Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Bumpy Road to El Camino Sierra

Inyo Good Road Club assembled in front of Istalia Hotel in Bishop
 for the dedication of El Camino Sierra, August 31, 1910.
Courtesy Virtual Transportation Museum (Eastern California Museum)
On June 25, 1914 Silas Christofferson conquered Mount Whitney with a record breaking aeroplane flight over its summit, and the Inyo Good Road Club wasted no time announcing it to the world.  It may have been a triumph for aviation, but it was all about roads.

At the time, the Inyo Good Road Club was in its fourth year desperately trying get the attention of the State of California who had millions of dollars in road funds. The Club was trying to fund the construction of a modern highway connecting the Eastern Sierra to the State and the Nation.  It was a long hard slog.

In 1909, the numbers of automobiles were growing exponentially in California spurring lawmakers to call for a vote on an 18 million dollar road bond during the November 1910 election. Its passage was not a sure thing.  Local merchants and residents were desperate to build good roads and didn’t wait for the election.  They created the Inyo Good Road Club, one of many Good Road Clubs across the nation, and one of the most active

Born on April 20, 1910, the Club began with 62 enthusiastic members and one especially gifted man – Secretary of the Club Winsor Gillette Scott. He needed a promotional hook, a concept for which an entire campaign could be centered. He coined the name El Camino Sierra which loosely translated means Mountain Highway, a fanciful name for a road that did not exist.

Wagon trails, and a few roads referred to as “two ruts in the sand,” were scattered between Los Angeles and Tahoe.   Scott’s vision was to connect these trails and turn them into a first class modern highway.  The Club was determined to give tourists and their dollars an easy journey.  Southern California residents were already making trips to the Owens River Valley for its scenic wonders, despite great effort.  So began the quest for El Camino Sierra.

W.G. Scott and the Club began by inviting the Governor of California to become a member and then immediately organized citizens into “Road Bees.”  With picks and shovels they began to improve the road between Big Pine and Bishop to catch the eye of the top man in Sacramento, and it worked.

In a letter to the Club, Governor James Gillett accepted the honorary membership, saying “I have watched with great interest, the action taken by the people in one county for good roads and I want to compliment them for doing so.  The Question of good roads is one of the most important that our state now had before it...”

Sensing momentum, the Club invited the governor to preside over the ceremonial dedication of El Camino Sierra at a single 1.25 miles stretch of modern road in front of Fred Eaton’s huge chicken farm near Big Pine. Scott combined that with the Railroad Day Celebration marking the just completed railroad from Mojave to Lone Pine.  Long shots rarely hit their mark...this one did. They were about to get a visit from the governor of California.

During his August visit, Governor Gillette enjoyed lavish ceremonies in every town from Lone Pine to Mammoth where local fruits, vegetables, and mountain fish were served.   Elegant orations painted an extraordinary picture of El Camino Sierra’s powerful impact on California’s burgeoning tourist industry. The State would not just attract the nation, but the world. After the visit, the governor had nothing be great praise for the region. The roads dollars seemed assured, but the vote had yet to take place.

The crucial November 1910 election came and the bond issue passed with great celebration.  But the victory was bittersweet.  For their greatest ally, the governor of California was also up for re-election, and he lost.     

Starting over, 1911 began with W.G. Scott taking the Club’s official car on an unrelenting lobbying tour to convince legislative committees, commissions, county seats, and public & private organizations of the benefits of El Camino Sierra to the State of California.

Hope began to arise when Highway Commission engineers began visiting all corners of the State to lay the groundwork for the new California Highway System.  All the regions would be visited with one glaring omission, the Eastern Sierra.

Undaunted, in the summer of 1912 W.G. Scott began a new promotion to capitalize on the building excitement of the San Francisco World’s Fair. Pasear les Tres Camino would be a grand tour from San Francisco to Tahoe through Bridgeport and the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.  Of course the road had to be built first, and that was the whole idea.

Scott’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon newspapers, publications and travel related organizations, even noted American novelist Peter B Kyne began singing the praises of El Camino Sierra. Still, road funds eluded them.

A year later in 1913, something began heading to the west coast, the unprecedented Transcontinental Lincoln Highway.  The National Hoosier Trail Tour group was exploring two possible routes from the east coast to San Francisco:  one though Reno, NV, and the other along the Midland Trail which crossed over Westguard Pass and would connect to El Camino Sierra at Big Pine.

Members of the group, including A.L. Westgard, Vice President and Director of the National Highways Association, broke from the main group to attend festivities in Goldfield and Big Pine who were celebrating their tour. (The Club named the pass after Mr. Westgard to garner his favor in getting the Lincoln Highway). To memorialize the connection of the new El Camino Sierra to the Midland Trail, they planted a Giant Sequoia tree at what is now the corner of US 395 and SR 168.  Westgard championed the cause and lobbied heavily for the Midland Trail proclaiming it’s “...commanding advantage as a transcontinental route.”

 As a result of the tour, the National Lincoln Association chose the Midland Trail as the preferred route for the Lincoln Highway. Influential supporters, including the Fresno Chamber, supported the route, but once again success eluded them. Everyone was out lobbied by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce.  On October 31, 1913 Reno, NV got the Lincoln highway.   

