Arrival in Los Angeles
Don Milne here once again as Roadtrip-'62 ™ continues our trip along historic US-6. Today is day 35 and follows yesterday’s journey of 344 miles from Baker, Nevada, to Bishop, California. That was our longest day of the trip, through the Great Basin Desert. Today we will see a bit more desert, which will be our last. We should make it to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the largest on this journey. But we won’t see any more US-6 signs along the way, because California removed them all back in 1964. So, I’ll be referring to our route as “old US-6” the rest of the way. If you see anything you like, I encourage you to get yourself out on the road and enjoy it in person. You might be having fun on this virtual roadtrip, I know I am, but there's nothing like the real thing! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Let’s get back on the road again!
Last night I went out late and drove up one of the roads towards the mountains and I recommend you do so if you come to the Owens Valley. You will likely discover a place with a lot more stars than you are used to seeing. I love it when I can start the morning with some donuts from a vintage bakery! So today, let’s start at Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ here in Bishop. Schat's has been baking here since 1907 and is famous for a unique bread called Original Sheepherder's Bread. They have done so well that they now employ over 70 people at the bakery. This bread is made from a Basque recipe and baked in stone hearth ovens in a traditional method. The Basque people are from a region in France and Spain lying at the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains. I’ll pick up a loaf for use in picnic lunches and choose something from their 450 other products for breakfast.
I’m going to take in a bit of unique scenery just north of Bishop before I leave the area. The Chalk Bluffs along the Owens River can be reached via a graded gravel road right that makes a loop back to town. It runs right at the base of the bluffs along the river for about five miles. The bluffs are the remnants of an ancient hot ash flow from the Mammoth Caldera north of Bishop, that has been eroded by the Owens River. The rock is actually rhyolitic tuff, not chalk. Hikers head up from the river onto the Chalk Bluffs to access an archeologically rich area containing petroglyphs, food grinding areas, rock shelters and hunting blinds: the volcanic formation and petroglyphs extend for several miles north from the river. I’m just here for the view from the drive, which passes rock formations with names like Happy & Sad Boulders
Heading south out of Bishop, I notice the variety of nice old neon signs, including signs at motels and at Culver’s Sporting Goods and Mac’s Sporting Goods. These highlight the local outdoor culture of hunting, fishing, climbing, and hiking. And of course, there’s also the red horse perched atop the sign at Sierra Saddlery & Feed. The tourist attractions of the Owens Valley are the same as in the 1960s: fishing in the lakes and creeks, snow sports, hiking, camping, off-roading, or just looking at the scenery. The valley was cut by the Owens River, which is fed by streams running out of the mountains, mostly from the west. Each creek has a road that follows it up to a trailhead, with campsites, fishing holes, and scenic beauty along the way. High above us on that west side of the highway, we can see plenty of snow-capped mountains from early fall to late spring at least. These mountains are the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and it follows us most of the way south to Mojave, California. Highway US-395 runs with us through the Owens Valley most of that distance, to near Inyokern, California. One of the first places we see once we’re out of town is Brown's Town Campground and Country Store Museum. But I’m not stopping because I don’t need to camp. And the museum is a typical free tourist trap to get you to stay long enough to buy some food or souvenirs from the store. Shortly after Brown’s, we’re back in the desert of sagebrush and other sparse vegetation on the sandy soil, with cattle fenced in along the roadside and cattle guards at some crossroads.
Someplace that is worth stopping at is Keough Hot Springs. Keough’s is the largest hot springs in the area and was first opened in 1918 by Philip P. Keough, a former superintendent of the Wells Fargo stage company. Today there is a very small community of homes, and a commercial resort featuring a large swimming pool. The resort was most popular in the 1920s and 30s and remained popular through the World War II era. In 1926 the City of Los Angeles purchased the resort as a part of its water rights takings in the Owens Valley. Keough’s remained open off and on under various operators by leases. A new lessee performed renovations in 1955 and the pool reopened for public swimming and recreation area until insurance considerations pushed the owner to change it to a membership-only club in 1985. But the so-called “hot ditch”, which is the downstream outlet from the pool, contains a series of small primitive soaking and wading pools. This area is still freely used by the public for recreation, including, I’ve heard, social nudity.
Not far south of Keough’s and east of old US-6, lies the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. This radio astronomy observatory was established here in 1958 by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and originally consisted of the first radiotelescope, a 32-foot antenna first erected on Palomar Mountain, but dismantled in 1958 and transferred here. At the same time, two 90-foot telescopes were constructed here. This system was originally built to study radio galaxies but is now used to inspect the sun's magnetic field. Other equipment has since been installed on the site and one of the ten systems of the Very Long Baseline Array is also immediately adjacent to, but not part of, the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. You can see some of the buildings from old US-6. I could not find whether the observatory gives tours, so you’re on your own if you are interested in that sort of thing.
An even older site in the area is too far from the highway for our journey, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest. This site is about 24 miles off of old US-6, and you can also see the observatory from there. Some specimens of the gnarled, picturesque Bristlecone Pines are thousands of years old, with the oldest specimen estimated at 4,600 years! We will stick to a younger but larger tree for our sightseeing. At the north end of Big Pine, California, there is a giant sequoia planted in 1913, when a road was opened through Westgard Pass to Nevada. The tree was sort of a spiritual replacement for the big pine that the town was named for. The giant sequoia normally grows in areas of high moisture, so I’m not sure how they water it enough here, as most of the water rights were purchased by Los Angeles and the water is sent there via the aqueducts. The area around Big Pine, and indeed the whole Owens Valley, was once a green, agriculturally rich farming region, but now remnants of former irrigation canals and former farmlands are evident throughout the back country. Our highway even crosses a number of these old, now waterless, canals.
