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Sleepy Alpine Braces for Rude Awakening : Smog Creeps In, Warning Town of Expected Growth

One in an occasional series of profiles of communities around San Diego County.

March 08, 1987|GORDON SMITH

ALPINE — There isn't much in Alpine that makes you think of the Alps. There are no craggy, snow-covered peaks, no ski runs, no pine forests, no high-country meadows. If there are people who wear lederhosen, they don't wear them around town.

What you find instead are sun-drenched hills that abound with small ranches and thick stands of chaparral. On an average of 37 days a year, you also find smog at what the federal government considers "unhealthful" levels; Alpine has the bad fortune to be at an elevation and location where smog from the greater San Diego area tends to collect.

Despite occasional smog, though, Alpine's atmosphere as a community is pure laid-back and country--surprising in a place only 35 minutes by freeway from sprawling San Diego.

There isn't a stoplight in town, and street lights are as scarce as new-wave haircuts. Residents often ride horses down the town's main streets without drawing stares.

It's the kind of community in which the owner of a lumber yard repainted his store and it was mentioned in the local paper, the Alpine Sun.

As housing projects and shopping centers spread across the distant North County in recent years, Alpine went practically unchanged. But now development is coming--and fast--to this former stage stop 30 miles east of San Diego.

One shopping center has been built, another is under construction and developers hope to build two more. Luxury custom homes are rising in an enclave called Rancho Palo Verde, two miles east of the town center, and plans for a tract of 239 homes on 260 acres a few miles to the west have been approved.

In addition, a 333-unit mobile home park is planned just north of Interstate 8 at Tavern Road. The park has already been annexed to the Alpine Sanitation District, and many locals predict that it is only a matter of time before final construction plans for it are approved, too.

Town residents are divided on the issue of growth. Some welcome it, others abhor it. Still others see it as inevitable but want to control it somehow. As bulldozers roar and hammers ring on new structures all over town, the people of Alpine debate whether growth will eventually overwhelm their community's rural character or whether, in fact, it already has.

Beatrice and Clayburn la Force moved to Alpine from San Diego in 1945.

"We've raised our children and our grandchildren out here," said Beatrice la Force, "so when people say they've lived here six years or something, we call them newcomers."

The La Forces' Sky Mesa Ranch consists of 150 acres on a hilltop with a panoramic view. Their house--a virtual museum of Western paraphernalia--is constructed of railroad ties and local rocks, and decorated with antique branding irons, saddles and Indian artifacts. Horse-drawn wagons and buggies from another era stand in a nearby field.

Now retired, Clayburn la Force formerly appraised property and worked for a company that made loans to farmers. Meanwhile, his wife dabbled in writing. In 1963, she began writing a history of the town, and when she finished "Alpine--History of a Mountain Settlement" in 1971, she published it herself at a cost of several thousand dollars.

"I did it for Alpine," she said.

According to Beatrice la Force, the town began to take shape in the 1860s as a way station on the road that linked San Diego with Julian and Warner Springs. Stagecoaches and cattle drovers made up most of the traffic, but within a few years wagons bearing gold ore from the mines near Julian were common, too.

In those days, Alpine was known as Viejas (the name came from nearby Viejas Mountain). "It was just a stage stop where drivers could get water and supplies. There was a big barn where they could change horses if they wanted to," the author noted. "It was an isolated spot."

New residents trickled into the area, most of them to homestead small ranches. But Alpine took a new direction when a wealthy businessman, Benjamin Arnold, arrived in 1888. Arnold, an ivory importer from Deep River, Conn., came to town hoping that the climate would cure his asthma. His lungs benefited greatly from that move, and so did the town of Alpine. Over the next decade, he built a house, a hotel, a one-room schoolhouse and a town hall to supplement the community's store and post office.

During those busy years, the town also acquired its name. The story goes that an elderly resident was taken with the way the sunlight and shadows played across the peaks in the area. It reminded her of her childhood in Switzerland's Alps, she said, and the other residents agreed that the name "Alpine" somehow suited the place. It certainly didn't discourage the growing number of people who, like Arnold, came to town for asthma and other health problems; from 1890 to 1940, Alpine flourished as a small health resort.

When the La Forces arrived in Alpine in 1945, the town still had fewer than 400 residents.

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