Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Inyo’s Trans-Sierra Highways

Around 15 years ago, according to local legend, a semi-truck and trailer headed up Bishop Creek Canyon.   Undeterred by the fact his two lane highway reduced to one lane, the drive continued all the way to the Lake Sabrina Parking lot and was no doubt shocked to find out the road did not continue to Fresno.  He reportedly had to wait until the parking lot emptied before he could turn his rig around and retreat back down the mountain. Numerous tourists have been similarly misled over the years by maps showing the non-existent road.
The effort to breach the granite wall goes back nearly 100 years.  Three trans-Sierra highways were proposed in Inyo County: out of Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine. These roads were not just a local aspiration, but rather part of a much bigger picture.

At the time, Henry Ford began mass production of an affordable automobile.   Americans were soon on the move and the pace of road development surged. Roads were being improved and assembled into highways.  Those highways were getting ready to link East and West coasts via the developing transcontinental Lincoln Highway.  Competition was fierce in California for the anticipated flood of travelers, and it looked like that flood was going to sweep through Reno to San Francisco passing up businesses in the San Joaquin Valley to the south, and those businesses couldn’t let that happen.

Great effort was being expended to lure travelers to the Eastern Sierra with the promise of superior driving conditions in the winter. After making it to the Owens Valley, trans-Sierra highways would do the rest.  Their development was key to San Joaquin Valley’s economic growth.  And the people of Owens Valley were more than happy to leverage that desire to help breach the granite wall.

1915  Bishop Creek Canyon. 

In the summer of 1920, Bishop began looking for a trans-Sierra route and found “Piute” Pass, as it was spelled in those days.   To determine the feasibility of constructing this road, a reconnaissance trip was financed and assembled by the Bishop Chamber of Commerce.  A local pack outfit carried a highway engineer, a few prominent business people, a local service station owner L.A. Hazard, and W.G. Scott a tireless promoter of road development who was in the midst of promoting “El Camino Sierra,” later to become Highway 395.

After the trip, Hazard told a local reporter, “It is really hard to understand why a road has not been built...before now.”  Mr. Scott elaborated saying no engineering difficulties would be found on the route and a road could “easily” be built. Citizens of Bishop reportedly considered its cost a small price to pay compared to the value of the investment. Newspaper accounts also suggested Fresno County would be more than happy to incur the cost since the result would lay the new transcontinental highway right at their doorstep.

Hazard, Scott, and the others envisioned a vehicle traveling through Bishop Creek Canyon, up to North Lake and up and over Piute Pass.  Over the crest , it would then connect to a proposed road to be built by Southern California Edison Power Company from Fresno to Florence Lake Reservoir, just a couple of dozen miles west of Piute Pass.

The proposed road had a name - High Sierra Piute Highway- and can actually be seen up on a 1927 map titled Map of the National Park-To-Park Highway.  Historical details are sketchy, but it seems a realistic cost evaluation never took place and a funding source was never identified. The dream slowly faded away.



To provide direct access to the developing Sequoia National Park, another trans-Sierra road was proposed in the early 1930’s.   The route, reportedly called the Cedar Grove to Independence Road, would travel from Independence up to Onion Valley and over Kearsarge Pass. From there it would drop down and head to Copper Creek, just 13 miles as the crow flies from the pass.   The road would then connect to State Highway 180 and the developing road system.

Historical information about the road is hazy, but its fate was clear:  Its future was tied to the trans-Sierra route to the south, the highway most likely to become reality.


On the skirts of the Sierra Nevada southwest of Lone Pine, a set of switchbacks stand as a monument to the unrelenting pursuit of a dream:  a 115 mile long 12-foot wide dirt road that would take travelers over the 11,300-foot crest of the Sierra, higher than Tioga pass, then deliver them to cities in the San Joaquin Valley. It was called the Lone Pine / Porterville Highway.

The idea surfaced around 1915 when the Automobile Club of Southern California proposed legislation that would create nearly 7,000 miles of new roads, including the Lone Pine / Porterville Highway.   Legislation was approved and the highway became a part of the state highway system on paper.  It just needed to be built.

That effort got underway in the summer of 1923 as the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce coordinated a four-day inspection tour of the region.  Mules and horses carried representatives of the Automobile Club and prominent civic leaders from the San Joaquin Valley and Owens Valley into the backcountry.  A preliminary route was established and Tulare County officials soon passed a resolution calling for the coordination of county, state and federal resources.

The size of the project exploded.  By 1926, Kern County joined forces with Inyo and Tulare counties to send representatives on a larger 10 day wide-ranging reconnaissance. As a result, the single highway would now branch out to Bakersfield, Fresno, and Visalia. The grand plan included a lateral road to the base of Mount Whitney.

That same year, the Los Angeles Times’ “Automobile Section” reported that the “million dollar road” running over the roof of the United States (the Sierra) should be ready for service “shortly” according to “definite” plans which have been drafted by State, County, and City officials.  And true to the article, road construction shortly began.

1929 marked the completion of the first link. Vehicles could now travel from Porterville to Camp Nelson, 30 miles into the High Sierra.  An official dedication took place on July 3, 1931 with great fanfare and included State and county chambers of Commerce, the Forest Service, California Auto Club, and civic leaders from all over the region. Representatives from the National Park Service were there as well, which was not without irony.

Early 1930's construction of the
 Lone Pine / Porterville Highway
A few years later, Owens Valley citizens started building their part of the highway.  A gas/electric shovel began cutting switchbacks into the Sierra southwest of Lone Pine.  Even though funding for the entire project had yet to be realized, residents of the Valley felt it was a prudent investment of time and money since it would open up a new recreation area around Horseshoe Meadows. 

After the links were built, there was still a 47-mile gap to close and Auto Club engineers estimated the price tag to be around $800,000.  It was hoped this figure would make it into the upcoming 1935-37 highway budget.   But the State Highway Commission required an official engineering survey, and money for that wasn’t even close to being budgeted.  Money for construction seemed a long way off, and the promoters were running out of time.
Sequoia National Park had been growing steadily for four decades along with its network of roads.   Park Superintendent Colonel John White came to believe preserving roadless areas was a moral responsibility.  The Park’s priorities changed and the grand plans for roads began to crumble.  The Parks elaborate high elevation road called Sierra Way was killed; the Cedar Grove to Independence Road was permanently halted; and the dream of a million dollar Lone Pine / Porterville Highway vanished... or so they thought.

In 1966, a version of the Lone Pine / Porterville Road came back to life.  The new vision was an unbroken highway from Death Valley to Olancha, and over the Sierra to Porterville.  State Route 190 would be a continuous route spanning the wonders of California through pristine deserts, over cool high alpine meadows of the Sierra, and down to the pastoral flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley.

The California Highway Commission adopted a plan to bridge the 47 mile mountain gap between Horseshoe Meadows and the west side of the Sierra.  According to the 1966 March/April edition of the California Highways and Public Works Journal, the highway would pass between two wilderness areas, a corridor created specifically for this road.  It was promised the road would not  impact the wilderness experience “…even after the far-off day when the highway is finished.”  That far off day has yet to be realized.


The dreams of the day were grand.  There was talk of enhancing the trans-Sierra experience by diverting creeks to create manmade waterfalls; a ski resort was proposed for Onion Valley out of Independence; an aerial tramway was envisioned to the top of Mount Whitney.  What would the Owens Valley look like had these roads been built...what if?
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