From Footpaths to the Grapevine: A Brief History of Southern California's Ridge Route

1920 view of the Ridge Route ascending Grapevine Canyon. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Today, motorists traveling on Interstate 5 between Southern California and points north seemingly glide over the rugged San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains. Navigating the gentle curves and easy grades along today's eight-lane highway -- once called the Ridge Route and today popularly known as the Grapevine -- gives little indication of the difficulty early travelers experienced in their journey between Southern California and the Central Valley.

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Motorists on the highway's first iteration, which opened to traffic in 1915, faced a daunting, 12-hour drive between Los Angeles and Bakersfield on a one-way, unpaved road. To save money by minimizing road cuts and bridges, a 36-mile stretch of the route traveled atop the mountain ridges between Castaic and Gorman. Slowed by a strictly enforced speed limit, drivers crawled around 697 curves at 15 miles per hour.

Today, most drivers would avoid such a road. But in a time when many took to the roads as a recreational pursuit, the Ridge Route -- a name that later came to be applied to the entire stretch between the Central Valley and San Fernando -- earned many admirers. A 1921 travel guide, "On Sunset Highways," raved:

No description or picture can give any idea of the stupendous grandeur of the panorama that unrolls before one as he traverses this marvelous road. Vast stretches of gigantic hills interspersed with titanic canyons--mostly barren, with reds and browns predominating--outrun the limits of one's vision...Any extended tour of California must surely include the Ridge Route.

Filling stations, restaurants, and other diversions appeared at waystations along the road.

Still, the highway was dangerous -- one precarious section in Grapevine Canyon became known as Dead Man's Curve -- and the views may have pleased tourists but hardly compensated for the time spent on the road by truck drivers and other regular users. The road also tested the mettle of the automobiles of the era; overheated engines and blown-out tires were a common occurrence.

Motorists got an alternative in 1933, when the state opened a new, three-lane highway that avoided the ridge top in favor of the canyon and gorges of Piru Creek. At the time considered the largest highway project in state history, the Ridge Route Alternate, later designated US-99, shaved 9 miles and 45 minutes off the original Ridge Route. Curves featured a minimum radius of 1000 feet, and the new road's lower elevation reduced the chance of snowfall.

The route of US-99 later became the basis for today's modern superhighway, which opened in 1970. Some portions of the original Ridge Route and its 1933 successor are still open to traffic today. Other parts are accessible only to hikers, who may struggle to find the concrete beneath the overgrown chaparral.

Ridge Route, circa 1920. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

1924 Auto Club map of the Ridge Route. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives and accessible through the USC Digital Library.

An automobile on the Ridge Route, circa 1925. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

1920 view of the Ridge Route. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Courtesy of the Frasher Foto Postcard Collection, Pomona Public Library.

Courtesy of the Frasher Foto Postcard Collection, Pomona Public Library.

Courtesy of the Frasher Foto Postcard Collection, Pomona Public Library.

A snowy Tejon Pass in 1954. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Aerial view of the Ridge Route Alternate, signed as US-99, in 1957. Courtesy of the Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Los Angeles Public Library.

Historical Precursors

Notably, the section of the original Ridge Route from Castaic to Gorman followed a novel route; unlike most mountain highways, which follow the paths of Indian foot trails, wagon roads, and railways, the winding Ridge Route was invented by state highway commissioner N.D. Darlington and engineer W. Lewis Clark.

But other segments of the freeway's 45-mile route between Kern County and the San Fernando Valley owe their alignment to historical forerunners.

At its northern end, Grapevine Canyon has long provided a vital line of communication between Southern California and the Central Valley. The canyon rises from the plains of the great valley into the Tehachapi Mountains and up to Tejon Pass, following the seasonal cascades of Grapevine Creek. Many historical accounts credit Spanish soldier Pedro Fages as the route's trailblazer, but long before Europeans arrived, Chumash, Kitanemuk, and Yokut Indians used the canyon as a trading route. The Chumash village of Mat'apxwelxwel was situated at the canyon's mouth.

When Captain Fages did finally arrive in 1772, hot in pursuit of deserters from the Spanish army, he noted in his diary the canyon's abundance of wild grapes. Three decades later, a Spanish missionary named Jose Zalvidea also noticed the grapes and gave it the name La Canada de las Uvas (the Canyon of the Grapes), which later became Grapevine Canyon.

The canyon grew in importance as a transportation route under U.S. rule. In 1854, the U.S. Army founded Fort Tejon near the Tejon Pass as the headquarters of its First Dragoons. Four years later, the Butterfield Overland Mail route brought stagecoaches through the canyon.

The southern end of the freeway, where it rises from the San Fernando Valley, also traces historical routes. Intrepid Indian traders blazed a trail through this area to connect cismontane Southern California with the Antelope Valley. The trail crossed over a summit known today as Newhall Pass but which historically has been named Fremont Pass and San Fernando Pass, located near the present-day interchange of Golden State (I-5) and Antelope Valley (CA-14) freeways.

That ancient footpath eventually became a wagon road and in 1858 was incorporated into the Butterfield line, which extended north to San Francisco and east to St. Louis. Seeking to improve this important line of communication, the city of Los Angeles contracted with a rancher and former Indian Affairs superintendent named Edward F. Beale to improve the road. Between 1859 and 1865, Beale' army of Chinese laborers used picks, shovels, and dynamite to cut a 50-foot trench in the earth at the Newhall Pass. Though bypassed by modern-day roads, Beale's Cut long served as an important link between the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys.

Circa 1880 view of Beale's Cut at Newhall Pass. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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