The Imperial Highway

Phil Brigandi (2011)

The rise of the automobile is major part of our transportation history, but a car without good roads was little more than an expensive toy. Cities, counties, states, and eventually the Federal Government all did their part to build modern roads, pushed on by voters, businessmen, chambers of commerce, and a host of organizations formed for no other purpose than to promote good roads and highways.

In Southern California, one of the best known was the Imperial Highway Association.

The Imperial Highway Association was formed in 1929 by civic boosters from Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties. Its goal was to promote the construction of a high speed highway to connect the rich farmlands of the Imperial Valley with Los Angeles County. At the time, some 200 miles of rock and hill, desert and valley, and trail and rut lay between, with less than half of it paved.

imperial highway map 1936
Imperial Highway Map, 1936
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

The official route of the Imperial Highway was adopted in January, 1931. At the suggestion of Bob Hayes, manger of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, it followed the old Butterfield stage route across the desert and along today’s Highway 79 to Temecula, where it headed on to Corona via Lake Elsinore and Temescal Canyon. There the road turned left down the Santa Ana Canyon on its way to Yorba Linda and La Habra, then across Los Angeles County to meet the sea at El Segundo. It was billed as the “cannon ball route”—a straight shot from the desert to the sea—but it still managed to wind its way through most of the cities where support for the plan was strongest.

For the next 30 years, the Imperial Highway Association lobbied the cities and counties along the route to build a continuous road, with uniform construction standards – 100 feet wide, with gentle curves to allow for truck traffic. The Association’s slogan was “wide for safety, straight for speed.”

The stretch from Yorba Linda to Brea (following the tracks of the Pacific Electric) opened in July 1937. Governor Frank Merriam cut the ribbon, and the Goodyear blimp dropped orange juice on the new roadway to christen it.

When construction on Prado Dam forced the relocation of the old road out of Corona to the Santa Ana Canyon, the Association lobbied hard for improvements. The new road—completed in 1939—cut a mile off the drive from Corona to the top of the canyon and eliminated several sharp turns.

Though the route was approved in 1952, it was not until 1962 that the “Yorba Linda Freeway” (today’s State Route 90) opened from Orangethorpe Avenue to Yorba Linda Boulevard. Originally built as an expressway, portions of it have since been upgraded to freeway status.

Orange County supplied its share of leadership to the Association over the years. Brea trucking company owner Ed Peterkin was the first president. County Supervisors Willard Smith, Leroy Lyon, and Ralph McFadden also served as president, along with three Yorba Linda civic leaders— Phil Ton, Hurless Barton, and Hoyt Corbitt. Most prominent, though, was Yorba Linda rancher George Kellogg, who served as secretary from 1929 to 1975. He was a major voice for the association in the public press.

At its peak in the 1930s, the Imperial Highway Association could also boast its own monthly magazine, The Butterfield Chronicle, published from 1934 to 1939. One-time Anaheim printer and author Leonard Schwacofer served as editor and publisher.

Bit by bit, the route of the Imperial Highway was slowly transformed into a modern road. The last stretch was finally paved in 1961 near the San Diego/Imperial County line.

With their original goal met, the Imperial Highway Association turned its attention to other highway improvements and even freeway projects. It survived on into the early 1980s before finally disbanding.

Today, a few stretches of the old route in Los Angeles and Orange counties still carry the Imperial Highway name, but its promoters are all but forgotten.