Historical Tour of State Route 178

Historical Tour of State Route 178
From The Kern Canyon to Freeman Junction
By Russ Connelly

178mapConstruction began on a road through the Kern Canyon in the mid 1890’s. The road was graded dirt and extended from the mouth of the canyon (15 miles east of Bakersfield) to the site of Southern California Edison’s KR1 powerhouse about two miles inside the canyon. This road was built by Edison Electric for constructing their Kern River powerhouse between 1902 and 1907. When completed, KR1 was the largest hydroelectric facility in the world and boasted the longest, most powerful transmission line (75,000 volts) which stretched 118 miles from the plant, over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles.

Edison horse team hauling generator parts at the mouth of the Kern Canyon
Edison horse team hauling generator parts at the mouth of the Kern Canyon
Mouth of the Kern River Canyon once paved in the 1940
Mouth of the Kern River Canyon once paved in the 1940’s

In late 1919, Highway 178 (then known as Legislative Route 57) was added to the State highway system and was called “The Walker Pass Route” for the pass the road covers on it’s way to the desert junction of Freeman. The state highway bond issue of 1919 allowed for the grading of the road between the KR1 powerhouse and Democrat. The grading was done by convict labor from Folsom Prison Camp 9 and was completed in 1924 at a cost of over $530,000. The severe cost of the grading was due to the steep sides of the canyon wall and the rock that had to be blasted out of the way to make the roadbed. “The Canyon” as it is known to locals, is notorious for its many and usually dangerous curves. It is an intimidating road with a steep rocky canyon wall on one side and the mighty Kern River on the other.

1924: Highway 178 just above KR1 powerhouse. Note the rock "retaining wall" at left
1924: Highway 178 just above KR1 powerhouse. Note the rock “retaining wall” at left.
As the roadway appeared in the 1930’s: Narrow, twisting and poorly paved
As the roadway appeared in the 1930’s: Narrow, twisting and poorly paved

Many have died along the highway as a result of it being narrow and curvy. Several improvements have been made to eliminate or improve curves and improve sightlines. One thing that has not changed since the 1920’s is the frequency of rock slides that occur as a result of expansion and contraction of the canyon wall due to rains and temperature. The Tehachapi earthquake of 1952 also caused many major rock slides. Many floods, including those in 1940 and 1942, washed away several portions of the road. Floods were a threat until Isabella Reservoir was completed in 1953. Until the late 1970’s, a sign at the mouth of the canyon told travelers that this dangerous road was not patrolled at night and travel was at your own risk.

1942: Flood damage about 1 mile inside the Kern Canyon
1942: Flood damage about 1 mile inside the Kern Canyon
1952: Earthquake damage. This is the nearly the same location as a 1984 slide during Caltrans reconstruction that closed the road for over three months.
1952: Earthquake damage. This is the nearly the same location as a 1984 slide during Caltrans reconstruction that closed the road for over three months.

The first reference to any highway between Democrat and Bodfish is in a Bakersfield newspaper article from 1905 mentioning newly-opened County Road 148. This primitive road diverged off Breckenridge Road near Mt Adelaide and passed over the mountains, down to Democrat Springs and then along the canyon to Bodfish. The county of Kern improved the 17 mile section of road from Democrat to Bodfish and turned it over to the State for maintenance as part of the State Highway on January 1, 1926. The county turned the rest of the mountain road over to the U.S. Forest Service and is now known as road 28S09 and is accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles.

Between 1905 and 1959, Democrat Springs was a resort that featured hot mineral springs and a hotel. Local ranchers and travelers stopped at the hotel for meals and to soak in the waters. The Democrat property has since changed hands many times and with the ‘high-speed’ road between the Kern River Valley and Bakersfield, the resort was passed by. What is left now are fenced-off ruins that are a part of local history. Note:  In case you stop to try and look at the ruins, the area residents are serious about those “No Trespassing signs”

Democrat Springs democrat springs 2

The Democrat Hotel and Resort Circa 1910

Highway 178 also passed through the small village of Miracle Springs. Miracle featured a hotel, general store, campground, hot springs and even its own Post Office. While the beginnings of this community were around 1901, the end of this community began in 1975 with fire destroying the Miracle Hot Springs Hotel and ended in 1986 with a fire destroying the remaining general store across the road. The Forest Service finished the job by closing the area, clearing the remains of all buildings at Miracle Springs and reopening the area to public use in 1992. The location signs for Miracle Springs were removed by the County in 1987.

hobo hot springsHobo Hot Springs, later named Miracle Hot Springs.  These buildings were later torn down to make way for a RV resort on the property.  This is the current site of the Kern River raft access area.  The pipe that is in the center of the picture carried mineral water from the springs to the cabins.  The Forest Service later built a campground across the road and named it Hobo Campground.

A Hot Springs winter: the resort in 1969 Photo courtesy of Jason Houston
A Hot Springs winter: the resort in 1969 Photo courtesy of Jason Houston

Two Views of the Miracle Springs Resort:

Late 1950’s
Late 1950’s
Same View: 2006 Only the tree is still there. Photo by Andy Field
Same View: 2006 Only the tree is still there. Photo by Andy Field

At Miracle, the state route connected with a road already established in 1897 by the Pacific Light & Power Company for building their Borel powerhouse. This road was maintained by the County and went from the “hobo” camp at Miracle Springs to the junction with the county road to Caliente at Bodfish. At this intersection, 178 turned left, went down Bodfish Grade and continued past the landmark Borel Flume. This overhead waterway was built in 1902 to feed the Borel powerhouse three miles to the west. It was replaced by an underground pipe in 1997 due to seismic concerns and its frequent leaks.

