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Touring the Ridge Route a journey into the past
by. Janet Van Vleet
From The Bakersfield Californian

There's not much left. A staircase to nowhere at the site of the National Forest Inn. Stone walls and a staircase with the words Tumble Inn carved into it. Foundations buried beneath years of dirt at the Sandberg's Summit Hotel. They are all that remains of a historic portion of the Ridge Route that snakes through the mountains high above Interstate 5 between Gorman and Castaic.

Built between 1913 and 1915 and paved in 1919, the Ridge Route was the first mountain highway built in California and carried traffic until 1933. Considered an engineering marvel of its day, the road opened up travel and commerce between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley and spawned a cottage industry of inns, gas stations and restaurants along its twists and curves.

It also spawned hundreds of tales from those who traversed its often treacherous hairpin turns and visited its compelling lodges and eateries. The stories, the remains, the road itself — even in its current dilapidated state, all captured the imagination of Jack and Sidney Kelley, so much so that today they periodically offer free motor tours of the Ridge Route's passable portions.

"I just fell in love with that old road," said Jack Kelley, 71, wearing a button, as he always does, proclaiming "I drove the ‘Old' Ridge Route."

"I wear my button everywhere I go. People are always asking me about it. I start telling them about the highway and the curves and pretty soon you've got a person who wants to go on a trip."

Since stumbling upon the Ridge Route quite by accident a number of years ago, Jack and Sidney have made the 27-mile trip on the old road probably 45 times, not counting the trips he may have taken as a young boy.

"My father told me I had been on the road, but I just don't remember," Jack said. "I had to be under 5 years old."

The tours are a tag-team effort. Sidney takes care of the graphic elements — the map, old photographs and articles on the route. Jack's the storyteller, spinning yarns about the history of some of the places that dotted the route. He tells so well, the old buildings seem to come to life.

Jack and Sidney embellish their stories with little facts: They tell tourists that the service stations on the route were mostly Richfield stations with beacons. Pilots followed the beacons when they flew night flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

He points out the spot on the road where old Model T tire prints can still be seen. They were left in the still-wet cement when the road was poured.

A few spots along the desolate, windy route offer spectacular and even poignant views, including one or two of Interstate 5 hundreds of feet below. It was, of course, I-5 that replaced the Ridge Route. The second version of the Ridge Route opened in 1933 as the swift, modern passage to the L.A. Basin.

"There are absolutely gorgeous views," Sidney said. "Even if you're not a history buff, the view is tremendous."

Acknowledged rockhounds, Jack and Sidney crossed paths with the Ridge Route while scoping out some interesting rock formations near Templin Highway.

A street sign labeled an intersecting road near the rock formation as the Ridge Route. Jack asked Sidney if she wanted to take the drive and she was all for it.

"We go on any little trail we see," Sidney said. "We'd often seen cars up there on the Ridge Route and wondered what it was and why they were up there. We were thrilled to find out we could drive it."

The winding and sometimes dirt road led them along the ridge of a small mountain range to Highway 138 just east of Quail Lake, about eight miles from Gorman..

The nearly 27-mile trek intrigued Jack and he started asking around. His queries led him to members of the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society in Frazier Park, who in turn guided him to Harrison Scott, a self-taught Ridge Route historian in Southern California.

Scott was instrumental in getting a 17.6-mile portion of the Ridge Route listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, which means its remaining structures cannot be damaged and nothing can be taken from the route.

"It assures the road has a form of protection as a resource heritage," Scott said.

The entire Ridge Route measured more than 48 miles between Castaic and the valley floor.

The section near Lebec and Fort Tejon paralleled what is now I-5, but employed numerous switchbacks to enable early cars and trucks to make the steep climb. The section of the Ridge Route that is on the national register is in the Angeles National Forest, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.

Scott began filling the Kelleys in on the volumes of history he had collected on the Ridge Route. The facts he shared with the Kelleys whetted their appetite to learn even more. What they learned they now share with their tour guests:

Engineers went to Europe to study the mountain highways there before building the Ridge Route.

The Grapevine is named after Cimarron grapes that grew so thickly between the valley floor and Fort Tejon that early wagoneers had to hack their way through them.

There were 697 curves along the route, roughly adding up to 110 full circles.

The Automobile Club of Southern California posted hundreds of warning signs at the curves and speed limit signs on the route between sunup and sundown of one day.

The tour group meets at Highway 99 and Panama Lane before traveling the 64 miles to Templin Highway. The Ridge Route intersects a few miles east. There begins an odyssey into the past.

Heading back north on the Ridge Route, a small community of homes gets left behind as the road gets narrower. The road is a combination of black asphalt and an almost pale-pink concrete. Years after the road was paved in 1919, an attempt was made by engineers to reduce the severity of many of its turns. Evidence of the original layout is still quite visible on the shoulder of the road.

The motor tour visits 20 sites along the 26.9-mile trip. in the 1950s, the Forest Service destroyed any buildings left standing along the route, leaving only foundations and a few cement or stone walls.

At the site of the old View Service Station, a stand of lush green bamboo is the only reminder that the station existed. National Forest Inn, Reservoir Inn, Kelly's Inn or Half Way Inn, Liebre State Highway Camp, Sandberg's Summit Hotel — these buildings now exist only in photographs and people's memories. Maintenance on the Ridge Route was abandoned in 1933 when the alternate highway was built.

"It was a terrible thing," Sidney said of the demolition project. "I thought it was a terrible thing to do to our history. It was a shame. Now we'd give anything to have those buildings there and protected."

Forest Service policy is to destroy buildings that are abandoned or in a state of decay, as a safety precaution, said Robert Brady, public affairs assistant for the Angeles National Forest.

"People, transients, whatever, get in them and they have a fire that may escape," he said. "There's always an off-chance that an old structure could fall or we could have one of our little earth shakers."

While 10 of the 20 points of the tour focus on the torn-down buildings, the other 10 feature feats of engineering or views of the road itself.

There's Swede's Cut — that's where the road cuts through the mountain. It's the only place that power equipment was used to build the Ridge Route. Granite Gate, a sandstone — not granite — rock, sits at the edge of the cliff.

At another point, I-5, old Highway 99 and the Ridge Route can be seen at once. At each spot, there's another story to tell and Jack and Sidney know just about all of them. Their willingness to share their enthusiasm for the Ridge Route is limitless. Well, almost limitless.

"We don't do it in the dead of winter or in the rain," Jack said. "But other than that, we'll go anytime people want to go."

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