The Ortega Highway winds through the mountains from beautiful San Juan Capistrano to the growing Lake Elsinore Valley. Starting with nothing more than Indian foot paths and a fire trail along the creek, men of vision saw a highway to the sea, and began their labor of love only thirty three years after the subdivision of Rancho La Laguna created what is known today as Lake Elsinore.
In 1917, Sid Stephens, Carl Merrifield, Uede Jacobs, Adam Keck and other valley men started the mountain road with slip scrapers, horse teams, wheel barrows and shovels. They widened the fire trail up the mountain through Jim Knott's ranch at the west end of Grand Avenue. On top of the mountain they worked as far as the Upper San Juan Camp, continued to the Lower San Juan Camp, then as far as the site of the present bridge crossing San Juan Creek.
This was a labor of love -- nothing but horse and man power equipment. This first road followed close to the creek.
Enthusiasm for a modern road was sparked after James B. Lehigh came to Elsinore in the early 1920's. Lehigh startled the bankers by laying down $97,000 to open his account.
After becoming the vice-president of the First National Bank; vice-president of the building and loan association; vice president of the corporation owning the local weekly newspaper; and president of the chamber of commerce, Lehigh began to invest his money in Elsinore.
Lehigh began by appointing Del Crane, Elsinore's city engineer, as the chairman of the committee to get the road built. As Del told the story, "One day Lehigh said, 'Del, do you realize we've got only days, not weeks, to advertise this road and the barbeque and rodeo.'"
Del told Lehigh that he would distribute circulars for the barbecue if he could get one of those old Jennys (a World War I plane) from Santa Monica. Del got a plane with pilot, and the Leader-Press worked all night to get [the circulars] printed. He then rode along distributing circulars telling about the free barbecue, rodeo and the proposed highway."We made a loop," Del said. "The first day we dropped circulars over Murrieta, Temecula, Fallbrook, Vista, Escondido and San Diego, and back up the coast. The second day we flew over San Bernardino and Redlands. The third day we were over Ontario when the pilot said there was trouble. He landed in a field between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific tracks about five in the afternoon."
"The pilot said a cylinder had cracked. He looked around and saw a wrecked airplane nearby. 'This is the same engine I have,' he said. 'I can take the cylinder of the block and in a couple of hours have it installed in our plane.' "
"Those early pilots could and would do anything to keep their Jennys going -- true barnstormer style. He was ready by 9 p.m. We rented a Model T and drove to my home in Elsinore. The next morning we were on the plan again headed for Santa Monica."
Several days later (about 1925), 300 cars from several couties, drove west on Grand Avenue and up the old fire trail to a meadow opposite the Los Pinos Potrero Forest road. Later, Capistrano put on a barbecue in its public park. The supervisors of both Riverside and Orange Counties attended.
E.E. East, chief engineer for the Southern California Auto Club spoke, saying " I reccomend Jameson (President of Riverside County supervisors) save his gas tax money for a while; and that Jeffries (president of Orange County supervisors do the same." East said there were $200,000 lying in a Sacramento bank that they could apply for if they could get the Joint Highway District Act ammended to make it possible to build a road through two counties that would join two county seats.
Through their state senator and assemblyman, the bill was ammedned so that supervisors could use any monies available and would not have to tax the entire county. This took about a year and a half. There were 90 days in which the Governor could sign or veto the bill. Then there were three days.
"We were all frantic," Del said.
A visiting friend of Del told him he would wire a man in Sacramento who would see the governer. The telegram was sent out from the depot on Friday afternoon. Another was received Saturday morning, "The governor will sign".
In 20 days the Joint Highway District was formed by the supervisors of both Riverside and Orange Counties. Survey parties began immediately to work on both ends. They met each other at the county line.
The Riverside County contingent surveyed five different routes up the mountain to find the most practical high gear road. Orange County did likewise.
In a ceremony, preceded by an elaborate barbecue dinner, 800 persons vitally interested in the building of the Elsinore-San Juan Capistrano Highway-to-the-Sea, witnessed the ground breaking of the mountain unit, at San Juan Capistrano (June 1929).
Ortega Highway construction began in 1929 and continued through 1933 by the State of California, Orange and Riverside Counties. In August 1933, the Ortega Highway dedication ceremonies were held at Jameson Point overlooking Lake Elsinore.
Ortega Highway - Name With a Legacy
Rev. John O'sullivan of the San Juan Capistrano mission was the one to suggest Ortega Highway as the name for the new highway in honor of Don Jose Francisco Ortega, member of the Portola expedition, who with father Lausen made the first attempt to found the San Juan Mission.
On April 10, 1961, Frank Scott and Roy Rudderham moved mail boxes from the foot of Ortega at Grand Avenue to the front of Bob Child'srestaurant. There they built a rack, painted it white and placed each box at a uniform height. The following day, Scott repainted each box with aluminum paint and Charlie tompkins lettered them in black. Bud Griffin made the first mail delivery along Ortega Highway on April 12, 1961.
A special thank you for Evaline Morrison, author of the column "Along Rancho Trails" the source for this text. Another special thanks goes to Dr. William O. Hendricks, Director of the Sherman Library in Corona Del Mar, for providing access to the History of the Pacific Southwest and Evaline's notes.