Take a drive along historic Sierra Highway

Courtesy SCV Historical Society
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For many Santa Clarita Valley commuters, Sierra Highway, which parallels state Route 14 (the Antelope Valley Freeway), is merely an alternative route from Canyon Country to Newhall.

But, why take a drive along Sierra Highway? Because, a leisurely drive along the road offers a glimpse into the Santa Clarita Valley’s past. It is among the most historic roadways in the area.

There is much to see along Sierra Highway, including many places familiar as locations for movie and television shoots, such as these historic eateries: the Backwoods Inn, Halfway House and Le Chene.

However, history — new and old — can be seen along every mile.

Historic Route 6

Before the Antelope Valley Freeway opened in 1963, Sierra Highway was the main artery from the SCV to Los Angeles. Known as U.S. Route 6, the entire roadway spanned 14 states and more than 3,562 miles. Named the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, Route 6 honors veterans of the Civil War.

Historic U.S. Route 6 is the oldest, longest and highest of the old roads. It runs from the waterfront in Long Beach to the waterfront at Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod.

Sierra Highway, on a small portion of Route 6, begins where it intersects with San Fernando Road and The Old Road, near the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, and continues to Palmdale, 40 miles away.

Beale’s Cut

Before there was a Sierra Highway, there was Beale’s Cut. It dates back to 1854 when Phineas Banning dug a 30-foot trench to afford better passage to Fort Tejon. In 1861, Edward Beale increased the trench to 90 feet. Beale’s Cut was the primary transportation passage through Newhall Pass until the Newhall Auto Tunnel was completed in 1910.

Beale’s Cut appeared in numerous films over the years. In Director John Ford’s “Three Jumps Ahead” (1923) starring Tom Mix, a man on a horse is seen “jumping” over the top of Beale’s Cut. Ford also used the film in “The Iron Horse,” (1924), “Stagecoach” (1939) and “Straight Shooting” (1917). The Buster Keaton film “Seven Chances” (1925) also featured Beale’s Cut.

Beale’s Cut is difficult to see because it is fenced off and not close enough to Sierra Highway to be easily spotted. It is also located on private property, not open to the public. During the El Niño storms of 1997-98, Beale’s Cut caved in. Today it is less than half its former depth.

An oft-vandalized stone monument marks a spot along Sierra Highway where information on Beale’s Cut was once displayed.

Newhall Auto Tunnel

In 1910, the 435-foot-long Newhall Auto Tunnel was constructed a quarter-mile to the northwest of Beale’s Cut. Because of increased traffic, the auto tunnel was replaced in 1938 by a four-lane road, Highway 6, then renamed Highway 14 and now called Sierra Highway.

To create the larger roadway the mountain above the tunnel was blasted away. The cutout of the mountain where the tunnel was located can still be seen on Sierra Highway, just at the crest of the Newhall Pass.

Warmuth Honey House

The Honey House at 17262 Sierra Highway was built in 1954 by James Willis Dyer to process honey produced at his family ranch near Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce. Set into the hillside behind the Honey House is a subterranean cellar where honey was kept cool. It was known as the Dyer Honey House until the 1960s when it was sold to beekeepers Joe and Margaret Warmuth.

It was converted to a small Honey & Bee Museum in 1986. In its final years, it shared space with a custom leather shop. The Warmuth family sold the property to the Santa Clarita Community College District in 2005.

The Lady of the Charred Tree

In 2007, the Buckweed fire swept down Sierra Highway to the SCV burning 21 homes, as well as trees, brush and grass. Just a few miles north of Davenport Road, on the left side of the road as you travel out of the SCV sits “The Lady of the Charred Tree.” The tree, badly damaged in the fire takes its name from a deep burn in its trunk that resembles an outline of the Virgin Mary. The tree, despite the serious damage it sustained in the fire, still lives. It has become a shrine for many who stop and leave religious tokens and written prayers attached to its limbs and trunk.

Rowher Flat OHV Area

The U.S. Forest Service manages the 10,000-acre Rowher Flat Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area. Access is well marked along Sierra Highway near Davenport Road. It has been popular with off-road recreationists since the early 1960s.

Use at Rowher Flat spans several thousand years into prehistory. Local springs and a diverse landscape provided sufficient water and food to support a Tataviam Indian village on the flats. Ranching, mining and World War II-aircraft-landing training has also occurred in the area.

Callahan’s Old West and Sierra Inn

Robert E. Callahan’s Old West Trading Post at 13660 Sierra Highway in “Outlaw Canyon” was a well-known “tourist trap” from 1962 until 1973. The property served as a museum for items collected by Callahan.

Among the thousands of items were hundreds of “Old West” photos, 20,000 horseshoes, 500 wagon wheels and a 300-pound anvil. From 1986-2000, the building was leased it to the Canyon Theatre Guild.

The miniature Ramona Chapel and Little Red Schoolhouse that once sat in the museum’s backyard were donated by Callahan’s estate to the SCV Historical Society and are now on display at Heritage Junction in Newhall.

The Sierra Inn, 13800 Sierra Highway, was a long time neighborhood bar. I’ve always had a fondness for the statue of the sitting camel that inhabits the property, now wearing a jaunty beret.

Courtesy SCV Historical Society

Tony Alamo Christian Church

Today the weed-strewn property of the Tony Alamo Christian Church sits quietly at 13136 Sierra Highway. The building was once the home of Wilson’s, a 24-hour cafe and local institution, but was sold to the Holy Alamo Christian Church, after diners dwindled with the opening of the Antelope Valley Freeway.

The Alamo Christian Foundation was a religious cult that was founded in 1969 by Tony and Susan Alamo in Hollywood. Locally, they were known for the multi-page pamphlets espousing a variety of conspiracy theories that were placed on car windshields throughout the SCV. The church moved to Arkansas in 1976.

Tony Alamo was convicted a variety of crimes and died in prison in May 2017.

Reflections

Driving along Sierra Highway it is easy to dismiss the less-attractive portions of the roadway as prime targets for redevelopment. However, even the abandoned businesses, weathered signs and repurposed gas stations, all being slowly swallowed by the sagebrush, have a certain mystique.

My favorite is Aloha Auto Sales. I cannot imagine a more remote location for a used car business. I have yet to research the history of Aloha Auto, or to find out why, it still sits, vacant, weed-strewn, a ghost on a highway of history.

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