Some of the great scenery visible from the highway just south of Big Pine includes Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the United States, in the Sierra Nevada range west of old US-6. The whole area is different than the deserts we have been passing through and is known as the Big Pine Volcanic Fields. There are numerous red cinder cones and dark basaltic lava flows that occurred here over the past 1.2 million years. This volcanic field is thought to be a series of magma plumes that rose rapidly from the mantle. The Keough Hot Springs are a reminder of the volcanic activity under the valley. A good place to contemplate the scenery is at the Division Creek Rest Area. Another good place to see the valley, and some wildlife, is at the Fish Springs Trout Hatchery. The hatchery was originally constructed in 1952, using a number of springs on an on-site lava escarpment for a water supply. Fish Springs Trout Hatchery is a major producer of trout for the excellent fishing in nearby waters. They raise Eagle Lake trout and Rainbow trout. Rainbow is the premier fish desired by anglers in California. There are also mule deer and Tule elk in the area, with the elk especially prominent at the Tinemaha Wildlife Viewpoint about seven miles south of Big Pine. This turnoff from old US-6 overlooks a refuge area frequented by the Owens Valley herd of Tule Elk. This elk species was nearly lost because the legislation passed in 1873 that protected the elk was nearly too late. By 1895, there were only 28 Tule elk in the entire state of California. Protection was so successful, however, that by 1920 approximately 400 had begun making a nuisance of themselves on farms, prompting herd relocation efforts. One of these relocations was to the Owens Valley, and this herd thrived in its new home. The elk can most often be seen from the viewpoint, but may also be sighted roaming anywhere in the area.
Another fish hatchery is located just north of Independence, California. Though Mount Whitney Hatchery is closed for hatchery use, visitation is permitted. The beautiful building was constructed in 1916, using native granite quarried within a quarter mile of the site. The building escaped major damage from a mudslide during a thunderstorm upstream on Oak Creek, though the hatchery was closed in 2008 due to severe damage. The mudslide killed all the Rainbow trout, destroyed four buildings, buried the fish ponds, and damaged the water supply of the hatchery. The mudslide occurred because a wildfire the previous year had left the land bare and subject to washout.
Independence is the county seat of Inyo County and became the seat in 1866 when its chief competitor, a mining town called Kearsarge, disappeared under an avalanche. The courthouse looks a lot like many post offices I’ve seen and very different from courthouses we saw back in Ohio and Indiana with their tall clock towers. As you might expect from a town named Independence, they really know how to celebrate the Fourth of July! The celebration includes a parade, fireworks, food, and even a frog-jumping contest. I’m stopping in Independence to check out the Eastern California Museum. It was founded in 1928, and has been operated by the County of Inyo since 1968. The mission of the museum is to collect, preserve, and interpret objects and information related to the cultural and natural history of the Eastern Sierra, from Death Valley north to Mono Lake, so we should find a lot of information on the country we are driving through today. The collection includes more than 400 baskets and nearly 100 other related artifacts in about 14 large display cases; one of the largest exhibits of Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone and Death Valley Panamint-Shoshone basketry in the country. Besides the indoor exhibits, both permanent and changing, they have several historic buildings and the Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden on the Museum grounds.
Depending on your schedule, Independence may be a good place to stay on your US-6 roadtrip. The Winnedumah Hotel is now operated as a bed and breakfast with today's modern conveniences, but was built in the 1920s. There is also the Mt. Williamson Motel and Base Camp, which includes old style cabins, and the Independence Inn, which may be older, but is nicely remodeled. South of Independence is the Manzanar National Historic Site. This was another of the ten Japanese relocation centers created during World War II, like we saw back near Delta, Utah. At the conclusion of the war in 1945, the camp was closed and many of the structures were sold and removed. Today, the interpretive center features extensive exhibits, a scale model of the camp and an award-winning documentary film shown every 30 minutes. Several barracks and other buildings have recently been reconstructed so you can tour the site on your own and see the historic orchards, rock gardens and cemetery. You can also take the 3.2 mile self-guided driving tour around the site.
Crossing the Los Angeles Aqueduct south of town, which at this point is a wide, open ditch, I’m reminded that we have seen very few green spots since leaving Bishop, as few people still have any water rights for irrigation. We come next to Lone Pine, California, which is notable for being an access city for both the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, and the lowest point in North America, Death Valley. That high point is only 85 miles from the low point here! During the 1870s, Lone Pine was an important supply town for nearby mining communities, including the Cerro Gordo mine, which was one of the most productive silver mines in California. Mount Whitney dominates the view to the west, with its dome shape flanked by jagged ridges extending to the north and south sides. The mountain is above the tree line, and often snow-covered. Because its 14,508 feet height is the highest in the lower 48 states, hiking to the top is popular. The climb requires a US Forest Service permit, which can be purchased at the InterAgency Visitor Center south of town. The center also has informative displays and a good selection of maps, books and souvenirs. I’m not mountain climbing, and if you don’t feel like it either you can blame it on being too far from US-6 for our roadtrip rule of 5 miles: its 12 miles just to get to the starting point at Whitney Portal.
In the early to mid 20th century, the area around Lone Pine, especially the Alabama Hills that lie between the highway and the Sierra Nevada range, was a popular setting for western and sometimes science fiction movies. The Alabama Hills are a collection of unique rock formations. Most of the area is public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Dozens of natural arches are among the main attractions for hikers. Besides filling in for a host of western United States locations, the area has also served as northern India, the Gobi Desert, various parts of Arabia, Africa and even other planets! The area is still used, with 30 to 40 film permits a year for movies, TV shows, commercials and even still photo shoots. There are over 400 films, 100 television episodes, and countless commercials that have used Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills areas as a filming location. There is a driving tour past some of the movie sites, and it includes some sites from “How the West Was Won”, an MGM/Cinerama film shot in 1962. Besides a star-studded cast, the production saw 630 horses, 150 mules, 107 wagons and 1500 pairs of moccasins out here. Just a few of the westerns we could have watched on TV in 1962 were Sky King, Have Gun - Will Travel, and Wagon Train. One legacy of the movie production activity is the Lone Pine Film History Museum. Here you can see props, costumes and a great collection of movie memorabilia. They also hold a film festival every fall since 1989.