Despite the tireless work of Scott and the Club, the Eastern Sierra was a forgotten land. After 4 years, bond money to build El Camino Sierra still eluded them.  But the Club’s greatest publicity stunt was about to take place.

The Inyo Good Road Club signed a contract with the premier aviator of the time, Silas Christofferson, to be the first pilot in history fly over Mount Whitney. It would be a celebration not only of aviation, but of Exposition Way, a newly named portion of El Camino Sierra through the Owens valley which would be a “natural choice” to reach the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco, the World’s Fair. The Club  sought to capitalize on the confluence of national and world events, including the fact Henry Ford was about to ramp up his groundbreaking automobile assembly line and begin cranking out millions of cars.

The largest concentration of people the Owens River Valley had ever seen gathered, hoping to become a part of aviation history.  They were not disappointed. On June 25, 1914 Silas flew over Whitney breaking an American altitude record, and the eyes of the nation were on Inyo County.  But could they capitalize on it.

A few months later the Club received word that the California Highway Commission was planning to visit the Eastern Sierra centering on El Camino Sierra.    Immediately, residents of the Eastern Sierra rallied into “road bees” and again took to the roads with picks and shovels to show citizen commitment to the cause. The Club had been here before.

But this time the State highway engineer himself came to the forgotten land.  He and other State officials were deeply impressed, impressed enough that orders soon came down from Sacramento. On October 28, 1914 the commission approved State Highways funds for Inyo and Mono counties. 

But there was a hitch, financial institutions were wary of California’s ability to repay bond holders. As a result, only 4 million of the 18 million dollars in bonds were sold.  So California counties had to buy the rest of the bonds:  Inyo’s share was $50,000 and Mono was $100,000. 

El Camino Sierra’s day had finally come.  The money arrived and work began on a section of road called Sherwin Hill, a stretch of road wholly inadequate for the modern automobile and critical to the connection of the two counties.  And so, on October 4, 1915, work quietly began on El Camino Sierra. 

It took until August 24, 1916 to complete Sherwin hill, and the trip from Bishop to Mammoth could now called “...a pleasant 2.5 hour drive...”  The following month, a celebration took place on the “hill” attracting over 1,000 people.  But the dream of a modern highway from Los Angeles through the Owens Valley was not truly realized until 15 years later. 

A story titled “Closing the East-of-the-Sierras Gap” was published in the March 1931 issue of the Journal of California Highway and Public Works.   It marked the completion of a modern thoroughfare from Los Angeles through the Owens River Valley to Sherwin Hill. But this final chapter in the life of El Camino Sierra is not without irony.  With nearly two decades of blood sweat and tears by the Inyo Good Road Club, W.G Scott, and residents of the Eastern Sierra, they saw the celebration take place not in the Owens Valley, but 60 miles to the south in Red Rock Canyon.
The name El Camino Sierra successfully brought attention to the need for good roads in the Eastern Sierra; the image of a high mountain road had served its purpose. Over time though, the use of the name faded away as most of the route was actually on flat desert land.  But every so often, a tour through the Sierra will be organized, and will be lovingly referred to as El Camino Sierra.

Copyright © 2014 Theodore Grant Williams. All Rights Reserved
For images, visit Eastern California Museum's Virtual Transportation Museum

First Aeroplane over Mount Whitney

Silas Christofferson tuning up his tractor biplane in Lone Pine before attempting to
break the American altitude record by flying over Mt. Whitney
Courtesy Virtual Transportation Museum (Eastern California Museum)

100 years ago, on June 25th 1914 Silas Christofferson landed his fragile wood and cloth flying machine to a cheering throng and flying hats;  Mount Whitney had been “conquered,” a term often used in headlines representing turn-of-the-century hubris.  That said the achievement was remarkable since 11 years earlier the Wright Brothers had just lifted off the flat ground at Kitty Hawk.  In reality, both man and machine were severely tested, and pushed the limits of what heavier-than-air craft could do at the time.

Born in 1890, a teenage Silas displayed his genius for invention and mechanical design. By 1913 he started a flying school and soon began building aircraft.  Feeling his duty to promote, through exhibitions, the viability of this new technology, he  flew off roof of the 10 story Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Oregon; Silas was quoted as saying, “This is an age of ‘do it first’. Be original; don’t copy.  When a feat has been once performed the people tire of it and expect the next performer to give something entirely new.”  By 1914 his company built a flying boat and offered regular service in San Francisco.  He was only 24 years old.

This was just the man a local “club” was looking for.  The “club” needed him, and easily convinced him to sign a contract to be the star attraction of Eastern Sierra Aviation Days and make an unprecedented attempt to fly over the highest peak in the continental US.   Silas would be paid $1,000 for an attempt, $2,000 should he succeed.  Silas couldn’t resist and got to work on his latest creation.

