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US 395, Part 9: Mono County (Bridgeport to Nevada State Line)

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[US 395 distance signage from Out of the Past, 1947.] Like the analogous situation between Bishop and Independence, Bridgeport (population 843 [2000]) is the county seat despite Mammoth Lakes being the far larger populace, established as such in 1870. It is notable for its charming nearby lakes, as well as having a minor presence on the silver screen as the setting of Out Of The Past (1947) and Highway 395 (2000).

Out of the Past, although only a small amount of the movie is actually filmed on it, offers a rare and valuable look at US 395 in the 1940s. The signage is particularly noteworthy; the distance signage at right from the northwest part of town demonstrates the old style then in use and even clearly shows the Automobile Club of Southern California endorsement. Note how Los Angeles is the control city for points south, not San Diego; this probably has to do with US 6's then-co-routing to the south. And, yes, it's also an excellent movie with strong performances from all the leads, including Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Besides several scenes in old Bridgeport, it also has a segment in Lower Twin Lake and the Walker River canyon (both of which we show in this Part also). Please read my full review of this movie and Highway 395 in the US 395 In Popular Culture section.

Between Bridgeport and the Nevada state line, US 395 throws off several spurs to tight passes along these high mountainous regions, notably CA 108 and CA 89 to the Sonora and Monitor Passes respectively. With little space to safely expand into for additional clearance, US 395 remains a twisty, difficult mountain road up to the border.

[Bridgeport Lake.] Junction CA 182. CA 182 passes by the beautiful Bridgeport Lake, an aerial still shot of which appears at right from Highway 395. Bridgeport has always been a fisherman's paradise due to the large number of lakes and fishing opportunities, and the nearby Walker River. CA 182 crosses the Nevada state line to become NV 338 and intersect with NV 208 in Yerington on the other side.

[Lower Twin Lake (from Out of the Past), 95K] Another set of local lakes, which appeared in Out of the Past (and on the signpost above), are the Twin Lakes about 15 miles out of town. This scene was shot at Lower Twin Lake (click the thumbnail at left for a 95K still from the movie).

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[Town limit sign, 1947, from Out of the Past; 63K] Bridgeport municipal limits, established as the county seat in 1870 when it was discovered that the original county seat of Aurora was actually in Nevada (see Part 16).

The municipal limit sign from the northwest side of town appears in Out of the Past as well. Click the thumbnail at right for a 63K still from the movie showing Joe's car and the town signpost.

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[Downtown Bridgeport, 1947, from Out of the Past; 63K] The main drag through Bridgeport. There is an unfortunate continuity gaffe in Out of the Past; the scene above where Joe's car is seen entering town southbound on US 395 is immediately and erroneously continued with this scene at right from a backseat-mounted camera showing him passing through downtown northbound. Most of the structures shown on his route through town are still standing, and many are in nearly their original form. Click the thumbnail at right for a 63K still from the movie to compare with the modern view on the left.

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[Bridgeport courthouse, 1947, Out of the Past; 64K] The town courthouse is still standing as well (just like in Independence back in Part 5) in nearly its original condition. Click the thumbnail at left for how it appeared in 1947 (64K). Note the official State of California Department of Public Works vehicle and partially visible official seal.

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[Sheriff's Station, Highway 395 movie.] The Sheriff's station, as immortalized (so to speak) in Highway 395, shown in the film still at right.

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Turnoff for Twin Lakes, at the same point where the signpost in the introductory blurb above was photographed in 1947. The Redwood Motel was where I puked my brains out on the 2005 return trip from an overdose of caffeine (and me being a medical professional should have known better).

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Leaving town.

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[Bridgeport realignment.] The single lane per direction road and rolling hills northwest of Bridgeport. Between Bridgeport and CA 108, US 395 is officially the Sonora and Big Meadows Wagon Road (established 1901). In a confusing parallel naming, it was also named the Sonora and Mono Wagon Road that same year, both by the indefatigable California legislature. Your tax dollars at work.

The inset at right from the 2003 official state highway map appears to show some plans for realignment in this area.

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Devil's Gate Summit.