The film heritage extends to the historic Dow Hotel, built in the early 1920s. It has hosted countless producers, directors and stars, including many we would have watched in 1962 like John Wayne, William Boyd (Hopalong Casidy), Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Robert Mitchum, and Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger). Adjacent to the Dow Hotel is the Dow Villa Motel, constructed in 1957 by the owner of the hotel, who figured that as the golden days of movies began to die down, tourism might be his next market. He must have been right, as he added a second section to the motel in 1959 and a third in 1963! All three of the motel sections have since had a major reconstruction and beautification. Other motels sprung up around town at about the same time, including the Portal Motel and the Mt. Whitney Motel. The Mt. Whitney Motel sports a huge old-style lighted sign with a neon arrow. Other interesting old signs around town are the giant fish at Gardner’s Hardware, a smaller neon fish at Slater’s Sporting Goods, and a revolving sign atop the Merry-Go-Round for a previous business, Margie’s Merry-Go-Round restaurant.
Heading out of town, the InterAgency Visitor Center I mentioned also has information on the public lands of Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo National Forest, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Owens Lake and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power public lands. Back in 1962, finding information on all these nearby public parks would have been more time consuming, as the center only opened in 2007. Across the street from the center is Diaz Lake, which has a campground and is also open year round for fishing, kayaks, canoes and non-motorized watercraft. The site is operated by Inyo County Parks Recreation. Maybe I should stop: you don’t get many opportunities to fish or swim in the desert! The lake was formed by the March 26, 1872 Lone Pine earthquake when 18 miles of the Owens Valley dropped approximately 20 feet and a new spring opened up, causing water to fill a lowlands. Of course, because of the water source, the land was eventually sold to the city of Los Angeles. The earthquake was one of the largest to hit California in recorded history and was similar in size to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It destroyed almost all the buildings in Lone Pine and nearby settlements.
Just after Diaz Lake and down to Orlancha, California is where we pass what’s left of Owens Lake: many times it will be dry. The highway climbs partly up onto the foothills, giving a very good view of the valley and whatever water might be in the lake below. The last time I drove through here, there was some shallow water in several disconnected ponds on the lake bed, brightly shining in the sun. Clay, sand, and a variety of minerals including halite, burkeite, mirabilite, thenardite, and trona are processed here. In wet years, these minerals form a chemical soup in a small brine pond within the dry lake, where sometimes microscopic, bright pink, salt-loving archaea spread across the lakebed. Bartlett, California used to be here, with a post office that operated from 1926 to 1964, but even that is gone now. The only thing along the shore of Owens Lake today is a group of buildings and water tanks in an area of salt flats belonging to a chemical extraction company. As the lake dried up, chemical processing switched from relatively cheap chemical methods to more expensive physical ones and one processor sued the city of Los Angeles and received enough money to build a new plant. The plant at the Bartlett site has operated since 1928. And several miles past there, you will see a historical marker sign for the Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns, which lie about a mile off old US-6. Charcoal was once produced here from the trees of the Sierra Nevada, to supply silver smelting and mining operations across Owens Lake at Cerro Gordo. In the 1870s, the area around the mines had already been logged off, so as silver was shipped across the lake towards Los Angeles, the ships that sailed back were loaded with timber and charcoal. There are only two kiln ruins left today, but they are well maintained. Whereas most kilns were constructed of bricks or stone, these two were built out of clay bricks which were covered in plaster. The site was originally dedicated in 1955 but the sign was stolen in 1970. It was recovered by the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department later that year and rededicated.
Cartago, California is now a just collection of a couple of dozen homes, mostly mobile homes, and a few boarded up commercial buildings. But back during the heyday of mining in the area, the 1870s, Cartago was a steamboat port for that shipping of wood, charcoal, and ore. The fact that steamboat shipping occurred on Owens Lake is an interesting measure of just how big the lake once was. As I mentioned above, today Owens Lake is a mostly dry lake. Unlike most dry lakes in the Basin and Range area of the American west that have been dry for thousands of years, Owens was a real lake about 12 miles long and 8 miles wide, and covering an area of up to 108 square miles. It was 23 to 50 feet deep and even occasionally overflowed to the south into the Mojave Desert. But in 1913, most of the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, causing Owens Lake to dry up by 1926. One lake fish, the Owen’s Pupfish, was thought extinct by 1942, but a few were found in 1964 and taken to laboratories to breed. Today, there are 13,000 again living in the wild in Owens Lake. To settle some lawsuits and meet environmental regulations, some of the flow of the river has since been restored and the lake now contains a nominal amount of water.
But the large salt flat is now the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States. This is due to winds stirring up the salty surface to carry away as much as four million tons of dust from the lakebed each year. The dust includes carcinogens such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic and is known to cause respiratory problems in nearby residents. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife owns the Cartago Wildlife Area at the south end of the lake on the site of another chemical processing plant, where since 2007 they have recreated some wetland habitat for waterfowl. Before the lake went dry, millions of migratory birds made Owens Lake a feeding and resting stop, and others lived here year round. While the springs at the wildlife area keep some habitat viable, and various shallow flooding experiments are also used, there are no serious plans to restore Owens to anything resembling a conventional lake. Strangely, the springs at the south end of the lake are also a source of bottled water today. Just south of Cartago and right on the highway, Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water operates a bottling plant. Anheiser-Busch Brewing also owns property and pumps pure well water for use by their brewery in Los Angeles.
