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The highways that exist today were once only trails created for transportation by early miners, cattlemen, soldiers and Indians who traveled up and down the valleys and over passes traveling between the many settlements that existed before the turn of the century. These paths were widened out to be used by wagons and later by horseless carriages. As the early automobiles became more prominent, the need for good roads was apparent. The old narrow, dusty in the summer, muddy in the winter, high centered, rutted roads just would not provide a suitable platform for the new gasoline runabouts.
In 1909, the state legislature called for an $18 million-dollar bond issue to be presented to the state's voters for the purpose of acquiring and construction a State Highway System. Governor James Gillett signed the act and the measure was scheduled to go to a vote of the people by the state to decide if they really wanted to have (and pay for) good roads.
On April 20, 1910 the Inyo Good Road Club was formally launched. The avowed purpose of the club included the building and maintenance of a first class thoroughfare across the desert to the south to the town of Mojave and to secure for this area a share of the State's $18,000,000 fund should it be voted. To show that their interest in roads was genuine the citizens of Big Pine and Bishop spent several days improving the 15 miles between the two towns. Their activities were recorded in the April 28, 1910 issue of the Inyo Register under the heading "Road Fixing"!
Just south of Big Pine, Fred Eaton owned a poultry ranch, which had often been described as the "greatest poultry farm in the United States." Mr. Eaton had personally built a wide stretch of model road running for about 1-1/4 miles in front of his ranch. In August 1910 Governor Gillette made a trip to the Eastern Sierra and during this trip ceremoniously unveiled a plaque proclaiming the highway "El Camino Sierra."
At the general election of November 1910 the highway bond passed by a slim margin showing that at the time the people of California were just a little on the fence, not exactly sure of what it was they wanted. The highway act of 1910 provided that the State highway system should be acquired and constructed by the State Department of Engineering. The routes selected were to be laid out to constitute a continuous and connected State highway system running north and south, traversing the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and along the coast by the most practical routes, connecting the several county seats and joining population centers. Together with such lateral roads as might be necessary to connect the north and south arterials with the county seats lying east and west of such highways, and also to connect with the chief transcontinetal routes entering California.
In December 1911, the California Highway Commission established seven division offices in different parts of the state, with each run by a division engineer. Included in the original State Highway System was El Camino Sierra from the Kern-Inyo County line in the south to Bridgeport in the north, a total distance of 220 miles. This area was placed under the Fresno office, Division VI, for administrative purposes. The portion of the El Camino Sierra from the Kern-Inyo County line to Los Angeles was part of the State highway system administered out of the Los Angeles office. The El Camino Sierra ended in Bridgeport, as there was not a State highway north from this point.
The first State highway construction project was Contract No. 1, July 23, 1912 for paving from south San Francisco to Burlingame. It was to be some time yet before the first State highway construction project would be underway east of the Sierras.
The first highway construction project in the eastern Sierra began on October 4, 1915 for road VI-Mno-23-A, a highway between the Inyo-Mono County line and Sherwin Hill, a distance of 5.8 miles. In order to continue on the much needed northerly descent from Sherwin Summit into Rock Creek, a new work order was issued on April 4, 1916 for an additional 4.8 miles. By June 1916 the grading and structures were essentially completed to Sherwin Summit and a penetration oil was placed on the surface. By August 1916 it was announced that the road was complete from Bishop to Mammoth, and was a pleasant jaunt of 2 1/2 hours covering a distance of about 50 miles.
On September 4, 1916, a ceremony celebrating the completion of the first section of the State highway built east of the Sierras. The Inyo Register printed, "A thousand people shared the pleasures of an outing on Rock Creek under a cloudless sky...celebration of first achievement in greatest undertaking for future development of all eastern California...work to continue"
California and its roadway grew exponentially. Bond measures to build more state roads were passed by the voters on almost a yearly basis. State highways were built over Tioga, Sonora, Ebbetts, and Wetgard Passes to connect to El Camino Sierra.
On October 11, 1923, State Highway Engineer R.M. Morton announced the formation of Division IX at Bishop to include the highways in Mono County, Inyo County and the eastern or desert portion of Kern County. The State highway mileage entrusted to the care of the new highway district totaled 458.7 desert and mountain miles. This mileage was gathered together from the original surveys and did not take into account the reduction of mileage made by construction line changes. No actual status of highways or running inventory were maintained, so this mileage is approximate. The original highway system in Division IX was as follows:
Most of the roads and highways in 1923 were nothing more than widened dirt wagon trails. In fact, U.S. Highway 395, even with its modern paving and many four-lane sections, still follows the general alignment of the old wagon trail and some Native American routes through most of Inyo and Mono counties. Over the years, highways were improved by paving and widening, and additional roads were taken into the highway system. It was not until 1960 that existing highways were widened and additional lanes were added to provide four-lane expressways on the main lifeline. Improvements continue to be made, and today U.S. Highway 395 is in the process of being almost completely four-lane from the Los Angeles area to Lee Vining.
