You are driving to Big Bear Lake for the weekend. The year is 1928. You live in Los Angeles, home to slightly more than 1 million people. You are a bright young real estate salesman, and when one of your bosses invites you to his roomy cabin for a two-day house party, you jump at the chance.
Now you need a car. Let us say your rich Aunt Hazel suddenly announces she has too many automobiles cluttering up the driveway of her Beverly Hills estate, and lends you her 1925 Duesenberg--which has room for your date (the tall, pretty redhead three desks over in the office), a chaperon (her mother) and plenty of luggage.
But what route from L.A. to San Bernardino? You remember reading an article titled “The Arrow Highway--a New Master Road” in the February 1927 Touring Topics, a publication of the Automobile Club of Southern California. It explained that the new highway should relieve some of the traffic congestion along Foothill and Valley boulevards for travelers between the two cities.
The story described Arrow Highway as “one of the roadways destined to play an important part in Southern California progress.” The route had been planned to be “a straight and direct line 100 feet wide and paved at least 40 feet wide.”
Arrow Highway it will be. It will carry you swiftly to San Bernardino and the mountain road that winds north to Big Bear Lake.
We interrupt this fantasy to put the construction and improvement of Arrow Highway into a historic context. Running parallel to Foothill Boulevard and, along most of its length, a couple of miles south of it, Arrow Highway enjoyed scarcely a quarter-century of real importance as a “high-speed” regional travel route. Possibly the earliest mention of Arrow Highway (also sometimes referred to as Arrow Route) was in the April 1925 issue of Southern California Business.
In the late ‘20s, Arrow Highway left the populated western San Gabriel Valley along Las Tunas Drive in Temple City and emerged quickly into open country, where it bridged the wide, rocky bed of the San Gabriel River into Irwindale. It continued through Covina, Charter Oak and San Dimas, though Claremont and then across the Los Angeles-San Bernardino County line in Upland, then to Cucamonga, Fontana, Rialto and, finally, the San Bernardino city limits. Once in town, travelers could drive north on Arrowhead Avenue or Sierra Way to the mountain road to Big Bear Lake.
Across the eastern San Gabriel Valley, motorists were treated to the sight--and scent--of vast groves of citrus trees. Through a gap between the San Jose Hills and the San Gabriel Mountains in San Dimas, the highway passed into the drier region beyond the coastal zone. In those days, the area just east of Pomona was renowned for its vineyards. Wineries were found all around present-day Rancho Cucamonga. Along parts of the road, long rows of eucalyptuses had been planted for windbreaks. It was a country road passing through scattered hamlets.
By the ‘50s, a growing web of true freeways had begun spreading out from Greater Los Angeles, and the building of the San Bernardino Freeway from 1943 to 1957 relegated Arrow Highway to secondary status. Even in its heyday, it never achieved quite the fame of Route 66 (generally Foothill Boulevard locally), a federal highway that led all the way to Chicago.
For most L.A.-to-San Bernardino auto travelers today, Arrow Highway is just the name of an offramp from the Foothill Freeway (210) in San Dimas. East county residents are familiar with it as a busy business corridor lined with service stations, automobile dealerships, real estate offices and fast-food outlets--a far cry from its more pastoral state of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
The Southern California car culture we see today was triggered by several events.
From 1920 to 1930, the population of Los Angeles County grew from slightly under 1 million to 2.2 million. By 1925, the city of Los Angeles had twice the national average of automobiles per capita, about one car or truck for every three people. The number of private autos in the county quintupled during the decade, to 806,264. Also in the ‘20s, generous oil reserves were struck in Southern California. The timing could not have been better for the auto industry and for road building.
Highway construction in California had proceeded fitfully until the ‘20s, when the Legislature finally got serious on the subject. The 1921 Legislature created the Department of Public Works, including the Division of Highways. In 1923 legislators passed California’s first gasoline tax to fund highways. (Oregon’s gas tax, enacted in 1919, had been the first in the country.)
Revenue from the 2-cents-per-gallon California tax was divided between the state and the counties for highway building and improvements. As more cars and trucks hit the roads, the pace of highway construction accelerated with the passage of the Breed Bill in 1927, adding a penny to the gas tax.
Arrow Highway--in its planning, construction and improvement--was an outgrowth of these trends and events.
Duesenbergs (as in our daydream) were built between 1920 and 1937, generating a long-used slang term for anything beautifully made--"a Duesy” or “doozy.” The Standard Catalog of American Cars says: “If but one of all the automobiles ever built in America had to be singled out as the most glorious achievement in this country’s automotive history, that car would have to be the Duesenberg.” It was “more than a status symbol; it was status pure and simple, whether the owner was a maharajah, movie star, politician, robber baron, gangster or evangelist.”
A 1926 article in The Times grandly invoked every American’s right to “the pursuit of happiness” and posed the question: “How can one pursue happiness by any swifter and surer means . . . than by use of the automobile?”
Speaking of happiness, let us return to our vision of 1928: Your 1925 Duesenberg has white-sidewall tires (with matching spares mounted forward of the passenger doors on both running boards) and wire-spoke wheels. The body is painted red, the roof white. The luxurious interior is distinguished by wood paneling and leather upholstery. Duesenbergs sported several types of hood ornaments through the years, but yours is crowned with one--about the size of a typical bowling trophy--depicting a large bird with outstretched wings.
All is right with the world. You have a great weekend ahead in a picturesque cabin above the shoreline of the lake--bright-blue sky above, deep-blue water below, intoxicating pine-scented air. Your date is all smiles, her mother is clearly impressed with the Duesenberg, and straight, well-paved Arrow Highway has whisked you nearly 50 miles in a bit more than an hour.
Traveling a good road in a fine car--this is progress.
Steve Tice is a Times research librarian. He can be reached at email@example.com.