Beyond the remains of the lake, Orlancha, California greets us with the Ranch House Café, which offers home made pies and seems to be appropriately named, as there is a cattle ranch across the road. Olancha continues to hold a stable population of around 200 and has a couple of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and an RV park. The area is still serving the recreation tourist bound for the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west, and has been since at least 1957 when it was featured in the Inyo-Mono Fishing and Vacation Guide, a publication highlighting recreational opportunities of the Eastern Sierra region of California. To the east of town lie some sand dunes, an off-road vehicle park, and a hot spring known as "Dirty Socks". Two episodes of The Twilight Zone were filmed here, in 1960 and 1961. A house that was featured in one of those TV episodes is still standing at the south outskirts of town.
Hiawee, California is the site of two reservoirs on the Los Angeles Aqueduct system, constructed in 1913. The original town settlement site is under the water of the Haiwee Reservoir. The town moved to the west and some homes remain along the reservoir shore, but there is nothing on the highway. Instead of a town, old US-6 traverses the Coso Volcanic Field. The field contains a number of cinder cones, which were formed when ash and small rocks known as tephry were blasted from volcanic vents like fountains. Though these are ancient formations, studies have found a zone of magma still underlying the area. The most recent eruption occurred about 40,000 years ago and the obsidian from these eruptions was used by Native Americans to make knives, projectile points, and other tools. The most prominent feature visible from the highway is Red Hill, a reddish cinder cone formed about 10,000 years ago. A side road near Red Hill takes you to a former waterfall known as Fossil Falls, a reference to its dead and fossilized nature. There are no fossils at the Fossil Falls Scenic Area. This was the site of a former river formed when glaciers were melting in the mountains, at the end of the last ice age. The river cut its way through volcanic basalt, providing the dry, scenic rock formations we can see today. In fact, one of the great things about ancient scenery is that we can see the same things today as we would have in 1962, even if the signs and trails have changed.
Shortly after the Red Hill, at Little Lake, California, the low hills on both sides of old US-6 move progressively closer to the highway and you can tell the Owens Valley is coming to an end. The majestic and high Sierra Nevada range is still to the west and the smaller Coso Range is on the east side. Little Lake was established as a traveler's stop along the highway from Los Angeles to the northern Sierra Nevadas because in the 1920s, a trip to someplace like Bishop would take 2-3 days. You would have needed a couple of overnight stays, and Little Lake had a store, auto repair garage, restaurant, and gas station. It most famous landmark was its the rock-faced Little Lake Hotel constructed in 1923. Even into the 1940s, this was an important stop for sportsman traffic. But as the roads improved and cars got faster, this became little more than a rest stop by the 1980s. Highway US-6 bypassed the town in 1958 and the Southern Pacific Railroad abandoned a line through the town around 1981. So, by the time the hotel burned in 1989, there was not enough business to reopen it. The post office closed in 1997 and the place is now just another ghost town. Pearsonville, California is not much better off, though it still has its landmark 25-foot tall “Uniroyal Girl” statue and the sign designating it as the hubcap capital of the world. It was so-called because of because of former resident Lucy Pearson's collection of hubcaps, which may have numbered over 80,000.
After we climb out of the valley, we enter another desert area that looks just the same. We come to the junction where US-395 turns easterly from our route, and old US-6 continues westerly to Los Angeles, now numbered CA-14. The town center of Inyokern, California is about 3 miles east of old US-6, on US-395. It began as a railroad town, but with the onset of World War II, a Department of the Navy center was located nearby. This was eventually moved another 12 miles east and the new city of Ridgecrest took over as the commercial and residential center. Inyokern survives as a sparsely populated bedroom community. At the nearby junction with present day route CA-178, which was an unnumbered road in 1962, a sign says it’s still 143 miles to Los Angeles. Up ahead at Robbers Roost Ranch Antiques & Collectibles, you won’t find either a current or past town, though they have some buildings constructed to simulate a ghost town. It’s really just another souvenir store, named after a rock formation to the west that bandits used as a base for stagecoach robberies in the 1970s.
We cross over some more low hills climbing out of the desert basin, just before reaching the visitor center of Red Rock Canyon State Park, giving a hint of what we will see there. And what we see is honey-combed formations, red rock caps over white rock walls, cacti, and sweeping vistas. You really should get out and hike at least a little from the visitor center, though you can see great formations right along both sides of the highway. The park was created in 1968, though it was a tourist stop and even movie filming location long before then. The rock features are the result of wind and rain eroding the softer rock beneath the harder dark red caprock layer. The location is where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converges with the El Paso Range, and has been a convenient pass into the Owens Valley since prehistoric times, used by Native Americans. By the 1870s, it was a landmark and water stop for the 20-mule team freight wagons from Death Valley to Mojave, California. Besides the rock formations to wander among, the park now protects significant paleontology sites and the remains of 1890s-era mining operations. Each canyon has something different to see. While hiking the miles of trails through this dramatic landscape, you may encounter roadrunners, hawks, lizards, mice and squirrels. Or if you’re here after a wet winter, the displays of desert flowers are stunning. I’m at the wrong time of year for flowers, but I will take a hike after a picnic lunch. Time to try this morning’s find of the Sheepherder’s Bread for a sandwich!
After we leave the Red Rock area, we pass another gas station that has a restaurant and trailer campground, but no fake ghost town, at Jawbone Canyon. We’ve now crossed into the Fremont Valley. We soon leave the ghost towns and empty lands behind and come to Mojave. At the north end of town, old US-6 turns into a freeway approximately on top of the old road. The main road will be on a freeway most of the way to Los Angeles now, but old US-6 will be there for only a short way. And first, the highway travels through Mojave. The town has very little downtown, just a sparse collection of one-story buildings separated by too many empty lots, with too many of the buildings vacant. We travel through town with the railroad yard on one side and that downtown on the other. Here we meet the route of the former US-466. This highway was once 526 miles long, running from Morro Bay, California to Kingman, Arizona, and crossing over Hoover Dam in Nevada. But it was co-signed with other US routes for much of its length, so when California removed the signs in 1964, the need for the rest of US-466 disappeared. Arizona followed in 1969 and the route was gone for good when Nevada eliminated it in 1971. Today through Mojave, the former route is labeled CA-58 and it is a freeway for over half the distance from Bakersfield to Barstow, California. California attempted to get Interstate highway status for that route during the 1950s and 1960s, but was denied, so the state eventually built the freeway itself. Old US-466 has one claim to fame: it’s the highway where actor James Dean was killed in a car accident in 1955, near Cholame, California.