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Some of the overlooking mountains. The marker here commemorates the Fremont Trail and the day Western explorer then-2nd Lt. John C. Fremont (Part 2), his guide Kit Carson and their surveyor party passed through the Devil's Gate on 27 January 1844 in search of the fabled Buena Ventura river which they believed would connect to John Sutter's fort in the centre of California near Sacramento. They were wrong, and the harsh winter made them pay dearly for their mistake in navigation. In desperation, Fremont and Carson attempted a treacherous crossing of the Sierras, crossing through this point on their way north to Sutter's fort and then west over the pass that bears Carson's name (see Part 10), surviving the harrowing trek to reprovision in Sutter's territory and return to St. Louis, Missouri. Part of this route would become absorbed into the Carson Emigrant Trail, which we'll discuss in Part 10. Both Fremont and Carson, of course, survived as wiser men for the experience; we will discuss Carson separately in Part 11.

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Not unlike what Carson and Fremont had to contend with in winter, the pass certainly earns its name in inclement weather, I think.

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It certainly doesn't get a whole lot balmier when you get through it.

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NB US 395, returning to a less frigid season.

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Entering the Toiyabe National Forest. Toiyabe is a Shoshone Indian word meaning "mountain," unimaginatively applied to the nearby Toiyabe mountain range, and here also to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest which is the overarching administrative subdivision. For completeness, Humboldt comes from German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt, after whom Fremont named the East Humboldt mountain range and the Humboldt River. There is also a county in extreme northwestern California by the same name.

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Truck warning for the CA 108 junction shortly ahead. The pass crossing is harrowing for passenger vehicles, let alone trucks.

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Advance signage for CA 108.

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CA 108 and the Sonora Pass. My brother-in-law spent some (less than happy) time at the training camp here. There is also a Caltrans depot at this junction with the only phone for miles, and you can bet your cellphone won't be working great in this gorge, so use it if you gotta.

The Sonora Pass lives in the shadow of its greater and higher neighbour to the south, the Tioga (see Part 7). At 9,624', however, it is darn nearly as high and until the Tioga's recent development and expansion the Sonora was a far more significant route. Its first use, of sorts, was by the southern half of the pioneer Bartleson-Bidwell frontier party -- California's first overland immigrants; see Part 23 -- in 1841 very near where the modern pass is today. Following the gold rush of 1848, the pass was quickly developed by the burgeoning mining traffic and over its curves, the Sonora admitted thousands of settlers into California's rich valleys for decades afterward. Nowadays, it is much less frequently used as the Tioga is faster and wider; grades as high as 26% (!!!) are on portions of its run and the route has little changed since its original signage in 1934. Thus, the truck warning is extremely well-advised. Caltrans persistently intends to develop CA 108 into a full freeway over the pass, in the same way that CA 120 is a quasi-freeway now, but has run into formidable community opposition and has been forced to make piecemeal upgrades instead using previously acquired right-of-way.

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Just in case you didn't believe the sign on US 395.

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Distance signage (and that phone booth -- sure you don't need to call home?).

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Crossing the West Walker River.

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[Walker River canyon from Out of the Past; 89K] The West Walker River itself, photographed from the bridge. Fishing is very popular here, hence the sign. The Walker River canyon appeared in Out of the Past, as mentioned above, and is a beautiful place to hike. Click the thumbnail at right for an 89K still from the movie showing one of the more picturesque locations.

The Walker River is named for Joseph Reddefield Walker, the second white man to cross the Sierra (and the first to do it from the east), christened as such by admirer John C. Fremont. In a shocking example of ingratitude, however, a possibly apocryphal tale asserts that Walker thought Fremont was an out-and-out coward for an embarrassing incident with the Mexican military at Gavilan Peak, near what is modern-day Gilroy, among other less printable opinions.

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The West Walker crossing heralds an extremely twisty and difficult section of highway which tightly hugs the river course.

Joseph Walker and Fremont first made their acquaintance in 1844, when Fremont hired him for his 2nd expedition. Walker knew the area very well, having entered it in 1833 under the command of Army officer B. L. E. de Bonneville over or near what was then Mono Pass (see Part 8), and his band were believed to be the first white settlers to enter Yosemite and see the sequoia. (Walker and Bonneville on this same expedition also led the first set of wagons over South Pass on a routing anticipating the Oregon Trail, but more about that in Part 23.) The reason for Walker's presence was not gold or Indians, but frank espionage; Walker and his detachment of 70 men were charged with the task of spying on the Mexicans for possible capture of California. The trip was brutal and provisions were short (his men were reduced to eating their own horses), but Walker persevered. Once over the pass and through Yosemite, Walker proceeded to the presidio at Yerba Buena on the San Francisco Bay and then marched down the coast taking notes as the unsuspecting Mexican governors welcomed him as an honoured guest. Once in Monterey, Walker returned eastward, but remembering the harsh Mono Pass he was determined to find a lower crossing. That he did, along the southern edge of the Sierras and the course of the Kern river south of Owens Peak, at 5,250', and today traversed by CA 178 (see Part 2). Fremont would later err and declare Walker's pass a superior method of entry to the state. Unfortunately for Fremont, it wasn't Walker Pass that he was looking at: he had traveled much too far south of Walker's crossing and was at the modern Cajon Pass instead (see Old Hwy 395 part 6), where I-15 runs now.

