Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Interstate 5 in 1960: A pinnacle of achievement for Caltrans highway engineers who transfomed a mountain into a beautiful, modern, eight-lane divided highway ascending and descending the famous Grapevine grade -- a landmark in freeway surveying, planning, right of way, engineering, construction, operations and maintenance.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 04/2007

A 40-mile stretch of I-5 from Los Angeles to Kern Counties is famous for its name -- and its claim to fame.

In Northern California, the word �grapevine� means one thing to most people.  In Southern California, however, it�s a different story, especially when a certain portion of freeway between Los Angeles and Kern Counties comes to mind.  Just mention �the Grapevine� and one conjures up images of a mountainous, zigzagging stretch of the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5 or I-5) -- sometimes snow-covered, but always beautiful � from the Fort Tejon summit to the community of Grapevine in the San Joaquin Valley.

I-5 traverses as far south as the Mexican border and as far north as the international border between the United States and Canada.  It is the state�s main passageway for commuters, sightseers, businesspeople and vacationers � as well as truckers moving millions of dollars in goods and services.  It links California�s major cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento; in Oregon, the cities of Medford, Eugene, Salem, and Portland; and in Washington: Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Mount Vernon and Bellingham.  And I-5 serves as one of the primary roads that link the Los Angeles/San Diego metropolitan areas north and east to the rest of the nation. 

The portion of I-5 known as the Grapevine, is not just named so because it is located near the community of Grapevine, but because it also resembles just that: millions of pounds of asphalt, concrete, median barriers, lighting, guardrails, signage, call boxes and drainage systems -- twisting, turning and following the contours of the picturesque mountains it inhabits.  According to Harrison Irving Scott, author, historian and President of the Ridge Route Preservation Organization, ï¿½The name actually came from the fact that early wagoneers had to hack their way through the thick patches of Cimarron grapevines that inhabited 'La Canada de Las Uvas' or  'Canyon of the Grapes.'�  Traveling the grade today, he explains, �Look for patches of what appear to be ivy on both sides of the canyon near the truck runaway escape ramps.  What you see are descendant vines that date back to the 1800�s.� 

Most travelers think the portion of I-5 called the Grapevine begins at the north end of Castaic in the Santa Clarita Valley where the freeway begins a northerly climb at Parker Road -- and where the California Highway Patrol closes the freeway when snow or icy conditions northward prohibit safe travel.  But this is not where the actual Grapevine is located.  What they would be traveling on, instead, is what is most commonly known as the beginning of the five-mile grade where I-5 sharply rises to the north at a grade of 5% -- and the beginning of a 40 mile journey over the Tehachapi Mountains from northern Los Angeles County to the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County. 

After the five mile grade, comes Templin Highway at about the 3,000-feet level.  Proceeding north one encounters 22.5 more miles north on a rolling, meandering drive by Frazier Mountain through the Gorman area and the highest point of the drive at an altitude of 4,183 feet, and the summit of this famous drive. 

Continuing northerly from the summit is a slight drop in altitude and in six more miles one reaches Fort Tejon, a state historic monument.  Fort Tejon was established in 1854 to suppress stock rustling, which was rampant at that time, and to protect the Native Americans in the San Joaquin Valley.  It is here where the actual portion of freeway known as the Grapevine actually begins. 

Driving north from Fort Tejon where the Grapevine starts -- and for the next fives miles -- the driver experiences a dramatic 6% downhill grade terminating at the community of Grapevine at the entrance to the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County.  This is the steepest grade and the most twisting, winding, rambling portion of the 40-mile drive over a seriously rugged mountain terrain.  These 40 miles of concrete were carved out of both sides of the mountainous canyon by Caltans construction crews and their contractors at the beginning of the freeway-building era.  One of Caltrans� pinnacles of achievement is this eight-lane freeway, which was responsible for the complete transformation of the canyon. 

As early as 1947, the area was first studied by Caltrans Land Surveyors, who walked their way, actually on foot, through what they called then and what some still call, �the Ridge Route.�  According to one of those land surveyors, Dick Murphy, now a Caltrans retired annuitant, �This was a daunting challenge for California�s highway engineers working for the Division of Highways back then.  They eventually transformed a mountain into a landmark in freeway surveying, planning, right of way, engineering, construction, operations and maintenance." 

