Paving the Ridge Route:
As you’ll remember from Part 1 of this story, the original Ridge Route between L.A. and Bakersfield was just a simple oil-coated dirt track. When grading was completed in 1915, that first early version cost a mere $450,000 – roughly $11 million today.* Not bad for a 30-mile stretch of road!
But as you might expect, that primitive oiled surface didn’t wear very well. Winter snows, spring runoff, and vehicle tires quickly turned the road into a lumpy, bumpy mess. Travelers began complaining. And by 1918, only three years after the Ridge Route was “finished,” improvements were already under way.
The new plan called for paving the entire 30-mile length in concrete, and four miles at the southern end were successfully paved in 1918. Bids were sought the following spring to finish the remainder. But concluding that the bids received were too high, the State Highway Commission tossed them all and resolved to undertake the paving work themselves, using day labor. Workers were recruited, with “veterans preferred.”
By November, 1919, all but four miles of the original primitive roadway had been resurfaced in concrete. And a substantial paving job it was! The new concrete road was 4-1/2 inches thick, twenty feet wide, and reinforced with twisted, 3/8”-square iron bars, which were laid cross-wise 18 inches apart and bolted on each end to more iron rods running lengthwise.
Cost for the new concrete version came to $700k, bringing the total price tag for the Ridge Route to $1.15 million by November, 1919. The State boasted that its thriftiness with day-labor had saved the taxpayers $100k – although some creative math may have been required to reach that conclusion. As historian Harrison Scott would later point out, one of the bids the State threw out would have been cheaper yet ($575,130). And in typical government fashion, the ultimate price tag came in nearly double the engineers’ original cost estimate for the job (just $379k).
But, well, the fabulous mountain road was now sheathed in concrete. “Substantial concrete curbs” ten inches high and six inches wide had been added at curves and danger points. These were intended not only to control drainage but also as a safety feature “to protect reckless drivers who may come around a turn too fast,” as an L.A. Times article noted in March, 1919. Blind curves had also been “daylighted,” cutting away banks to help drivers see oncoming cars.
The official opening of the now (mostly) paved Ridge Route took place on November 15, 1919 and was greeted with “joy” by motorists. The entire length was now paved “with the exception of the stretch between Rose Station and the southern Kern County line, which is good oiled road.”
With material in short supply due to World War I, some 1.5 miles were still left unpaved that December. But the paving work was now mostly done.
Ecstatic motorists raved about the scenic beauty of the route, the “velvety smoothness of the concrete,” and the excitement of the sheer drop-offs – offering “the nearest equivalent to airplaning that can be experienced in an automobile.” As an additional bragging right, the Ridge Route now featured “no grade over 6%.”
Unfortunately, some of those first enthusiastic motorists included a few “would-be Barney Oldfields in Bakersfield,” determined to “smash all existing motor records between the two cities the first day the Ridge is opened,” reported the Bakersfield Californian. To deter such reckless-driving behavior, the L.A. Sheriff placed two motor cops on the road to “pinch” anyone exceeding the 15 mph speed limit. The Californian thoughtfully recommended “turtling along,” rather than “exercising the accelerator too freely.”
For trucks, the speed limit was lower yet: just 12 mph. That didn’t seem to present as much of an enforcement problem. Many trucks could manage only 7 mph on the uphill stretches.
Now, the trip from L.A. to Bakersfield took “at best, 12 hours” – or more like 16 to 18 hours for truckers. Travel along the new concrete Ridge Route soared to an average of 250 cars and trucks per day.
Work continued in July, 1920 to try to finish the final leg of paving between Lebec and Grapevine, with additional workmen to “rush” the work in Tejon Canyon and “sprinkling wagons” keeping the dust down. In May, 1921, the Bakersfield Californian could finally announce that the “Highway Through Tejon” was “completed” – well, okay, except for a last thousand yards, estimated to be finally, finally finished by May 20th.
An optimistic Ridge Route enthusiast boasted that “once done, the [roadway] was completed for all time.” But it wouldn’t be long before even more improvements were in the works.
(To be continued!)
(*Several sources have pegged the cost of the first iteration of the Ridge Route at $2 million dollars, but perhaps they were talking about the paved version. A 1919 summary indicates that the original grading that was completed in 1915 came to $450,000, with the subsequent concrete paving adding $700,000, bringing the total cost of the roadway (after paving) to $1.15 million by 1919. (Bakersfield California, November 11, 1919). It’s possible that the $2 million figure included engineering, permits, right-of-way costs, or other work.)