Mojave began in 1876 as a construction camp on the Southern Pacific Railroad and later became the headquarters for construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Today, the city’s main industry is aerospace, including flight testing, space industry development, and aircraft heavy maintenance and storage. Mojave’s history with this industry dates back to World War II, when the U.S. Marine Corps took over the airport and expanded it into a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station. In 1961, after the USMC transferred their operations to their El Centro facility, Kern County purchased the airport and continues to operate it today. It has since become a world renowned flight research center spanning 3300 acres, hosting more than 60 companies. In 2004, the renamed Mojave Air and Space Port became the only private airport in the United States with a commercial spaceflight license. That year, SpaceShipOne completed the first privately-funded human spaceflight. One of the more unusual features of the spaceport is the huge collection of airplanes sitting in the desert. You cannot get close, but you can see the airplanes in a drive-by from the highway. They are stored here because of the dry conditions, which slows rust, mold growth, and other deterioration.
South of Mojave, across the railroad overpass, you can still find some of the old road, a 2-lane section of former US-6 running alongside the railroad. Naturally, that was US-6 in 1962 and that’s how we will go to Rosamond, California. We are now in the Mojave Desert, a rain-shadow arid desert area that occupies a significant part of southeastern California along with smaller parts of southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona. The Mojave Desert's boundaries are generally defined by the presence of Joshua trees and it is the driest of the North American deserts. The Mojave Desert displays typical basin and range topography, similar to the Great Basin Desert we traveled through in Utah and Nevada. It is the smallest of the North American deserts and we will travel across the entire north-south span of it on our way to the San Gabriel Mountains.
Rosamond was founded in 1877 as a townsite by the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the 1890s, gold mining became the first major industry. This activity declined over the years and was suspended by the government during World War II. Most operators never recovered, but a limited amount of mining continues in the area today. The city is now the home of Edwards Air Force Base, the birthplace of supersonic flight and an alternate landing field for the space shuttles. The base is next to Rogers Dry Lake, a desert salt pan whose hard dry lake surface provides a natural extension to the runways. Almost every United States military aircraft since the 1950s has been at least partially tested here. Edwards has also been the site of many aviation breakthroughs including Chuck Yeager's flight that broke the sound barrier in 1947, and the test flight of the X-15, which set new speed records through 1961. It was piloted on these flights by Major Robert M. “Bob” White, who also became the first man to fly an airplane in space when he climbed to 314,750 feet on July 17, 1962. Tours of the base are given, which include the Air Force Flight Test Museum as well as a windshield tour of the main base. Rosamond is also the home of Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, the oldest permanent road-racing course in the United States. The first race was held in 1953 and the track has not changed from its original 1953 configuration. Willow Springs hosted the first NASCAR events west of the Mississippi.
Take a video tour of the California Hall room of the Antelope Valley Indian Museum.
The old 2-lane US-6 continues south from Rosamond, through Lancaster, California. It runs along the east side of town adjacent to the railroad, past a modern station building, while the modern freeway bypasses Lancaster to the west. Lancaster is a rather new, rather flat city, looking like it was mostly built since 1960 and seldom has buildings over two stories tall. It probably is that new, as Lancaster acquired tens of thousands of jobs after development of Air Force Plant 42 in 1958 and construction in the 1960s of Lockheed Aircraft's Plant 10. The city is still home to major defense contractors such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and government agencies such as NASA. It’s in Lancaster that I first notice that icon of southern California, the palm tree. They start appearing along the road, and in front of buildings like the Town House Motel, next to it’s beautiful green neon sign with portholes. Actually, it is very tempting to stop for the day in Lancaster, because there are a number of good-looking old-school motels on the south side of town. I will stop at the Antelope Valley Indian Museum. The museum was built in the 1920s and is a unique and eclectic folk art structure. It began as a privately owned museum, but is now run by the State of California. Howard Arden Edwards, a self-taught artist, displayed his collection of prehistoric and historic American Indian artifacts, which he interpreted in non-traditional ways that can still be seen in some exhibits. Grace Wilcox Oliver later purchased the property and added her own artifacts in the early 1940s and operated the museum until 1979. It now showcases objects created by the American Indian cultures of the western Great Basin, California, and the Southwest.
We continue on old US-6 and cross the railroad in Palmdale, California then continue to run with it on our west side. The significance of the palm trees is clear now, by the name of the city. To me, Palmdale looks just like Lancaster, and they seemed to just run together. Back in 1962, they were almost 10 miles apart. True to its aerospace heritage, the city has two airplane museums. But both Blackbird Airpark and Joe Davies Heritage Airpark are too new for our roadtrip. Apparently, the palm trees are native to the area, as the first settlement here was named Palmenthal in 1886. In 1921, the road that would become US-6 was completed to Los Angeles, which caused a boom for the local agricultural industry. A few years later, the Little Rock Dam and Harold Reservoir, now Lake Palmdale, were constructed to provide water to the farmers. Agriculture continued to be the major industry until the military moved in. Due to that growth, Palmdale became the first community in the Antelope Valley to incorporate as a city, in 1962.
