and Caswell’s. The truly rich and famous passed them all up in favor of the magnificent Hotel Lebec, which until its fiery demise in 1971 sat majestically off the Ridge Route just north of where the settlement of Lebec is now.

After negotiating hundreds of nauseating twists and turns, the Big Kahuna lay ahead — Dead Man’s Curve, off to the immediate west of where the Tejon exit is now. Many met their maker there, but those who successfully negotiated its roundhouse turn could soon get some stress relief in Grapevine.

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