By Ruth Musser-Lopez
I can be pretty dang dense sometimes. For example, it took me into my early twenties to realize that 90% of the jokes people tell have a sexual connotation. I always tried to be pure in spirit before that, but it gets to a point where you just got to get real.
Speaking of being dense, for the longest time I did not “get” the acronym, “CART66” (i.e., California Route 66) thing and the ongoing politics on Route 66. As many of you know, I have been following the progression of the Bureau of Land Management’s Route 66 Corridor Management Plan as it winds its way through the scoping process and the drafting of the plan, anxious to participate in and see the outcome of the recommendations that would be made to decision makers as to the portion of the road on public land between Barstow and Needles. Pertaining to this public review, during the last couple of years I would often receive an email or be directed to a web address that included the phrase CART66. An important one was CART66CMP@LardnerKlein.com. I kept thinking, this important person, Jim Klein, who is contracted to put the plan together, wants us to get on the cart and get some kicks on Route 66. Well no, not exactly, I did not realize that …CART66 is really an acronym–CA for California and RT for Route, so I put it together it is California Route 66 or CART66 as opposed to the road in Arizona (AZRT66), New Mexico (NMRT66), and Oklahoma (OKRT66) etc.
Speaking of “getting real” brings us to the CART66 before the horse situation. You know the old saying “You’ve got the cart before the horse” which means you got everything “half ass backwards” or more mildly, you aren’t doing something in the right order. Well, forgive me for being so “dense” that I didn’t notice sooner…but that is exactly what is about to happen in Needles, California (if not stopped)–major changes are to be made by the city of Needles to alter the historic footprint of Route 66 without ever having given the public an opportunity to object on the public record. If you think of the Corridor Management Plan (CMP) as the horse, and California Route 66 (CART66) as the cart, simply put the city has put CART66 before the horse. The Needles City Council is intent on demolishing a significant section of the road (CART66) in Needles before the CMP is ever completed. CART66 before the CMP horse.
Among other historic events of significance, Needles is the setting of scenes from the book and movie, “Grapes of Wrath” and on the very corner where the filming of that movie took place in Needles, from what I have learned, the historic road is to be reconfigured. A major alteration in the original linear footprint of Route 66 is imminent and would have been pulled off “under the radar” had it not been for the fact that during the city’s condemnation of private property for the federally funded I-40 Interconnect Project, officials got caught.
The Needles I-40 Interconnect Project is a project that is supposed to satiate the State of Arizona by fast tracking traffic from the I-40 over to the Arizona side of the Colorado River and the two-lane highway there. With the Arizona threatening to build their own highway completely bypassing Needles, federal funding was obtained through a local assistance program of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with Caltrans being delegated with FHWA’s duties for oversight with regard to compliance with the federal environmental laws.
From the J Street off ramp, downtown Needles to the bridge crossing the river, pavement rehabilitation and intersection improvements, including signals, turn lanes, sidewalks and crossings to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, some road widening, utility relocations, and some drainage improvements are to be installed. Temporary construction easements (TCEs) and so-called “sliver-takes” (thin strips of new right-of-way to be acquired from adjacent properties) have also already been taken by eminent domain and condemnation.
I know I am not the only one who is surprised to find out that the city is at least three years in on a federal project plan where environmental documents never came before public scrutiny and they did this under the guise of being “exempt” from public notification and environmental review. The corner is not the only historic structure in the project area to be demolished. There are at least five other historic properties that will be impacted. How could the city’s project be “exempt” or “categorically excluded” from completing an environmental assessment when significant historic structures in what could be considered an important historic district of cultural properties along Route 66 are to be impacted by a federal project?
Well, as it turns out the Riverside County based firm “Applied Earthworks, Inc.” who came into San Bernardino County and conducted the cultural resource assessment, advertently or inadvertently failed to record, missed or omitted all the historic structures and their settings in harm’s way. What did they miss?
For one thing, they apparently found no significance in the landmark corner, curve and median at the corner of River Road and Broadway. This corner, with all of its character and charm, being landscaped with native plants may very well turn out to be one of, if not the only original wide sweeping 90 degree corner with a stop sign on the historic California portion of the Mother Road [another term four Route 66] as it existed in its heyday.
For those traveling east, the landmark signals the right turn to historic downtown Needles. Otherwise, one must continue straight on to the turnoff for the bridge crossing the river to Arizona. For those traveling west, they must stop at a rare 90 degree corner turn on Route 66 or find themselves at the river’s edge in the Aha Macav (Mojave) Indian Village a block away.
The city is only a few months out from beginning demolition and this disheartens me very much since I always envisioned being able to someday figure out a way to finance a statue of Padre Garces, the Franciscan monk, and the Mojave guides who showed him the way across the Mojave Desert on foot in 1776 from Needles to the San Bernardino Valley.
I’ve often dreamed of something akin to “Garces Circle” in Bakersfield, which is oh so close to the present day Mojave “village.” The inclusion of the Mojave guide figures would have been so fitting and symbolic—a great statement of Needles historic relevance since 1776. But now the median will be no more, soon to be replaced by a straight shot 4-way corner with traffic signals, just like any other city corner in the world—unless the city is stopped or the project altered.
Other historic structures to be impacted include the setting of historic “Green Mansion” and possibly the prohibition era tunnels under it, which are said to be “old opium dens” that were also said to be used to smuggle whisky and women from the shops around the railroad depot to the “Green Mansion” brothel.