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['State Highway' along the Walker River, 1930s, 119K.] It was on Fremont's third foray, and second time with Walker, that the incident at Gavilan Peak occured where Fremont determined to quietly escape north rather than face the belligerent Mexican detachment that was suddenly unwilling to admit them passage. Regardless of what transpired afterwards, history tells us that they parted ways and Walker's further travails were conducted alone. Gradually returning to modern Contra Costa county in the California Bay Area, he died in 1876 and the tombstone in Martinez that bears his name also notes him as the man who discovered Yosemite.

This same course was used by the Bartleson-Bidwell party as they descended south through the Antelope Valley to the Sonora Pass; for that matter, the original roadbed is still in use (see the late 1930s Burton Frasher postcard at right; click for a 119K larger image).

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Leaving the forest.

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If the route's no longer scenic, it must mean ...

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... civilization. The Antelope Valley (unrelated to the Antelope Valley northeast of Los Angeles) encompasses this Eastern Sierra valley area and the towns of Walker, Coleville and Topaz on the way to the Nevada state line. Somewhere nearby it is believed that Fremont and his party had to abandon their cannon as part of their trek to Sutter's fort, despite having dragged the howitzer along with them for nearly 3,000 miles in total. It has never been found since.

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Walker, named, of course, for Joseph Walker himself.

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Through the main drag. The valley is not very wide and the towns literally hunker down in it. There is a rest area here with public restrooms.

Walker prides itself on its local art community and there are several local galleries.

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The very nice little local general store.

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A study in contrasts: Walker in daylight ...

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... and nighttime.

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Coleville (not to be confused with Colville in Part 29). While Walker is characteristically an artisan's retreat, Coleville is more of a ranching community, in tune with the area's original history as trading posts along the settlers' trail.

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There's a nice little antique shop here (on the left).

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The local high school.

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Distance signage on the north side of Coleville.

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Topaz, the smallest of the settlements.

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Turnoff to CA 89 and the Monitor Pass (8,314'), where the Sierra Highway designation leaves us for points west. I have traveled this harrowing road under darkness, a photologue of which is in the works. The Monitor is the last of the California passes we will, um, pass and is also the youngest, finally paved in 1950 to allow connections from Markleeville, the diminutive seat of California's least populous Alpine county, more or less directly to US 395. Before this, a treacherous dirt road snaked into the hills, from which people either had to use the Carson Trail for points north or the treacherous Ebbetts Pass for points south. This was the original form of El Camino Sierra, and the succeeding Sierra Highway deviated here to terminate at US 50 east of Meyers Grade and the Echo Summit. A proposed extension via modern CA 70 back to US 395 south of Susanville (Part 15) was considered but never implemented. Incidentally, the white-knuckle Ebbetts Pass is still traversed today, with a ghastly 24% grade, by CA 4. Trucks need not apply.

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Facing SB is another pass condition sign, but no flashers! Those cheapskates!

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Distance signage overlooking Topaz Lake.

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Topaz Lake is an artificial lake, created in 1922 to store irrigation water as part of the drainage network for the West Walker. Both Douglas county, to the north in Nevada (Part 10), and Mono county contribute to its maintenance. The lake is popular with boaters and fishermen, and is regularly stocked.

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End Scenic Byway.

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A last view of the lake.

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Highest numbered California mailbox that I could see.

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Nevada state line and Douglas county PM 0.0.

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[Topaz Lake and stateline, 1948, 93K] And facing back to California, with the more attractive blue signs Caltrans has been more recently posting at the border. Compare this view with this one from the 1948 Burton Frasher postcard at right, in particular the interesting stateline signage; click the thumbnail for a 93K full view. Note how little the alignment has changed. Steve Alpert's US 395 page has a 1983 picture of the old boring green border sign which was here before and that I remember as a kid. The inspection station signage he has a picture of is long gone.

Continue to Part 10

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