Between Los Angeles and Bakersfield lies a...
Between Los Angeles and Bakersfield lies a stretch of Interstate 5 called the Grapevine. Most motorists believe the eight-lane freeway earned its name for the many curves it makes as it winds through the Tehachapi Mountains.
But few know of the real grapevines entwined in its history. Almost two centuries ago, Don Pedro Fages, a Spanish army lieutenant, noticed the abundance of Cimarron grapes growing wild in an area north of what is now Gorman and named the place Canada de las Uvas, or Grapevine Canyon. Don Pedro knew the area well, having long chased deserters through the rugged canyon at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Wild grapes still grow in the area.
The Interstate 5 Grapevine is about 12 miles of road that has its origin in three earlier highways.
The first was a series of narrow footpaths used by Indians and later followed by the Spanish. The paths headed west from Newhall along the San Andreas Fault to Gorman, and north over the Tejon Summit.
In 1859, entrepreneurs widened the roadway to accommodate stagecoaches and freight wagons. Today, only a piece of this trail remains, beside the old Sierra Highway in Newhall.
Fifty years later, California engineers began planning a route that would shave 44 miles from the trip between Newhall and Gorman.
In 1915, the Ridge Route was opened, becoming the first major highway connecting Los Angeles with the San Joaquin Valley. The road was a narrow ribbon of concrete with steep grades and 642 curves along the ridge top that stretched 39 miles through the Angeles National Forest.
It was hailed as a $3-million miracle of modern engineering, providing safety and a maximum speed of 15 m.p.h. But four years later, the road was considered “potentially one of the most dangerous in the world” because of the tight curves, steep grades and sharp drop-offs on both sides.
During the Roaring ‘20s, the small town of Grapevine in Kern County began to develop. The town was the final resting spot before and after travelers tackled the steep mountain road. Rockslides, tumbleweeds and potholes made trips a bit rough.
Drivers had to be ready to contend with flat tires and carsick passengers. Many automobiles would overheat, and wise travelers toted along some water.
On hot summer days, truck drivers would set the automatic throttle on their rigs and stand outside the truck on the running board to catch the breeze.
After dark, headlights along the Ridge Route formed a continuous chain as cars and trucks pulled into way stations, garages and cafes. Only the foundations remain from some of those stops--the Tumble Inn, Queen Nell’s Castle, Martin’s Place.
One of the most remembered landmarks was the Sandberg Lodge, a three-story log cabin built just before the Ridge Route was opened. The cabin was the centerpiece of a town near Quail Lake, built by and named after cattle rancher Harold Sandberg. The tiny town’s amenities included a gas station and stables. The lodge had a dance floor, a few slot machines and a roulette wheel. The rancher was the town’s postmaster, and he also ran “the crib,” a brothel behind the cabin.
The town of Sandberg went into decline around 1933 when the Ridge Route was replaced by the three-lane Highway 99. But the community attracted attention in 1944 when newspaper accounts labeled Sandberg a “hotbed for seditionists.” The FBI arrested a German mother and daughter for allegedly setting up a radio transmitter in the mountains and beaming military secrets to the Nazis during World War II.
All but one of Sandberg’s buildings--the crib--burned in a 1962 fire. The crib was later hauled off to another ranch down the road to be used as a bunkhouse. But, according to ranch hands, it is haunted by a bluish ghost who appears to be female.
In the 1950s, Highway 99 was widened to a four-lane expressway, and 347 curves were straightened, eliminating eight miles of roadway. Brake-check areas and ramps for stopping runaway vehicles were added. In the late 1960s, the road was rebuilt again, becoming Interstate 5.
In the spring, one of the state’s most colorful displays of California poppies is visible from the Grapevine. In 1991, environmental artist Christo lined the route with 1,760 yellow umbrellas. But the exhibit was quickly dismantled after one of the huge umbrellas blew down and killed a sightseer.
As for the town of Grapevine, in the early 1960s about two dozen townsfolk moved to nearby Lebec. Today, it’s just a truck stop with two gas stations, a restaurant and a few fast food places--only a mile from the remains of the town.