1,200 Twisting Turns in 20 Miles – Oh My!
Aficionados still talk about the Ridge Route, the iconic byway linking Los Angeles with Bakersfield. The earliest version of this memorable road – Ridge Route 1.0, if you will – was simply dirt, graded and oiled. That made it a huge improvement over the rough carreta track through the mountains that had preceded it. But that wasn’t saying much.
When the newly-finished route was “thrown open to travel” in October, 1915, the motoring public welcomed it. Early autos began bumping along the 24-foot-wide roadbed – some thirty miles of it. That made it only about half the length of the old Bouquet Canyon route, a welcome change. There were, however, a few bugs still to be worked out with the new road’s design.
For one thing, although a few of the steepest grades had been softened, the “gentle” slopes of the new roadway still hit a precipitous seven percent in spots. And, as you might expect, that oiled surface didn’t wear very well. Winter snows, spring runoff, and vehicle tires quickly churned the roadbed into a lumpy, bumpy mess.
A concrete cap was added in 1919 – four and a half inches of it, twenty feet wide. Ecstatic motorists raved about the “velvety smoothness” of the new concrete surface. Best of all, the new paving job installed “substantial concrete curbs” ten inches high at dangerous points.
All well and good – but picky travelers soon had a few more quibbles. Engineers had looped the new roadway through the mountains without bothering much about straightening it. Estimates of how many twists and turns the Ridge Route included varied by observer. But at least one traveler in 1923 scrawled on the back of a postcard, “1,200 turns in 20 miles.” Yet another driver estimated he’d done 110 complete circles on the route.
All those twists and turns also made it hard to see on-coming vehicles. Motorists took to honking their horns as they entered blind curves, hoping to ward off a head-on collision.
And then there were the sheer drop-offs. Precipitous cliffs dropping into the canyons below afforded motorists what one described as “the nearest equivalent to airplaning that can be experienced in an automobile.” Even ‘turtling along,’ it was dangerous. Drivers who failed to navigate a sharp hairpin turn might find themselves doing the ‘somersault of death.’ Particularly notorious bends were given names of their own. Dead Man’s Curve earned its moniker. ‘The Junkyard’ got its name for a reason, too.
All told, it was dizzying. It was dangerous. But it was delightful, too.
Like to read more about the iconic Ridge Route? Find the rest of the story in this fun book by a noted local history writer and long-time fan of the Ridge Route!