Cropped 1934 photo of Angeles Crest from the Automobile Club of Southern California.
The Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriel Mountains lets you drive 66 miles through "some of the most difficult terrain in the U.S." The drive is never particularly steep or challenging, which masks just how hard it was to build. Or maybe it was just crazy.
Nathan Masters of the LA As Subject project of KCET and the USC Libraries explores the backstory.
The ease of the drive belies the difficulty of the highway’s construction, which began in 1929 and continued for 27 years under the direction of the California Department of Highways (now Caltrans) and the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (now the Federal Highway Administration). During the Depression, homeless men performed much of the back-breaking work. Later, convicts from San Quentin and Chino took up the shovels and pickaxes and were even permitted to handle dynamite. “Good living conditions and a feeling of accomplishment make the assignments to this highway camp coveted by the prisoners,” engineer John Ritter reported in California Highways and Public Works. “There are no fences, no iron bars and no firearms in evidence, but even so attempted escapes by any of the inmates have been very infrequent.”
Engineer J. B. Lippincott, who surveyed the highway for the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1919 (and who had previously surveyed the Los Angeles Aqueduct for William Mulholland), routed it high above the narrow, winding canyons below. It hews to mountain slopes and surmounts ridge crests. Where nature failed to provide a way, workers created one, blasting roadcuts into granite and erecting bridges over drainages. Some cuts are as deep as 240 feet. In the high country near Islip Saddle, the highway tunnels twice through the mountainside. It achieves its highest elevation, 7,901 feet, at Dawson Saddle.
The highway forever changed the Angeles National Forest....