The Bodfish flume in 1937 Note the oiled gravel roadbed.
The Bodfish flume in 1937. Note the oiled gravel roadbed.
1997: The Bodfish flume being dismantled No more free car washes!
1997: The Bodfish flume being dismantled No more free car washes!

Continuing past Bodfish and through Hot Springs Valley, the road made an abrupt left turn (eliminated in the 1980’s) and entered the small communities of Garfield and Kernvale before cutting through the “new” town of Lake Isabella.

In 1966, the state authorized an upgrade of 178 to four lane expressway from China Gardens, east of Democrat to Isabella Dam. This improved 13-mile section opened on October 13, 1974. While this new section cut four miles off the trip, it took seven years to construct due to political and funding difficulties as well as the large amount of grading that was necessary for the new alignment. At the time, it was one of the most expensive stretches of expressway in California. The new “freeway” also bypassed the towns of Miracle Springs, Bodfish, Garfield, Kernvale and Lake Isabella. The old highway through Kernvale & Lake Isabella was upgraded to four lanes prior to state relinquishment in 1974 and is now known as Lake Isabella Blvd. The stretch of replaced road from China Gardens to Bodfish is now known as Old Kern Canyon Road (County Road 214).

Another Settlement that time has forgotten is Scovern Hot Springs and the old Hot Springs House which burned in 1971.  Located in the center of Hot Springs Valley, it was originally a stopping point for horse stages traveling between the railroad at Caliente and Old Kernville during the late 1800’s.  Remnants of the local landmark built in 1866 could be seen from Lake Isabella Boulevard until the mid 1990’s when the original wood framing of the hot springs building finally fell down. Tall weeds grow along old 178 just past Kern Valley Plaza that obscure the springs. The entire property was fenced by a new owner in 2001 who turned the remaining property into a vineyard with plans on reopening a hot springs resort on the property sometime in the future.

1940's approach to old Isabella. The small hill at center is today's Engineer's Point.
1940’s approach to old Isabella. The small hill at center is today’s Engineer’s Point.
2014 view from the same location, now the Auxiliary Dam Recreation Area.
Isabella approach 1940
Same view 2015

 

The construction of the Isabella Reservoir, authorized as a Federal flood control project in 1944, began construction in 1948. Before then, the State Division of Highways had the task of realigning 178 (as well as highway 155) out of the lakebed. Unfortunately for the local residents, that also meant the wholesale relocation of the original town of Isabella to an area to the south then known as the Scovern Ranch.

isabella dam
Construction of Isabella Main Dam 1950
lake isabella 1953
1953: The new town of Lake Isabella The highway in foreground is relocated highway 155

 A new bridge over the Borel canal was built near the Auxiliary Dam and the roadway realigned to the south and east nearer the mountains. This 1946 roadway is still in use today. To get an idea of where the town of Isabella was originally located, take the “Old Isabella Road” turnoff about a mile past the dam and drive down to the boat ramp.  The town was located directly in front of you, close to the end of Engineers Point.

Improvements to the 1946 road alignment helped straighten curves at Paradise Cove and Kissack Cove in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the stretch of road through the town of Mountain Mesa was widened to include a center turn lane in the early 1990’s. Rolling past the Kissack Ranch and over Kissack Grade, the realigned roadway reconnects to the original alignment just east of the town of South Lake.

In 2006: Original highway alignment coming up from the lakebed near South Lake.
In 2006: Original highway alignment coming up from the lakebed near South Lake.

Highway 178 continues past the ranching communities of Weldon and Onyx curving among such settlements as Paul’s Place which was originally called Earl’s Place. The highway has been realigned slightly so that Paul’s Place is now accessible from a local road that connects back to 178 a mile later.

earls placeWe also pass the site of what was the longest continuously operating store in California: The Onyx Store.  onyx storeContinuing east, the highway then begins its climb out of the Kern River Valley. This section of road, which was built originally by the County of Kern, was realigned up Walker Pass grade by the State in 1927 and passes the old stage stops and settlements of Canebrake and the Walker Pass Lodge, which burned in the late 1990’s.

walker pass service stationNear the summit of Walker Pass 1925

Near the summit of Walker Pass 1925From here, the highway continues to climb up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains topping Walker Pass at an elevation of 5250 feet before rolling down Freeman Canyon to meet State Highway 14 (old US 6) at Freeman Junction.

Freeman Junction was first homesteaded in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s a restaurant, gas station and mining activities dominated the area.  By the early 1970’s the residents were gone and the remains of the town were removed by passersby traveling the high desert highways. Nothing remains today but a State Historical Marker at the highway junction.

freeman monument
Site in 1976  Photo by Jason Houston  Site in 2006  Photo by Andy Field
Freeman Junction: A ghost town of itself. Photo by Mike Ballard
Freeman Junction: A ghost town of itself. Photo by Mike Ballard

Additional Materials and Assistance by:
Joel Windmiller, Michael Ballard, Andy Field & Jason Houston

  This material is Copyright 2007-2017 by Russ Connelly.
No text, pictures or images are to be reproduced without consent.

For additional information and comments, please contact
Russ Connelly at:: sdwinenroads @ yahoo (dot) com
(eliminate spaces in email address)

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