The Road Less Traveled : Nostalgia trip: Rural Sierra Highway to the high desert holds on proudly to its traditional eccentricity.


In a rapidly changing area filling up with mini-malls and housing tracts, the old Sierra Highway remains a stubborn throwback to the Santa Clarita Valley’s past.

“You get on it and it’s almost like flashbacks,” said J.J. O’Brien, a retired CHP officer who started patrolling the roadway in the 1950s. “It’s still the same old street.”

And what a street it was.

In its heyday--before the nearby Antelope Valley Freeway opened in 1963--Sierra Highway was the principal link between Los Angeles and the high desert. Then, the thoroughfare supported an odd assortment of bars, motels and restaurants--from Benny’s Beanery to Cliff’s Frog House--that lived off the motorists who braved the highway’s twists and turns.


Benny’s and Cliff’s are gone now, but many businesses survive, and Sierra Highway, like an old man set in his ways, refuses to change its rural and eccentric character.

“It does make you feel like you’ve gone back in history,” said Chris Trinkley, principal planner with the city of Santa Clarita.

“It’s very colorful,” said Irina Yarovoy, a real estate agent. “It’s very individual.”

Where else will you find, all along the same road, an oil refinery, a museum dedicated to honey, a gourmet French restaurant, a defunct theme park and a religious foundation headed by a self-proclaimed preacher wanted by the FBI who claims the Pope is a communist bent on world conquest? Farther up the road, a woman known as Mother Green built a village of stone buildings in the 1930s as a refuge for destitute families. Today, it’s a serene religious retreat.

Granted, the roadway still has its share of rattletrap businesses and homes. Many need a fresh coat of paint. But Sierra Highway exudes a diversity rarely found in Santa Clarita, where many housing tracts have as much personality as rows of dominoes.

Jerry Reynolds, a valley historian, summed up the road’s appeal: “The developers haven’t wrecked it yet.”

Sierra Highway begins where it intersects with San Fernando Road, near the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, and continues to Palmdale 40 miles away to the northeast before heading north through the Antelope Valley. Its story is best told through the people who traveled it:


Gene Kronnick, a real estate broker who has an office along the highway, was 9 years old when his family loaded up the car and made the long trek from their Los Angeles home to Saugus for a country picnic in 1925. They passed through the narrow Newhall Tunnel--only 17 1/2 feet wide and longer than a football field--that was cut through the mountains in 1910 to connect the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.

By the late 1930s, more than 3,000 cars drove the tunnel each hour. The heavy traffic prompted engineers to replace the tunnel with a broad pass through the mountains in 1939.

But back in the days of the Kronnick family’s picnic, traffic was still sparse and roadside businesses rare, said Kronnick, 73. One of the few landmarks was a gas station built in 1915 now occupied by Le Chene French Cuisine, a gourmet restaurant. “There literally wasn’t anything else out there,” he recalled. “Maybe a stray house some place.”

As the Kronnick family neared the gas station, the young Gene Kronnick warned his father that the car was starting to feel hot. “It’s those pies,” his father replied, referring to desserts baked for the picnic.

“Dad, I think our car’s on fire.”

They didn’t believe him until they saw the flames.

The car limped to the gas station, but it burned up anyway. “It was kind of a dead loss,” Kronnick said.

Today, few people can get into Le Chene without a

reservation and locals hail it as one of the best restaurants in Southern California. It was a pool hall and biker bar until Juan Alonso bought the building and converted it into Le Chene nine years ago.


“It was a tough joint,” Alonso said. “Everybody thought I was crazy. Sierra Highway was still pretty dead.”

The building has had quite a life, he said. There’s a cellar and Alonso wonders if it was used to stash booze during Prohibition. A few old-timers recalled--though not for attribution--when the building was a brothel. “It’s true,” said one highway resident. “I didn’t say it, but it was.”

On Christmas Eve, 1931, two brothers from Acton, John and Fred Off, commemorated the memory of their mother, Mary Off, by donating 40 acres beside Sierra Highway to a Christian organization run by Arglee Green, a social worker most folks knew simply as Mother Green.

On a windy hill overlooking the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, Green established the Christ Faith Mission Mountain Home, a complex of stone buildings built with the help of the indigent families who found refuge there.

Green died in 1964 and today her picturesque stone village is rented out as a religious retreat, said Viola Hoover, manager of the mission.

Large estate homes have popped up near the mission, but its caretaker, 70-year-old Robert Larson, said the complex hasn’t changed much over the years. That’s part of its appeal to church groups that seek out its calm and peaceful atmosphere. Hoover said there’s more than enough business. “I have to turn a lot of it down.”


For years, Sierra Highway was a bloody alley, notorious for head-on collisions caused by speeders passing slower traffic. “This was three lanes,” recalled O’Brien, while recently driving a stretch of road now improved to four lanes. “One up, one down, one suicide.”

Often clogged with vacationers headed for the Sierra Nevada on holidays, Sierra Highway was well known for “Boiling Point,” a hill where many radiators blew their stacks after a tedious climb. Traffic would back up for miles.

For highway patrol officers, speeders were the greatest problem, O’Brien said. One officer, determined to pounce upon the lead-footers without warning, would hide his motorcycle behind two large tumbleweeds, he said.

It was a Sierra Highway speeder who, on a cold November day in 1960, contributed to the worst accident in O’Brien’s 28-year career.

O’Brien, atop a Harley Davidson, was chasing the speeder down Cement Hill when his motorcycle began to wobble at 90 m.p.h. “I knew I was going down,” he said. “I had no choice.”