The aircraft was called “The Whitney Plane”, created specifically for this attempt.  The design was state of the art with construction methods unmatched at the time. The plans were sent to Curtis Aircraft for the plane’s assembly at a cost of $7,000.  Oddly, his design bore an uncanny resemblance to the future classic “Curtiss Jennie”.  After completion, the aeroplane was disassembled and transported to Bishop. 
On the weekend of June 20th, after reassembly and meticulous testing, Silas began his exhibition flights at the Bishop Driving Field to kick off Aviation Days.  It was a weekend of celebration with dances, bands, races and baseball games. People came by auto, buggy, horse, and foot to join what soon would become the largest gathering of people the Owens Valley had ever seen.  

Monday June 22nd - the ultimate fulfillment of his contract was about to begin.  Festivities behind him, Silas spent the day in Bishop going over the aircrafts entire structure and fine tuning its engine.  Little did he know nature was to severely test him and his machine.  Silas would be the world’s first pilot to encounter the infamous Sierra Wave. The north-south Sierra Nevada crest thrusts nearly 2 miles in to the atmosphere and sometimes forces upper level westerly winds up and over Owens Valley creating exquisite lenticular cloud formations.  But its beauty hides malevolent winds that violently curl over the crest and crash down into the Valley. 

Silas and photographer E.C. Wallen took off from Bishop Early Tuesday morning for a leisurely flight to a local ranch south of Bishop for a quick breakfast and gas.  Pilot, passenger and plane filled up they resumed their 65 mile flight to Lone Pine, a small town near the foot of Mounty Whitney.
With Just 20 miles to go, all was fine. Silas leaned forward to check his instruments when a violent downdraft smashed into the aircraft throwing the wings to a vertical, nearly perpendicular angle to the ground.  He began plummeting hundreds of feet. The aviator forced his control stick as far as it would go but the machine failed to respond; he continued to fall from the sky.  Silas recalls, ”A man is as dead if he falls 500’or 5,000’, but being up gives him a chance to right himself if possible,”  and that proved to be the case as he eventually regained control.  Shaken, he landed in a field to check for damage and found nothing obvious, so he continued his flight and landed without incident in Lone Pine to get ready for the next day’s attempt at Whitney.

It was Wednesday morning and Silas woke up to howling winds.  Never-the-less he made the attempt.  The first launch was aborted...the second attempt, aborted.  Waiting until early evening, he made a third attempt. This time he was able to take off and headed north towards Independence ironically towards the same spot he was nearly slapped out of the sky by downslope winds. Again, he encountered strong winds and abandoned the attempt at Whitney until the next day.

Early Thursday morning June 25th, the winds had died down considerably, at least on the ground.  Silas dared attempt.  His wood and cloth aircraft took off and began climbing above Lone Pine.  His propeller and engine, giving it all they could, took him to 13,400 above sea level.  With just 1,000 feet more he would reach his target elevation before heading towards Whitney... but he once again encountered strong winds.  That plus a lack of performance from his custom high altitude propeller sent him back down to the landing field.   Silas replaced the propeller with the one he used in Bishop, and removed the motion picture camera because of weight.
His second attempt was around 8:30am. To avoid the turbulent winds that seemed to haunt the mountains near Independence, Silas headed south towards Owens Lake. From there he pivoted north, gaining altitude.  Before him stood Whitney and he headed directly towards it.  To record the historic event from the summit, the famous photographer B.C. Forbes took to the Whitney trail with his camera; unfortunately the camera was destroyed when his mule slipped and crushed his equipment.    Silas was feeling great anticipation at the thought of seeing the Great Central Valley of California, but all he saw was row after row of granite peaks as far as the eye could see.
As observers with telescopes and field glasses watched from the Owens Valley floor, and with the terrifying winds still fresh in his mind, Silas aimed his craft towards peak.  He was just 200 feet away and 800’ above the summit.  Still gaining altitude he circled the summit until he reached 1,200’ above the peak.   The craft nosed up a final few feet and there he was- aloft at 15,728 feet, a new American altitude record.  Silas had “conquered” Mount Whitney.

Silas wasted no time and made a bee-line to the valley floor, landing without incident.  Tears from the cold, wind, and emotions from the flight covered his cheeks.  Surrounding his aeroplane a cheering crowd grabbed and hoisted the aviator to their shoulders and delivered him to his wife.  With excitement and relief, Edna greeted him with hugs and a kiss.

The achievement was immediately announced to the world, but not by the hand of Silas.  It was W. Gillette Scott, executive secretary of the Inyo Good Road Club who sent a telegram to all Western Highway Associations and to A.L Westgard, vice-president of the National Highway Association in New York.:

    “Inyo Good Road Club this morning 9 a.m. achieved national prominence by sending Silas Christofferson in a tractor biplane over Mt. Whitney to a height of 15,728 feet, more than 1,226 above the summit, breaking all American records for altitude.”
The real reason for the achievement was apparent... this “club” was looking to secure road funds by impressing state officials of the need for a first class year-around overland automobile route through the Owens Valley.  The real trophy was the Transcontinental Lincoln Highway, the ultimate prize for development of roadside commerce.  It was all a publicity stunt...but that is another story.

Copyright © 2014 Theodore Grant Williams. All Rights Reserved

For images , visit the Eastern California Museum's Virtual Transportation Museum