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Ridge Route, pioneering LA-to-Bakersfield highway, hits 100

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If the Grapevine is California's hardworking mother road, the Ridge Route is the state's demanding, surprising grandmother.

And when grandma marks 100 — as the Ridge Route does next Saturday — you bring the party to her.

Next Saturday’s centennial celebration will feature an antique car show, lectures and a tour of wind-whipped Dead Man’s Curve — but what supporters really want for the Ridge Route’s birthday is to reopen all of the historic highway.

Its provenance is hard to overstate.

One hundred years ago, this was the first paved road to connect Los Angeles and Bakersfield over the Tejon Pass, according to Bonnie Ketterl Kane, curator for the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society. It was also the state’s first mountain road, and cost $1.5 million — more than $35 million in today’s dollars.

“It’s a wonderful drive. It’s just beautiful,” said Kane, whose favorite part is its only major segment still open: a roughly six-mile stretch south of Quail Lake. Another stretch south of Templin Highway is open but part of its vintage concrete has been covered in asphalt. 

On Oct 3, she and fellow historian Harrison Scott, Ridge Route Preservation Organization executive director, will deliver lectures on the road’s history.

AN ANCIENT MARVEL IN MODERN TIMES

Scott calls the 48-mile Ridge Route, a pioneering highway where concrete curbing and wooden guard-rails were 1915 state-of-the-art, a survivor.

“You cannot get on an original 1900 road in this state that goes this distance, that hasn’t been altered. This is it. And not only that, because of this road the state didn’t split in half. How much more important can history get?” said Scott, a retired Pacific Bell engineer who lives in Torrance.

He considers the Route instrumental in keeping geography and politics from dividing California, literally, into northern and southern states.

The 17.6 miles that are within the Angeles National Forest ascend above 4,000 feet, but many would be drivable today if open.

Jay Leno proved as much in his 1915 Franklin in May, driving the length with Scott to film a TV show.

MUCH OF IT CLOSED TO VISITORS

The highway’s singular charms and European-inspired design inspired Scott to mount a successful effort in 1997 to get it named to the National Register of Historic Places. This gave the road and its landmarks a measure of federal protection and made them eligible for preservation benefits and incentives.

Highway 99 began replacing the Ridge Route as Los Angeles’s connection to Bakersfield in 1933 — and decades later was itself replaced by Interstate 5.

But the Ridge Route stayed open virtually continuously for 90 years — until punishing storms in the winter of 2005 damaged the highway in several places. Despite repairs, much of its mileage in Angeles National Forest has been closed to motorists since.

During the summer of 2005, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors vacated a property easement that Scott said gave the public legal permission to use part of the Ridge Route — effectively letting it fall into private ownership and putting another roadblock in the way of its reopening.

A Los Angeles County Department of Public Works official disputed that interpretation.

Mark Caddick, a district engineer for road maintenance for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said the supervisors’ vote was only aimed at resolving ambiguous right-of-way documents — making it clear the county took no responsibility for maintaining the Ridge Route.

“I don’t recall any private property in that vacation,” Caddick said. “It originally was and remains today national forest, federal property. It always was.”  

Scott said the supervisors’ vacation of part of the Ridge Route Road absolutely placed it in private hands — although he noted the U.S. Forest Service didn’t become aware of this change for about three years.

A Forest Service spokeswoman was unable to respond to a reporter’s questions by press time.

Regardless of who owns the land, or the right-of-way, drivers today must turn around at locked gates south of the Tumble Inn, and just north of the Templin Highway intersection.

Scott blames the U.S. Forest Service for the road’s descent into obscurity.

“The Forest Service doesn’t seem to really care,” he said.

Seal Beach resident Mike Simpson and his wife were the RRPO’s secretary and treasurer from around 2007 to 2013, but he said they too became fed up with the Forest Service’s inaction and left the group.

That’s around the time when pressure from Reps. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Howard McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, as well as state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, and the Kern Council of Governments failed to move the Forest Service to nominate the highway to become a National Forest Scenic Byway.

This, too, would have given the road federal protection, and helped preserve and maintain it.

But in order for the Ridge Route to have been nominated, it would have had to have been open to motorists.

“My feeling was that if we had achieved Scenic Byway status, then it would just have complicated matters for them,” Simpson said. “Then, they would have been on the hook to maintain the road in some fashion.”

Before that, from 2006 until some time in 2013 or 2014, a core group of the RRPO’s roughly 200 members actually maintained the Ridge Route, driving in monthly from Bakersfield to San Diego to move rocks the size of refrigerators.

Their free labor ended when a memorandum of understanding between the group and the Forest Service expired.

KernCOG Planning Director Rob Ball said reopening the entire Ridge Route is “a no-brainer” and compared it to the historic Tehachapi Loop spiral train tracks — which are a national and state historic landmark.

Perhaps more importantly, Ball said he doesn’t think making the highway a scenic byway would cost the Forest Service more money.

“The issue there is probably one that is not going to have any really severe financial requirements that would interrupt the flow of transportation funding for other projects in the region and may provide some economic benefits for tourism,” Ball added.

TOOLING DOWN THE HIGHWAY

The Ridge Route today can only be driven from Highway 138 south, and from Parker Road in Castaic north to just past Templin Highway.

But traveling it remains a uniquely timeless experience. 

As its undulating pavement compresses one’s spine, it’s easy to imagine overloaded, solid-tired trucks wheezing around these rock-strewn curves, their drivers beating the heat by standing halfway outside the cab on the running board.

Horseshoe Bend has been slightly recurved and covered in asphalt, but is still a stomach-turner in a modern SUV. These turns and elevations make Los Angeles’ Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first freeway in the western U.S., seem futuristic.

Trees and groundcover are mostly native — minus the ice plant of modern freeways — and the occasional interloper stands out.

“That’s a peyote plant,” Scott exclaims, touring the remains of the Reservoir Summit cafe and garage that once cantilevered over a cliff’s edge so visitors could enjoy the view. 

After the Route was rerouted and renamed Highway 99 in 1933, many of the small businesses along here failed — though some, like the Lebec Hotel, a joint venture in 1921 between Bakersfield oil man Thomas O'Brien and automaker Cliff Durant, survived decades.

In 2015, though, all that remains of it is a picturesque clearing thick with shrubs and spindly trees.

Miles south, the Tumble Inn with its distinctive foundations of local stone — and entry arch rebuilt by the RRPO — is possibly the highway’s most distinctive remains.

Kane believes the expanse of Ridge Route leading to the Tumble Inn is enough of the highway to win visitors’ hearts.

But Scott says emphatically this two-lane, unstriped, wavy ribbon of road must be kept entirely open as a symbol of the restless Western spirit.

“Most old highways have been plowed up, torn up, paved over. But the Ridge Route, having been, a lot of it, within and on Angeles National Forest land, nobody screwed it up,” Scott said. “Nobody messed with it. It’s in its original state.”

 

 

 

 

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