As extraordinary as it may seem, the “Green Mansion” is an example of a little known and apparently quite sturdy and long-lasting home construction technology that does not require metal or nails and surprisingly involves the use of a native arrowweed for the walls. The technology is credited to our San Bernardino County local Native Americans, the Pipa Aha Macav (People of the River)—the Mojaves. Reportedly, in 1910, it was adapted by Euro-Americans, the Tryon Family in Needles, who stretched the technology to the limits, creating a large, long standing, three-story framed, 22 room structure using what appears to be arrowweed rods or wattle for walls, located at the end of “Dead Dog Road” which eventually became one of the busiest intersections in town, River Road and K Street, a block from the bridge crossing over into Arizona and three street east of Route 66 (N Street/Broadway). I highlighted this property in the June 20, 2014 edition of Glimpse of SBC’s Past.
What will become of the Sage Motel’s historic “atomic age art” signage during project construction is unknown. The sign is adjacent to old Route 66 in the project area just south of the “curve.” Typically a cultural report would recognize the sign, state the potential impact of the project and recommend avoidance of the signage. In this case, by not mentioning that there were cultural resources, the project proponents who happen to be the local, state and federal government, exempted themselves from the requirement of public review of potential impacts.
Also in the path of bulldozers are historic walls and a road to a historic hill top house—all entirely “missed” in the cultural report prepared by a Riverside-based archaeological firm. The road is likely over 100 years old and the Works Project Administration may have later built the walls at the base of the hill. The setting of two historic circa 100-year old vernacular homes on the corners of J Street and Route 66 are to be disturbed. Further studies are needed to determine the ages of these historic structures and features that add to the overall character of the National Old Trails Highway/Route 66 historic district in Needles where J street is to be widened between the J Street off ramp of the I-40 and its intersection with Route 66.
Since it is a federally funded project, CalTrans reviewed the cultural resource report on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration to determine if sites eligible for the Nation Register of Historic Places would be impacted. Route 66 is already on the National Register and it will be impacted, but apparently that widening the road and changing its footprint was not considered so “significant” that the impact needed to submitted for public review. Andrew Walters, principal architectural historian from Caltrans District 8 in the environmental support/cultural studies section of the San Bernardino office (909-383-2647) suggested to me that since the road project consisted of “sliver takes” and only a small portion of the “setting” of the historic structures would be impacted, this was perhaps an explanation as to why the historic properties weren’t recorded.
This explanation however is another cart before the horse: How can one determine if the project will have “no effect” if the historic property potentially in harm’s way has not been documented? Route 66 is to be widened, “sliver takes” from properties alongside the road are to be taken. The widening itself is an impact to the historic footprint of Route 66. Cutting into the setting of historic structures brings traffic closer to the structures with exhaust from vehicles waiting at the traffic signal adjacent and closer than before to historic properties like the Green Mansion on K Street and the 100 year old vernacular houses on Broadway and the historic Route 66 Sage Motel signage. In the case of the historic wall and hillside roadway on J Street, they will be obliterated. So how is that considered to be “no effect,” exempt from recording, evaluation and impact alleviation/mitigation?
The federal regulations 36 CFR 800 for compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires a good faith effort to identify, document and record historic properties including consultation with local historians, review of the existing literature and field surveys. After this identification process, the agencies were supposed to then evaluate these properties for their potential eligibility on historic registers and determine the potential impact of the project undertaking upon these identified properties. Then the agencies are to seek ways to avoid minimize or mitigate any adverse effects upon these properties (like, mapping, photography, taking measurements, writing descriptive narrative). They are not supposed to just say, “Oh, we know they are there, but we think we can avoid them, so we won’t say anything about them.”
Except for the notation that Route 66 is to be impacted and it is on the National Register, none of this other documentation was done. The point is that the agencies involved in this project are out of compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and a reevaluation of the project’s impact upon cultural resources needs to take place along with reconsideration of what measures should be taken to alleviate the adverse impact. The public should have a say in all of this—the public has a right to be informed and to object to the government’s plan to adversely impact Route 66’s historic footprint and related cultural features and artifacts.
So where does the CART66CMP fit into all of this? Well, had the city of Needles and CalTrans waited until the BLM’s Route 66 Management Plan is approved, Chapter 6 of that plan addresses ways to eliminate this sort of “falling between the cracks” undertakings on Route 66. Jim Klein, the lead consultant on the project, “hopes that the process outlined in the CMP, starting on page 117, will help to ensure projects like these are more sensitive to the historic context of Route 66.” Klein also told me that as a result of my comment at the webinar, the team is “recommending that Needles, Barstow, and San Bernardino County flag projects that are located along Route 66 so that proponents will use a more appropriate process from the beginning.”
Now, with all that said, I am going to be kind to myself. It may have taken me a long time to figure out what the city and CalTrans were up to, but “better late than never.” The bulldozers aren’t out on Route 66 (yet) and I haven’t had to lay in the Mother Road in front of them (yet), as was close to the case of the activist who cried foul over in 29 Palms when bulldozers were already cutting through the prehistoric deposit at the Oasis of Mara when archaeologist Cindy Stoddard caught them (See story, Destruction of the Oasis of Mara in the Glimpse of SBC’s Past in the 9-20-13 issue of the Sentinel).
By Ruth Musser-Lopez