Murphy said that survey crews began preliminary ground surveys to obtain data which determined the location of the freeway.  He explained, �The crews consisted of an instrument man, who had a transit on a tripod (a surveying instrument used to calculate angles and elevations) to determine the location of alignment; a rod man to determine elevations and vertical alignment; and chain men to actually run a special chain to determine the horizontal distance of the centerline of the roadway.  "It was long before aerial surveys or global position stations (GPS) that are used today� said Murphy. That portion of I-5 was completed in 1960.

Today, the Grapevine grade is practically home to tens of thousands big-rig trucks moving millions of dollars of goods and services daily, who may have began their journey in Canada or Mexico.  Between Los Angeles and Kern Counties, 26 percent of the average daily traffic are big-rigs.  Of the some 70,000 vehicles who travel this portion of I-5 daily, the big-rigs number about 19,000.  Those truckers and motorists might not know it, but while experiencing this unique drive, they are traveling on what many transportation experts consider �the backbone of the California state highway system.�   

Dramatic changes in temperature and elevation are some of what makes the Grapevine so unique in this part of California, known for clear, blue skies and mild weather.  Just ask Jerry Holcombe, North Region Area Superintendent for Maintenance, who supervises snow crews on I-5.  �It can be a beautiful, warm day here at the bottom of the five-mile grade in Castaic.  But a few miles north and it�s snowing.�  When necessary due to snow or ice, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) closes the freeway at Parker Road in Castaic for safety.  It is closed at that location in order to keep motorists from becoming stranded in snowfalls farther up the road.

Holcombe and his Maintenance crews are specially trained in snow removal operations.  Each year they meet with emergency service and law enforcement personnel to strategize on the best methods for highway safety and snow management and removal before the snowfalls begin -- a meeting known as �Operation Snowflake.�  �Meeting and brainstorming each year helps us to continue to learn from each other and prepare to provide the highest degree of public safety,� said Holcombe. 

Using snowplows, graders with plows and other heavy equipment, Holcombe and his staff work closely and cooperatively with the CHP, Los Angeles County Sheriff�s Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department to ensure that the freeway is safe for the motoring public.  �We use a special anti-icer that is used to pre-wet sand and is carefully spread onto the highway to help melt the snow and ice,� added Holcombe.  Caltrans crews actually perform this maneuver in front of CHP escorts in order to help slow traffic.  Holcombe�s snow crews, usually eight crew members on the night shift and another eight on the day shift, set up lane closures if necessary.  They work around the clock, 12-hour shifts seven days a week during stormy, snowy weather.

North Region Maintenance Manager, Wallie Jordan added, "Even with the limited snow  crews in Lebec and Valencia, these employees perform their duties safely and efficiently -- in the most adverse conditions."  Jordan went on to say that the vast majority of freeway closures are not just due to large amounts of snow, but also to driver error with regard to weather and road conditions.  "When it is determined that closing the freeway is in the best interest of the motoring public, the interstate is closed until conditions improve to the point that they can again traverse the roadway safely."

Caltrans also has a special contract with a company which has oversized tow trucks used for towing jack-knifed big-rig trucks involved in traffic incidents between the months of October and April.  This helps to keep lane closures to a minimum when a big-rig is involved, Holcombe explained.  �When a large semi-truck becomes disabled or overturns, it can block other lanes completely, " he said. "This tow-truck helps to move large vehicles more quickly and get lanes re-opened in shorter periods of time.�   

And if motorists should hear this on the Grapevine, it�s no rumor: whether traveling on
I-5 for goods movement, business, sightseeing or commuting, California�s motorists can be sure that this backbone of the state highway system was built and is maintained today by dedicated Caltrans professionals  -- with the safety and transportation needs of the motoring public in mind. 


North Region Maintenance snow crews from Valencia are, from  left to right: Darren Mims, Frank Webster, supervisor Chris Erskine, George Domio, Bob Arias, Greg Bull, leadworker Dale Luckett and Freddy Kober.  (Benny Godinez unavailable for photo). North Region Maintenance snow crews from Lebec near Frazier Park are, back row left to right: Dennis Stubblefield, Paul Wagner, Brian Patz, Craig Smith, and Charlie Gunther. Front row, left to right: John Steiner, J. J. Wittkofski, Alan Empleo and Jerry Haberlack. A mountain of snow makes for mountains of snow removal work for Caltrans North Region Maintenance crews.  In the early 1940s, this portion of what was once called the old Ridge Route before construction of I-5, is shown looking north from Lebec to Bakersfield, winding over the Tehachapi mountains between Castaic on the south, extending to the bottom of Grapeview grade on the north, where I-5 enters the great San Joaquin Valley at the Kern County line.