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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

January 17, 1994|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

It has been called a lot of things over its long life: the Ribbon Highway, California 26, Ramona Boulevard, and finally the San Bernardino Freeway and "I-Ten."

But for at least 30 years, travelers have called it a pain in the neck.

The San Bernardino Freeway began more than 100 years ago as a three-quarter-mile-long dirt road with railroad tracks running down the middle. All of it cut through a 500-acre development called Ramona Acres, which is now Monterey Park.

Ramona Acres was the brainchild of James de Barth Shorb, a pioneer who also founded the city of Alhambra. By 1887, 215 families had bought lots from Shorb in what he advertised as a "fog- and frost-free" neighborhood, with its own railroad station, lumberyard, post office and, of course, real estate office.

Shorb had named the town after one of his young and willful daughters, Ramona, who would become more famous for inspiring a novel than a subdivision.

Author Helen Hunt Jackson, researching a book on Southern California, was visiting the Shorbs one day when little Ramona burst into the room to glimpse the famous author. Rather than being dismayed by Ramona's abrupt manners, Jackson instantly adored the spirited child and decided to name her next heroine Ramona.

Jackson's "Ramona" became a novel about a romance between a half-Mexican girl and a Cahuilla Indian youth. It was adapted into a play that is still staged each summer by locals in the hills outside Hemet.

There are several version of how the name "Ramona" came to adorn the novel. The character was said to be a composite of several women Jackson had met, one of them a basket-maker named Ramona Lubo. And little Ramona Shorb's own grandmother was a California native named Maria Ramona Yorba Wilson.

As the town of Ramona grew, so did surrounding cities, and by 1916 Ramona residents decided it was time to stop Alhambra, South Pasadena and Pasadena from dumping their sewage in Ramona.

The citizenry found their town had developed an image problem: It smelled.

Townsfolk decided a more verdant-sounding appellation would help give the town a fresh start. When Ramona was incorporated in 1916, it renamed itself Monterey Park after the nearby Monterey Hills.

The idea seemed to work. In 1931, the original three-quarter-mile Ramona Boulevard had grown to match the city. It became several miles of paved two-lane road, lined with a drugstore, a bakery and a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. The state was so impressed that it christened Ramona Boulevard as California 26, the first thoroughfare in the county to be declared a state highway.

In 1935, in the midst of the Depression, Ramona was linked to Garvey Avenue and California 26 became a four-lane marvel, a state-of-the-art, technically perfect 30-mile scenic highway that snaked through the rolling hills of the San Gabriel Valley, linking the booming citrus industry of Pomona to the Downtown Civic Center.

By 1939, even that kind of road was not enough for the freewheeling suburbs of Southern California. Legislation authorized a new kind of highway, with no intersections and no right of access from adjacent property. No one even knew what to call these super-roads; "stopless motorway" was one cumbersome suggestion. In 1940, the first was christened the Arroyo Seco Parkway--now the Pasadena Freeway.

As the postwar population explosion and new suburban neighborhoods overtook the orange groves, "Ramona Highway" was promoted to freeway status.

But traffic only got worse, and in 1949 at Aliso Street in Downtown Los Angeles, the state Transportation Department began constructing the western end of a new six-lane Ramona Freeway. It would parallel the old road, which the city had outgrown.

As construction crews moved east into the San Gabriel Valley, residents began to complain. Property owner Charles Hassheider, unconvinced that these new freeways would make driving easier, told The Times: "It would take a road pilot to direct motorists how to get to West Covina or Covina from this freeway."

In the eight years it took to build, the freeway's name was changed. In 1954, state officials abandoned Ramona Freeway for San Bernardino Freeway. They thought naming the freeway after its destination made more sense than naming it for a fictional character. At one point, locals were calling it the "Ribbon Freeway" because of the ribbon-cutting ceremonies held by each city it passed through.

By 1958, it was done--the second freeway to be completed in Los Angeles County (the Hollywood was begun earlier but finished third). It was four miles long and cost $28 million.

Today the San Bernardino Freeway, which began as dirt lanes the width of a wagon with a railroad track down the middle, has grown to eight lanes of car and truck traffic plus two lanes of busway; it still has a train track down the middle.

It rumbles day and night. The noise could awaken the spirit of Ramona herself.

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