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

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