by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last night, about 100 people came out to a hear a presentation I gave for the Chino Hills Historical Society on a history of Carbon Canyon Road, one of only a few thoroughfares leading from the Inland Empire to the coastal region (the others being the 91 and 57 freeways.)
The talk began with the observation that, in the 1910s, Carbon Canyon Road was opened as a “sister” roadway with two others of note, including Topanga Canyon Road and, right near the Homestead, Turnbull Canyon Road.
It was also noted, however, that these canyon roads had ancestors in the form of animal and human trails, including those used by the indigenous people of our area. So, it is not at all surprising that native villages like Topag-na, Awig-na (La Puente) and Pasinog-na (Chino Hills/Chino) were situated near these three outlets from inland valleys—San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Chino/Inland Empire—to the coast. After all, the indigenous people had complex trade networks throughout the region and direct access to and from these inland and coastal areas was, of course, vital.
After European incursions and settlements from the 1770s and later, these canyon routes were certainly developed for further transportation and trade. We know, for example, that William “Don Julian” Workman had roads, another being today’s Hacienda Boulevard (the “hacienda” referring almost certainly to the Workman and Rowland home sites a mile apart from each other) he used through the Puente Hills to get to the harbor at San Pedro and the little-known one at Anaheim Landing (where Seal Beach is now as the San Gabriel River empties into the Pacific). The Rancho Santa Ana del Chino was owned by another “Don Julian,” Isaac Williams, who must have had a road through Carbon Canyon for the same purpose.
The rural ranching and agricultural period continued long after Workman and Williams shuffled off this mortal coil, but there were some gradual changes afoot. In 1887, Richard Gird, who’d acquired the Chino ranch several years prior from one of Williams’ daughters, launched a town by that name during the great Boom of the 1880s. A decade later, Edward Doheny, who developed the Los Angeles Oil Field earlier in the Nineties, brought in Orange County’s first oil well at Olinda, just outside the western end of Carbon Canyon.
That was in 1897, the year E.L. Erie brought out the region’s first “horseless carriage” at his Boyle Height home, with former mayor William Henry Workman (nephew of William Workman) being the passenger on that inaugural ride. As the first years of the Twentieth Century dawned, the automobile age was launched and the rapid growth of cars created some significant challenges.
One was how to plan for, build and maintain good roads, ones that had to be far superior to earlier examples. Sometimes, it was private entities, like the Automobile Club of Southern California that led the way in advocating for and carrying out programs to create reliable routes for drivers. Local governments, including cities and counties, did what they could to keep up with the frenetic pace of auto usage. Finally, the state and federal governments had to step up with broad policies and programs in terms of roads and highways.
As mentioned above, Carbon Canyon Road, like its siblings, was promoted in this early era as a time-saving route from San Bernardino County to Orange County and it was organizations like the Chino Chamber of Commerce on the eastern end which advocated heavily. The emphasis was both on leisure and commerce, so that the former involved access to the beaches to those going west (and, presumably, to the mountains for those heading east), while the latter meant more efficiency for truck and other commercial traffic going through the area.
Some of the earliest newspaper articles found on the development of the road came in 1913 (again, about the same time as those for Turnbull Canyon) and work was finally begun, under the auspices of the county, the following year. The amount of money was modest, in the lower five figures, for a basic grading and other moderate improvements on a winding, curving route, which was finally completed and opened in early January 1915. Once the road exited the canyon on the east and emerged from the foothills, it had a straight route to Central Avenue, the main north-south route leading to Chino.
While there was much celebration following the completion of the road, it didn’t take long for a hard reality to set in. As with its sister roads, Carbon Canyon was swamped during the heavy rains that fell in the ensuing winter of 1915-16. Washouts and closures were the result and, while our temperate climate meant generally dry winters, there were those occasional years of significant rainfall that could wreak havoc on these canyon routes.