On May 6, 1932 in Reno, Nevada, a new highway booster club came into being and was called The Three Flags Highway Association. A board of directors representing each of the states along the route was elected. By 1934 the Association was extremely active promoting tourism and advertising the highway along with its scenic and recreational attractions. They were also actively persuing a Federal Route number for the highway. Credit is due to this organization for assisting in obtaining road appropriations for construction.
In August 1933 new secondary roads were added to District IX. They were as follows:
1935 marked the formal designation of the Federal Routes symbolized by the placing of U.S. official route markers along the highway. The three U.S. routes in the District limits were U.S. 6 from Los Angles County line to Bishop and to the Nevada State line via Benton Station; U.S. 395 from the San Bernardino County line near Johannesburg to the Nevada State line via Inyokern, Bishop, Bridgeport, and Coleville; and U.S. 466 from near Tehachapi via Mojave to the San Bernardino County line at Boron. The markers were installed by the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Also during this year, the Inyo Register was full of the publicity for the Three Flags Highway Association and their successful endeavor to attract increasing numbers of tourists to the areas through which the highways traveled.
The State of Nevada completed its new highway over Mt. Montgomery and a formal dedication was held on October 6, 1935.
A special legislative session in 1947 was of special interest to District IX because of the inclusion of additional roads into the State highway system. These roads formed a continuous route through three counties starting at Route 23 near Freeman Junction and running east across Kern, San Bernardino and Inyo Counties to the Nevada State line near Pahrump. This route know as Route 212 (now called State Route 178) was an east continuation of the Walker Pass highway and as a whole comprised portions of the Cross Country Highway from Kingman, Arizona to Morro Bay, California.
Route 212 joins Route 23 three miles north of Freeman Junction, passes through Inyokern and Ridgecrest, skirts the Naval Ordinance Test Station (now China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station), follows through Salt Wells Canyon and comes to a temporary stop near the West End Chemical Company's plant. Continuing east over Searles Lakes, the Slate Range, through Panamint Valley, over Panamint Mountains and halfway through Death Valley there is no road. The Jubilee Pass road in Death Valley connects with the Salsbury Pass portion of Route 212 and drops into Shoshone and on to Nevada.
The gap of approximately 43 miles in the middle of Route 212 was not built for several reasons. The rugged terrain and the high cost for the small amount of expected traffic represents a solid financial reason. The Navy has a firing range in this area which effectively stops the less expensive and better route that which would attempt to climb and descend both the Slate and Panamint Ranges.
This brings us to 1950 which was 40 years after Governor Gillette proclaimed this east of the mountains highway to be El Camino Sierra where horseless carriages were running up and down this ribbon of asphalt in ever increasing numbers and in fact fulfilling the destiny of the dreamers of so many years ago. By this time, the colorful Spanish name was no longer used as a description for the highway but was the sole economic lifeline for the Inyo-Mono area. There was no regular rail service into Inyo County and the narrow-gauge railroad did not reach Mono County. Heavy trucks were the only bona fide source of commercial transportation to the area.
"The highway brought the tourists into the two counties and from the always increasing number of tourists did the locals prosper in catering to their needs. The magic thrill of the high country, the fighting fish, the bounteous give of nature in scenery, climate and ruggedness in the abundance of her flora and fauna provide a setting for a way of life that just cannot be duplicated. World travelers have long paid homage to this area as having no equal anywhere. Mt. Whitney, Death Valley, Mono Lake, Crowley Lake, Devil's Postpile, Alabama Hills, Owens Valley, Mammoth Mountain and Lakes, June Lake, Bodie, Panamint, the Mojave Desert, Red Rock Canyon, Convict Lake - all are names with which to conjure and all are shared with the world by the highways - the highways of District IX." Alan S. Hart, History of District IX.
To read more about the early history of District 9, read Alan S. Hart's book, "The Story of District IX." Mr. Hart was appointed Caltrans District IX Engineer in 1950. Prior to coming to Bishop on October 1, 1950, he had not ever visited the area. After a request from the Lone Pine Lions Club to give a talk about the early history of the highways in the area, he found that most of the records had parished in a fire in Fresno. Letters were sent out requesting information and much to his surprise, he received quite a lot of information from those that were a part of District IX from the beginning, enough so to write a book!
Click here to view the book
Caltrans District 9
Phone: (760) 872-0601
FAX: (760) 872-0678
California Department of Transportation
500 S. Main Street