According to witnesses who described the fall to him, O’Brien tumbled 265 feet, most of it bouncing along on his head. “I didn’t think I would ever stop tumbling,” he said. “The road just kept coming.”


When a dazed O’Brien finally stopped rolling, a man rushed up holding out the officer’s battered gun. O’Brien has never forgotten the man’s words: “I think this is yours.”

O’Brien recovered from his injuries and returned to patrol the highway.

After the first leg of the Antelope Valley Freeway opened on Aug. 23, 1963, traffic disappeared from Sierra Highway. Kronnick, who by then had his own real estate office along the road, said traffic was so rare he “could have gone out my door and crossed the street blindfolded.”

Businesses withered away. Cliff’s, where frog legs were the house specialty, closed up shop. Wilson’s, a 24-hour cafe and local institution, was sold to the Holy Alamo Christian Church, whose founder, Tony Alamo, is wanted by the FBI on child abuse charges.

Neighbors call the foundation an embarrassment and critics have branded it a religious cult that brainwashes its members with outrageous conspiracy theories. A church pamphlet once charged that a cabal of Catholic international bankers had placed specially trained agents in the media and government to help the bankers “control everyone in the world.”

Perhaps the most unexpected sight along the highway is Callahan’s Old West, a replica of a frontier town that catered to tourists who stumbled across the place from 1965 to 1973.

It was started by Robert Callahan, a writer, impresario and shrewd businessman obsessed with the history of Indians and the Old West. A compulsive collector, he saved everything, including 20,000 horseshoes and 500 wagon wheels. He was tough, too. He was hit by a train in 1965 but survived in poor health until his death in 1981.


In keeping with Sierra Highway’s quirky character, strange things happened at Callahan’s--like the time visitors stole a 300-pound anvil. Marion C. Callahan, the showman’s widow, said she will never figure out how the thieves did it in broad daylight.

Then, there was the leader of an obscure, all-female band who insisted the group would draw big crowds to the theme park. When Marion Callahan questioned the band’s appeal, the leader replied: “Honey, I’m in a topless girl band.”

Callahan’s is more ghost town than frontier town these days. Marion Callahan rents out the village as a location site for movies, but on most days the park is deserted.

She keeps it partly for sentimental reasons. After her husband’s accident, one of his few pleasures was spending the day at Callahan’s, where, seated in a throne chair, he would regale listeners with stories about Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok. “It gave him an interest,” she said.

The only regular tenant at Callahan’s is the Canyon Theatre Guild, a 20-year-old community theater that began producing plays there four years ago.

The 170-seat theater had fallen into disrepair and it took the guild a few years to clean up the building--and to fix the heat. “The first couple of seasons, the actors and the patrons both froze,” said Ben Boydston, president of the guild and director of the troupe’s current production of “A Christmas Carol.”


The guild once staged a play set in a Malibu beach house and, for authenticity, included a thermometer in the decor. Unfortunately, it registered 58 degrees. The heat works fine now, but in the past “our patrons began to dress appropriately,” Boydston said.

The theater guild couldn’t survive in urban Santa Clarita, where rents are high, Boydston said. But aside from cheap rent, the theater’s remote location brings other benefits, he said. Stars fill the dark sky at night and snow sometimes falls there in winter.

“It just feels like the country out here,” he said.

Will Sierra Highway change like the rest of the Santa Clarita Valley? Yes and no, say real estate agents and planners for Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County.

Most of the highway is zoned for low-density housing and probably will remain that way, planners say. A lack of water and rough hills flanking much of the roadway prevent large-scale building, they add. Angeles National Forest to the north also provides a natural barrier that will confine growth.

Jack Williams, a real estate broker, said custom-made estate homes on large lots, not suburban housing tracts, are the probable additions to the Sierra Highway landscape in the future. Some such homes are already built and others are on the way, he said.

The only certainty the future holds is traffic--lots of it. Each day, more and more motorists charge along the highway, recalling the time O’Brien chased the speeder down Cement Hill.


“It’s horrible,” Viola Hoover said. “It’s like it used to be before the freeway went through.”

The Antelope Valley Freeway, which for years proved to be a fast alternative to Sierra Highway, is now so jammed with commuters that many drivers are switching to the older route.

“Everybody’s found out they can get to work faster on Sierra Highway,” said Margleen (Honeybee) Jordon, who manages the Warmuth Honey House.

“We’ve had more horror stories from citizens,” said Sgt. Jack Barnes of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Near-collisions at intersections and wild passes on the right are just some of the problems on the highway, he said.

A crackdown by officers lowered speeds somewhat this year, but the volume of traffic will remain, Barnes said. “It’s going to pick up more.”

If Jim Davis has his way, Sierra Highway will stay the way it is. Davis is the latest owner of the Half-way House Cafe, a tiny eatery built in 1931 that has been used as a backdrop in countless movies and television shows. Directors from John Huston to Clint Eastwood have worked there.


Davis doesn’t advertise, but location scouts know all about his place. “When someone says, ‘We need an old cafe on an old two-lane highway,’ the first thing that comes to mind is the old Half-way House Cafe,” he said.

A steady stream of film crews--six projects have been shot there since Davis purchased the restaurant a year ago--pours extra cash into the cafe’s coffers. “It keeps us from closing the doors,” he said.

Davis hopes the film crews keep coming back. If they want atmosphere, he intends to have it there, along the Sierra Highway, waiting for them. “I never want to see that place torn down,” he said.