South of town, we cross back to the west side of the railroad just before it veers away from the highway, and we also cross the Soledad Siphon of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. At Vincent, California, we finally meet back with the freeway that had bypassed the last several towns, but we do not need to get on. Old US-6 runs adjacent to it for many miles here, so we will use it. After all, the Antelope Valley Freeway wasn’t completed this far until 1965. Starting here, we begin to get some great views of the San Gabriel Mountains to the south, the range which separates us from the Los Angeles Basin. This is one of the mountain ranges where you will see smoke rising when there are forest fires near Los Angeles. We next pass a couple of miles north of Acton, California, so that all we see of the town are the gas stations and fast food out by the freeway interchange. But there is a village here on the banks of a reservoir on the Santa Clara River. Acton is another town that had its start as a gold mining camp. Of interest to roadtrippers is that there are several RV campgrounds in the Acton area. You can camp about an hour from Los Angeles and see the world-famous theme parks, shopping, dining, theaters, museums, and beaches! Some of the camping is in or near Angeles National Forest, which was established in 1908, by combining the first San Bernardino National Forest with parts of the former Santa Barbara and San Gabriel National Forests. The forest contains 697 miles of trails that can be reached from 53 trailheads, and 3 off-road vehicle areas, in addition to water recreation and numerous mountain peaks for climbing.
We pass between a series of low hills on the extremely curvy old road, past small settlements, ranches, homes, the old Halfway House Café, and even wineries. As we get farther south, the roadside is populated with small industrial businesses. The Antelope Valley Freeway lies south of old US-6, closer to the mountains in the Santa Clara River valley. The first section of the Antelope Valley Freeway, from Honby, California to Acton, was under construction during 1962 and was opened in August of 1963. It was extended to Palmdale in 1965, further the next year, and hit Mojave in 1972. At Santa Clarita, California, we cross the Santa Clara River, which is often dry. The channel is several hundred feet wide and bordered with concrete and rock, so it appears to flood during the few times it rains. Back in 1962, we actually would have passed through or near four separate towns that merged in 1987 to form Santa Clarita: Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus, and Valencia.
All four cities were on the land of the former Rancho San Francisco, originally subdivided by Henry Newhall when he sold part to the Southern Pacific Railroad for their line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Newhall's heirs incorporated the Newhall Land and Farming Company, which developed all four cities. The first oil well in California was drilled here in 1874 by Alexander Mentry, who would later be the superintendent of the company that became Chevron. His “Pico Number 4” well became the longest running oil well in the world, producing until 1990. The area’s refinery at Newhall is now the oldest existing petroleum refinery in the world. Despite the refinery, Six Flags Magic Mountain is the largest employer in the area. This amusement park opened in 1971 as Magic Mountain, so it is too new for us to visit. In fact, quite a lot of the area’s buildings seem to date from the 1960s and 1970s, probably due to the opening of the freeway and its interchanges.
I might have time for one more stop for more history before they close, at the William S. Hart Museum. This is the former home of silent film actor and director William S. Hart. He produced western movies in the early 1900s and when he died in 1946, he left his home and ranch to the County of Los Angeles to become a park and museum for the public. The mansion houses Mr. Hart’s collection of western art, mementos from early Hollywood, personal furnishings and effects, and artifacts of Native American cultures. Besides the mansion, the adjacent ranch house displays Mr. Hart’s tack and saddle collection. And we can visit farm animals and a herd of American bison on the grounds. The park also includes the former Saugus Train Station, which is operated as a museum by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, but that was not moved here until 1980 after it closed.
Other parks nearby are the Placerita Canyon Natural Area and Whitney Canyon Park. Though the Placerita Canyon Natural Area became a state park in 1950, the nature center building was not constructed until 1971. Whitney Canyon Park is the larger of the two, with miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horse riding. It provides an entrance into the Angeles National Forest. However it is much newer, having been privately owned by various millionaire owners and as public riding stables until 2002. There were oil wells still being drilled on the property until 1971. I consider both of these as too new, as is the California Institute of the Arts, also known as CalArts. CalArts was originally formed in 1961 as a merger of the Chouinard Art Institute (founded in 1921) and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (founded in 1883). Walt Disney coordinated the merger to return a favor to the Chouinard Art Institute, which was in financial difficulties and had helped train many of his animators beginning in 1929 when he was also having financial problems. He originally hoped the new campus would be located in the hills overlooking Hollywood. But after his death, the decision to locate farther north was made and the current campus opened here in late 1971.
Just before we leave Santa Clarita, I’ll drive past the Saugus Café. This restaurant was established in 1887 and appears to be the longest operating restaurant in Los Angeles County. The Saugus Café has served many celebrities, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Charlie Chaplin. If it were a bit closer to dinner time, it could serve us! Then, from the city, it seems to be all downhill to the San Fernando Pass where we eventually meet old US-99 and the spaghetti bowl that is the interchange between the I-5 and Antelope Valley Freeways. Route US-99 formerly was the backbone of west coast transportation, running 1569 miles from Canada to Mexico. It began at Blaine, Washington and ended at Calexico, California, but became obsolete as the I-5 freeway was gradually constructed. As with our US-6, the signs were removed beginning in 1964, though some portions retained the number as CA-99. Washington and Oregon retained the US-99 designation until 1972, but parts of that were renumbered as WA-99 and OR-99.
In 1955, the first section of the Golden State Freeway (I-5) was completed through Newhall Pass and Weldon Summit. The old highway on San Fernando Road has been maintained through this narrow pass as a way to access property, and it weaves over, under, and around the freeways that now parallel it. Fortunately for us, that means we can still drive old US-6. Right at the interchange with I-5 is the city limits of Los Angeles, California. Other than short trips through San Fernando, Burbank, Glendale, and Carson, we will be within Los Angeles all the way to Long Beach, which is where our trip ends. We’ll begin by running along the Southern Pacific Railroad track as we head into the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sylmar traces its beginning to the founding of the San Fernando Mission in the 18th century. It became known for its olive cultivation and in 1890, olive production began in a systematic manner. In 1893, a group of Illinois businessmen purchased either 1,000 or 2,000 acres (sources differ) and by 1898 about 200,000 trees had been planted. The area soon became the largest olive grove in the world and was still producing in 1927. We might have seen some olive trees on our roadtrip, as there were still some here in 1963 when twenty-five were relocated to Busch Gardens, a then-new theme park adjacent to the Anheuser-Busch brewery in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles.
