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Migrant Jalopy: 1939

Migrant Jalopy: 1939

U.S. 99 in Kern County on the Tehachapi Ridge. February 1939. Migrant workers travel seasonally back and forth between the Imperial Valley and San Joaquin Valley over this ridge. View full size. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. (The billboard up ahead: "76 miles to GRAPEVINE air cooled cafe.")


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The pavement is three years old in Lange's photo. The buildings on the opposite wall of the canyon are the remnants of the original 1915 Grapevine, which served the old Ridge Route, a road which better meets popular expectations of an "old" highway, although it was completely paved as early as 1919. The last two remaining tourist cottages were demolished in 1999.

The Grapevine Grade, seen here, was upgraded to four lanes with a center guardrail in in 1943, as the highway's strategic importance and high accident rate made this a priority even in wartime. The present eight-lane configuration, with the northbound traffic on the east wall of the canyon, dates to 1960.

In 1986, I could barely maintain 30 mph up the Grapevine Grade in my '79 Dodge Colt. I can only imagine the troubles of the migrant jalopy.

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Grapevine Cafe Thoughts

It sure looks like a location just a few miles uphill (Los Angeles side) from where Frazier Mountain Parkway goes off to the west. Where the truck stop is. Maybe 4-8 miles from Gorman.

I'm wondering if the Grapevine Cafe is a cafe of that name located somewhere further along 99. So I just checked the mileages on Google maps and guess what using the current improved and straightened freeway, Delano is 75.3 miles from Gorman. The Delano area is and was a major producer of table, raisin and less expensive wine grapes. In fact for those of us old enough to remember, the Cesar Chavez led UFW strike against the table grape industry erupted in Delano. Sounds like it would be a reasonable place to locate a Grapevine Cafe.

More trivia -

this is the area where Christo implanted his umbrellas.

Plus these hills in a good year can be covered with large swathes of yellow flowers and orange California Poppies.

A last little stub of Highway 99 now ends at the border crossing between Calexico and Mexicali at the south end of the Imperial Valley. Most of the original 99 has been supplanted between the Imperial Valley and the pictured location by CA 86, then I-10 and I-5. I-5 splits off at the base of the "Grapevine" Tejon Pass, and 99 follows it's original routing north through the major population centers of the Central Valley to where it is absorbed again by I-5

As far as the road being in that condition, this being the major of the two routes from Southern California into Central and Northern California, it would have received a lot of attention and improvements during the WPA era. The other route being 1/101 along the coast

Can't be 76 miles

That's definitely US 99, all right. Also known as the Ridge Route Alternate, it had this three-lane configuration from its construction in 1933 until it was widened to four lanes in 1948-'51.

This photo must have been taken somewhere between Castaic and the present-day Interstate pit-stop of Grapevine. No point along this route is more than 40 miles from the town's 1939 location (which, thankfully, is roughly where Google pinpoints it).

As for the whitewashed redwood guardrails, I recall many older California highways still having them in the '80s.

Update: Google has since moved the pushpin to the current (post-1960) location of Grapevine, the D-shaped off-ramp turnaround at the valley floor.

Route 99

Note that it's a three-lane highway. The center was a first-come/first-serve passing lane for each direction. At least if things went according to plan. The last one I personally remember was more or less in the vicinity of Monterey or Salinas, Calif. in the early to mid-1950s. A precursor of the much safer 4-lane "super-highway."

Also, the roadway itself is concrete, with old-style ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk expansion joints. Shoulder is asphalt, as was typical.

Route 99

Route 99 goes way back, as well as from Mexico to Washington.

i got a camera, you go find some old cars and a time machine...

i also noticed that the cars are not modern, neither is the picture, being that its a clearly documented photo from 1939...(when was the last time you saw a highway with 1 billboard on it?)

wonderful collection

I love that you are collecting and preserving these old photos. I feel like much of our history is diappearing in hot attics and damp basements.


The guardrails certainly

The guardrails certainly aren't modern.

The road paving could've

The road paving could've been a federal make-work job (WPA / PWA). Many roads got paved during the Depression. My Dad remembers his Dad working on the crew that paved the street where they lived.

The Road

I'm not sure I think this was during that time frame. The road looks too good, and well paved, and a lot of them were not in those days.


If you took the cars away, it could just as well be today.

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