The journey from L.A. to Bakersfield still wasn’t for the faint of heart. Even clad in concrete, the 30-mile stretch “skirt[ed] thousand-foot precipices,” disappeared into “tunnel-like” cuts and “spiraled” its way through the mountains.
But souvenir booklets glamorized “winding from one side to the other through the saddles, passing through the wildest mountain country previously known to but a few ranchers and prospectors.” Colorful place names also lured the adventurous. There was Rattlesnake Canyon and Liebre Gulch. Violin, Grasshopper, Elderberry and Necktie Canyons. Big Oak Flat, and Hungry Hollow. Tucked away in previously almost-inaccessible spots, a few hardy settlers still raised bees, tended sheep, and ran cattle. A tenacious gold prospector or two probably frowned as they watched the modern new road go in.
Amenities popped up quickly along the new and improved road. Thirsty travelers could down a soda pop at Nellie’s Shack (aka Queen Nell’s Castle), beneath the shade of a few pepper trees. Motorists who didn’t wish to undertake the whole Ridge Route journey in a single day could enjoy a bed for the night at one of the proliferating way stations: The National Forest Inn, Tumble Inn, Kelly’s Halfway Inn, Sandberg’s, Casswell’s, and Bailey’s (near Quail Lake). (At least two of these may have started with the road construction itself; the Tumble Inn and Sandberg’s were said to have been built on the sites of early workers’ camps.)
One of the most popular stop-overs, if you were fortunate enough to make Lebec, was the grand Lebec Hotel. Back in the day, you might even find a dance in progress there, attended by vaqueros from Tejon Ranch and locals from nearby Cuddy Valley, Lockwood and Mt. Pinos.
But some travelers skipped all that luxury, and simply threw out a bedroll under the stars. Old-timers reminisced about hearing music and seeing fires dot the old Ridge Route.
One downside to the influx of campers and thoughtless smokers: an increase in forest fires. In September, 1927, motorists “were menaced by fiery branches whirling through the air,” noted writer Thelma Miller, with heat-cracked rocks “catapulting into the roadway.”
Despite its welcoming concrete surface, the Ridge Route’s peaks and valleys posed substantial challenges for early tin lizzies. At its highest point the road rose 4,233 above sea level before dropping 1,100 feet into Antelope Valley, then climbing again to 4,219 feet in the Tehachapi Range.
Older vehicles without fuel pumps had to tackle the uphill stretches by driving backwards. Heavy trucks slowed to a crawl; some truck drivers would stand on the running board and drive with one hand through the window on the wheel to escape the heat from their motor. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Run-away trucks on the downhill grades reached 100 mph.
Tire blow-outs were a common occurrence. And then there was simply overheating. Old photos show concrete reservoirs (“water troughs”) thoughtfully offering water for overheated cars. One local remembered lines of parked cars along the route, with owners waiting patiently for their cars to cool down.
Early Model T owners were a resilient bunch. When a gear would burn out, they might reach for an piece of old shoe leather and pair of pliers to fix the problem. For more serious engine trouble, motorists could seek help at Martin’s Garage, or farther north, the Ridge Route Garage.
The road’s “dizzying succession of curves” brought its own sort of problems. Drivers who failed to navigate those sharp hairpin turns might find themselves doing “the somersault of death.” One particularly notorious bend just below Ft. Tejon was dubbed Dead Man’s Curve. Just below it was a spot known as the “Junkyard.”
The sharp curves also made visibility difficult. One traveler who made the journey in a Model T flatbed in 1930 recalls the family truck stalling frequently on the hairpin turns. “Mom and I would walk down the road behind the car and my brothers would walk up ahead . . . to act as lookouts for other vehicles coming, and warn them. We would have to wait for the brakes and water to cool down, and [then] crank up the motor (literally) to go full-speed ahead for another few curves and repeat the performance.”
All that twisting and turning could be rough on the stomach. “The traveler with a sensitive digestive system did not know or care how many curves there were, only that there were far too many,” wrote Thelma B. Miller in 1929. Concurred Gorman resident Harry Ralphs, “I just remember mile after mile, curve after curve.”
By 1925 commercial outfits were plying the new roadway. A Motor Transit Stage had been launched – a stretched-out autombile with a large cargo box attached to the rear, offering trips from L.A. to Bakersfield in just six hours.
Early proponents had bragged that “once done, the [Ridge Route] was completed for all time.” But soon, the siren call of progress demanded even more.
In 1927, a fresh road-improvement effort began. Now, it would be a three-lane road.
(To be continued!)