So, it wasn’t too long before advocacy for paving came to the fore. In 1921, the Ontario office manager of the Auto Club had a spill in his jalopy in Carbon Canyon, with his fiancee leaping from the vehicle as it careened down a slope. This may have had an influence on further developments with the road and, by 1923, newspaper accounts began to appear with appeals for improvements, including road straightening, better-built culverts, and paving on the San Bernardino County side (Orange County promised to follow suit for its part of the roadway.) Again, much of this was spearheaded by Chino interests, including the chamber of commerce, though there were also two small communities built in Carbon Canyon at the time—Sleepy Hollow (1923) and Mountain View Park (1925).
There was another incentive and a major advocate in the form of the Los Serranos Country Club, established by Long Beach investors on a former Chino Ranch headquarters with an 1870s adobe house on it. A golf course, man-made lake, and a subdivision were all part of the endeavor and the push to pave Carbon Canyon Road was an important element, saving time and miles for those heading out from the coastal regions to play golf, buy a lot or stay in a country home.
Some improvements were made to the road, including a new route that shortened the distance and eliminated some hazards, better grading, and a few bridges because of Carbon Creek wending through the canyon. There were delays, including another wet winter with major flooding in 1926-27, that pushed back work.
Finally, in 1928, a Los Angeles firm got a contract to pave the road at a cost of around $100,000 (by contrast, a paving and improvement job just now in the final stages must be a great deal more costly, even adjusted for inflation.) The work took place during the latter part of that year and into the next and, when, the project was finished, a celebratory picnic was held in early May 1929 at “the summit,” an eminence at about 1,150 feet above sea level with fine views of the canyon and the inland region.
The Orange County portion took a couple years longer for completion, but, once the full route, which comes out of Carbon Canyon and then turns south to what became Imperial Highway, was finished, both counties lobbied heavily for inclusion of Carbon Canyon Road in the newly developed state highway system. The thoroughfare was given an LRN (legislative route number) of 177, though it was not signed until a revamp of the state numbering system led to a re-designation to State Route 142.
With Carbon Canyon Road integrated into the state highway system and with its crossing, at its eastern end, the newly designated Chino-Corona highway, now the 71 Freeway, the state could more easily justify the placement of a new prison in Chino. Opened in 1940, the correctional facility’s main gate was at the eastern terminus of Carbon Canyon Road.
Its presence, however, likely was a main reason why suburban development was lacking in the Chino area, even after the extraordinary waves of migration and expansion of the suburbs washed through the region after World War II, including the eastern San Gabriel Valley around the Homestead, where, by the 1960s, Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, Valinda and other communities mushroomed.
By the 1970s, however, even the Chino area near the once-isolated prison and where dairy farmers had migrated after leaving the Cerritos/Artesia area following the war, was starting to change dramatically. A Chino Hills Plan for the unincorporated area west of Chino included “master planning,” a concept becoming more in vogue, especially in areas like Irvine in Orange County.
Carbon Canyon residents, whose numbers grew with a subdivision from the mid-1960s called Western Hills Oaks, attempted to forestall future development by lobbying State Senator Ruben S. Ayala of Chino to introduce successful legislation giving Carbon Canyon Road a scenic highway designation and signs for that appeared for a few years. While this and practical considerations of work and cost kept the road to a two-lane configuration, more homes were inevitable as population growth and suburban sprawl continued virtually unabated.
Today, Carbon Canyon Road, like, say, routes going over the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills, from the San Fernando Valley to the west side of Los Angeles, is a heavily-traveled commuter route, especially as burgeoning settlement is mainly in places further east in San Bernardino and Riverside county communities. Travelers to and from work now have apps to assist in finding the least-crowded route and volumes on Highway 142 continue to grow.
The history of Carbon Canyon Road, like those of Topanga and Turnbull, reflects the gradual change of suburban growth and the transportation routes to service the development of the area. The future, though, will be an increasing test to how sustainable those patterns can be. As a 16-year resident of Carbon Canyon, I see directly and daily the transition from that past to the future, so last night’s talk was both personal and professional.