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Renewing Ridge Route

Volunteers bring historic highway back to life

Posted: March 25, 2010 6:14 p.m.
Updated: March 26, 2010 6:00 a.m.

Volunteers work to repair the site of the Tumble Inn, which was one of several hotels that were once in operation along the Ridge Route. The route opened in 1915 and was paved four years later.

 

"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," laughed 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, 90 minutes to the south. For nearly 20 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," said 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 20th century. I got interested at that time in preserving it for the future."

I came along on a recent Saturday 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 was able to maneuver his Toyota Tercel around its spaghetti-curves and axle-eating potholes with the grace of a Formula One driver.
A true multi-tasker, Mike told 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 explained, 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 spent 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. It was here that the group met for lunch.

I sought shade from the triple-digit temperatures along a wall that survived the vandalism that claimed the hotel decades ago. While the group nibbled on sandwiches, Scotty regaled us with more tales from the road's storied past.

"The Ridge Route was a real engineering marvel in its day," he explained. "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."

After lunch, volunteers Linda Marsee and Maggie Smith, who earlier had supplied us with home-made cookies, unfurled a large photo of a section of the route and asked everyone to sign it. As a newbie, I felt unworthy placing my autograph alongside those of folks who had sweated on the highway for years, but the group insisted.

Then it was time to climb back inside the Tercel to examine more drains and to learn more of the Ridge Route's history from Mike.
"The cement you see is the original road," Mike said, "but from what I understand, there was never a center dividing line. There was also a 15 mile-per-hour speed limit. When you got onto the Ridge Route, you were given a ticket stamped with the time that you would reach the other end of the road if you stayed within the speed limit. If you got to the other end of it quicker than that, you got a speeding ticket," he added.

The group stopped a couple of times to dig out drains that had been choked by dirt and weeds.

"What tools do you need for this one," one of the volunteers asked at a drain site that was completely overgrown with brush.
"A very large can of Drano," was the reply.

Back on the road, Mike and I passed through an area known as Swede's Cut, the only spot on the route where major excavation work was done. Rockslides had spilled onto the highway.

"This is an area where we have to do a lot of work to restore the road," Mike said. "The goal is to re-create the entire road as it was around 1920, with authentic curbs and signage. I foresee a day when this road will be used as a park for bikers, runners, and for certain vehicles. We'll probably need to do it in phases," he added.

The task ahead seems endless and often thankless, with as many hours spent weaving through governmental bureaucracy as in actual cleanup. But progress has been made. Much has been restored, and at certain historic spots the group has partnered with the Forest Service and another charity to erect roadside markers with old photos showing what the road looked like in its heyday.

The RRPO, which up to now has had a home only in cyberspace, will soon be moving its headquarters to Heritage Junction in Newhall inside the William S. Hart Park. They will share space in a new museum with the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

"We need to work on education," Mike added. "Many people who live near the Ridge Route have never heard of it. We need to do more outreach to let people know who we are and what we are all about."

At the southern gate I ask Omieczynski why he drives all the way from Buena Park in Orange County once a month to work on a road that the world has mostly forgotten.

"Because it's fun. It's as simple as that. That's what keeps me coming back every month."

Free of charge.

The Ridge Route Preservation Organization can be reached at www.ridgeroute.com.
E.J. Stephens can be contacted at deadwrite@yahoo.com.

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