The Nethercutt Museum and Collection is just a few blocks off old US-6, across the street from a Merle Norman warehouse or manufacturing plant. While it’s too new for us, having opened in 1971, the business responsible for the collection is not. Merle Norman Cosmetics, was already a success story by the late 1920s. Merle Nethercutt Norman created cosmetics for her family and friends in Santa Monica, California and started demonstrating them for other prospective customers on the beach in nearby Venice, believing if she could “get it on their faces” they would become customers. Her try before you buy philosophy led to a franchise model for Merle Norman Studios, leading to Merle becoming very wealthy and to the business lasting to this day. Her nephew, J. B. Nethercutt, joined the business and also profited, enabling him to begin a car collection in 1956 that led to the museum here. The museum houses 250 classic cars, instruments including a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, railroad cars and more.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct system that we have followed all the way from Bishop today ends here, at an ornamental spillway called the Cascades just off old US-6. The spillway has been listed as a Los Angeles and California landmark and as a national Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The water has traveled 338 miles down the Owens Valley and over the mountains to reach the Van Norman Reservoir. The Sylmar area was one of the last parts of Los Angeles to become fully urbanized, partly because the freeways were not completed this far north until 1981. In 1984, Sylmar was still largely rural, though a 1962 proposal by the city Planning Department had promoted an increase in density. At that time, the city’s master plan, which still left 17% of the area as agricultural, was met with disapproval by residents. This rural land use can still be seen today with corrals on large lots and horse trails into the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. The area has seen two major earthquakes, in 1971 and 1994. The 1971 quake was of magnitude 6.5 and caused 58 deaths and more than $500 million in damage. It was located on a fault that was not previously considered a threat. The 1994 Northridge earthquake was located to the south but caused a large amount of damage in Sylmar. This quake damaged the area freeway network, including collapsing bridges in Newhall Pass where we entered Los Angeles at I-5. Some bridges there had also collapsed in the earthquake of 23 years earlier and had been rebuilt with structural improvements.
We next come to the Mission Hills neighborhood, where the Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded in 1797. This was the seventeenth of the twenty-one Spanish missions established in what was then called Alta California. The mission was later confiscated by the Mexican government, but returned to the church in 1861. The buildings we see today are not the originals, having been extensively repaired around 1923 after decades of damage as area settlers used beams, tiles and nails for their own buildings. It was completely rebuilt after the 1971 earthquake. Today the mission grounds are a museum and the church is an active chapel. Many celebrities we would have known in 1962 are buried in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery, including Bob Hope and his wife Dolores Hope, Walter Brennan, Chuck Connors, George Gobel, and Clarence Charles "Ducky" Nash. The mission is located in the middle of the triangle formed by several freeways: I-5, I-405, and the Simi Valley Freeway. In old city plans for Los Angeles, another freeway was planned to run adjacent to the east side of the mission grounds.
Of the names I mentioned above, Clarence Charles "Ducky" Nash is probably the one you don’t recognize, but you would recognize his voice: that of Donald Duck. He voiced Donald for Walt Disney Studios for almost 50 years, in over 120 shorts and films, starting with The Wise Little Hen. When Disney shut down the animated shorts department in 1962, Clarence Nash continued to work on Donald in various projects, notably performing the song "Macho Duck" on the Mickey Mouse Disco album in the 1970s. His final performance was in Mickey's Christmas Carol in 1983, which made Donald the only character in that film to be voiced by his original actor.
Besides the mission, Mission Hills is also the home of the oldest residence in the San Fernando Valley, Rómulo Pico Adobe, also known as Ranchito Rómulo or Andrés Pico Adobe. This small home was built in 1834 and listed as a California Historical Landmark in 1939. In 1962, the City of Los Angeles included the Pico Adobe and the Leonis Adobe in its first group of Cultural-Historic Monuments. It was still used as a home by Rómulo and Catarina Pico until the late 1890s, but then abandoned until 1930. Mark Raymond Harrington, curator of the Southwest Museum, bought the property at that time and repaired the structure, selling it to the City of Los Angeles in 1965. The city now operates the site as a park and museum, with exhibits of Native American beads, Mission and Spanish-Mexican era artifacts, costumes and clothing, and furniture from the Victorian era.
The City of San Fernando is next down the road, and is completely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles. While most of the towns in the surrounding San Fernando Valley agreed to annexation by Los Angeles in the 1910s to obtain their new water supply from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, San Fernando's groundwater supplies allowed it to remain a separate city. San Fernando is a good place to commemorate labor union leader Cesar Chavez’s 1962 activities, as the city has a memorial to him, dedicated in 2004. He is perhaps the best known Latino American civil rights activist, because of the work he performed for many years to organize farm workers in California and elsewhere around the country. Chavez worked in the fields himself until 1952, when he became an organizer for the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. In his work there, he urged Mexican Americans to register and vote, and he made speeches throughout California supporting workers' rights. He became Community Service Organization's national director in 1958, before forming the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, with Dolores Huerta. That later became the United Farm Workers union. He had a public-relations approach to unionism and used nonviolent tactics achieve nationwide support for the farm workers, and by the late 1970s, UFW was the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. During Chavez's tenure with the UFW, it was committed to restricting immigration, especially the Bracero Program that had existed since 1942, which he saw as flooding the labor market with cheap immigrant labor for the growers, lowering the wages of the workers already here. The United Farm Workers’ efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964. Unfortunately, that sounds like the same problem we have today: it seems that ending a legal immigration program may have merely substituted illegal immigration, and we still have too many low-wage workers.
We’re coming to the end of the day, and passing a Foster’s Freeze, so it’s time to stop for dinner. Foster’s Freeze is a soft-serve ice cream chain that has been in business since 1946, though not at this location. The chain began when George Foster opened the first store in Inglewood, California, a location that still remains. The business has been through many owners with differing ideas of what to do with the chain over the years. Today, it is down to just 88 locations in California, from a high of over 300 stores. Additionally, 163 El Pollo Loco restaurants now serve Fosters Freeze products. Looking over the menu, I could go for something I’ve never had before: a Pastrami Burger! Or, I could try James Restaurant, which appears to have opened in 1953. With its old-style neon sign and fiberglass horse statue on the roof, you can’t miss it. James features U-shaped booths that give you a kind of secluded feeling and serve old-fashioned diner food with a Greek touch. They also still use a real cash register that looks like it’s been there since the 1950s.
Old US-6 comes next to the Pacoima neighborhood. This is another old farming community, taking advantage of the cheap and plentiful water of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the 1910s to grow olives, peaches, apricots, oranges, lemons, and poultry. After World War II, the area experienced a wave of African American settlement because they had been excluded from many other Los Angeles neighborhoods due to racial discrimination in housing. By 1960, almost all of the 10,000 African Americans in the San Fernando Valley lived in either Pacoima or Arleta. During the next decade, immigrants from rural Mexico began to move here due to the low housing costs and proximity to manufacturing jobs. The African Americans who were better established by then began to move out and, within less than two decades, were replaced by an even poorer Latino immigrant population. In the 1990 Census, 71% of Pacoima's population was of Hispanic/Latino descent while only 10% was still African American. The City of Los Angeles did very little for the area for up to 1955, witnessed by the fact that in that year, Pacoima lacked curbs, paved sidewalks, and paved streets. That year, they began public infrastructure work. But the area has continued to be poor, becoming the poorest area in the San Fernando Valley by 1994, with one in three residents living in public housing. Many live in San Fernando Gardens, a massive project which was built during World War II to house workers at the nearby Lockheed aerospace facilities. Recent events such as Lockheed cutting over 8,000 jobs at its Burbank, California plant in the early 1990s and General Motors cutting 2,600 jobs when it closed its Van Nuys plant in 1992, have contributed to the slide. General Motors moved their jobs and production to a Canadian plant and had their Van Nuys complex demolished in 1998, a project my father worked on.
One amenity in the area is the Hansen Dam Municipal Golf Course, which opened in 1964. The course features a lighted driving range, practice chipping and putting greens. The course also has interesting elevation changes, as the land generally slopes away from the Hansen Dam. The clubhouse was added in 1974. Another site offering services to residents is the local library, which opened in 1961 as part of a project to construct of six libraries in the San Fernando Valley. Also near the foot of the dam and adjacent to the highway is an unusual public works site, the Hansen Spreading Grounds. This is a kind of shallow stormwater retention pond that allows water to percolate down into the water table, so it can be pumped out in times of need for municipal use. Because about 30 to 40 percent of the water used in Los Angeles County is pumped from groundwater supplies, this kind of storage is very important. Without it, during the few times it rains, the stormwater would simply run directly out to the ocean. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works operates 27 of these sites around the county.
As we enter the Sun Valley neighborhood, we also cross Lankershim Boulevard. This street almost became US-6 during 1963. The occasion was the completion in 1962 of the east end of the Hollywood Freeway at the Harbor Freeway interchange. This route appeared on some maps and some US-6 signing was apparently installed at the Harbor Freeway interchange, but none on the streets that would have connected it to the west. The plan was to eventually route US-6 south on some new freeways, but instead it remained on San Fernando Boulevard for two more years, where it had been for decades. The plan was not adopted because the state decided instead to eliminate the US-6 designation south of Bishop altogether, which was done in 1964. There are some older motels near the Lankershim Boulevard intersection, including the Coral Bells Motel, Mi Casita Valley Motel, Villa Las Palmas, Mid Valley Inn, and Jay Motel. As these are in an industrial area of auto repair and sales businesses, I think I will move on.
And, it’s just as well that I moved on, because we soon come to the lovely Pink Motel. This post-war, mid-century modern style motel is complete with concrete screen blocks, neon sign, palm trees, drive-thru canopy, and a pink and blue exterior color scheme. Joseph Thomulka built the Pink Motel in 1947 when he moved from Pennsylvania and two years later added the Pink Café, now known as Cadillac Jack's Café. The final piece was added in 1959: a fish-shaped swimming pool. Before the I-5 freeway opened, US-6 was the major route north out of Los Angeles, so this was an excellent area for all these motels. The Pink Motel is one of very few to have survived and it did so in a completely LA style, as it is now primarily used as a film location. To accommodate this use, the motel and Cadillac Jack's are kept in prime 1950s condition. I had originally intended to stop for the night just ahead in Burbank, California, but I just changed my mind. By the way, there is another Pink Motel, unrelated to this one, in Cherokee, North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check out its cute fairy neon sign at my Roadtrip-'62 ™ Where Should We Go Next page.
Perhaps I will regret staying in this industrial area, but for now the motel just seems too cool to miss. And it is industrial around here, with the retention ponds of the Hansen Spreading Grounds, the huge Vulcan Materials gravel pit on the north side of the highway, some recycling businesses, and even an electrical generating plant nearby. On the other hand, you can tell we’re near Hollywood, as the antique stores also advertise movie props! If it were 1962, I would go watch a movie at the Laurel Drive-In, just a half-mile off old US-6. The Laurel Drive-In opened in 1955 and was closed in 1969. It was demolished shortly thereafter and most of the property is now underneath the Ronald Reagan Freeway, with some being part of Ritchie Valens Park. Since it’s gone, I guess I’ll play a round of golf at the Hansen Dam Municipal Golf Course, as that’s about as close to the 1962-era I can find for entertainment here. See you back on US-6 tomorrow!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2016 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
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