The first car into Big Bear Valley and on over the 101-Mile Rim of the World route was a twenty-horse-power White Steamer driven by John A. Heyser of Los Angeles. He was accompanied by Opie Warner, editor of the San Bernardino Free Press of tat era, and George Wood, owner of one of the three garages in Riverside at the time. The actual time for the trip was thirteen hours and seven minutes, but the running time was eight hours and seventeen minutes.
Mr.Heyser’s own account of the spectacular trip is as follows:
Your writer at the time had pioneered many out of the way towns and resorts in the southwest, dating from 1903 on. But the purpose of this story is to tell you of the first trip to Bear Valley by auto, which negotiated the old horse trail over the Rim of the World and return to San Bernardino by way of Waterman Canyon trail. It had never been done before, and it was held an unquestionable fact that it was impossible for any automobile to negotiate the steep, sandy, rocky and stump-strewn trails for the distance of 100 miles. Wagers were placed 10 to 1 that it would be a failure…everywhere interest was intense…everyone who had made the trip into the mountains behind a couple of hay burners over hot, dusty, sandy, rocky, steep grades was anxious to know the outcome.
Automobiles were still a thing of the future, gasoline stations were unknown; on the desert water sold for 10 cents a small pail; gas and oil came in cans only; tires were terrible, a 2000 mile guarantee was something to write home about. There were no self-starters, no storage batteries; magnetos and common dry cells predominated. All wheels were made of wood, just like wagons. Tires were not demountable from the rims. There was no free air; the hand pump was the source of inflation everywhere.
We had stripped the White Steamer runabout of fenders and anything else not required for the tough assignment. We carried on the running boards two ten-gallon cases of Red Crown gas, two five-gallons of water, our Prestolite tank for headlights, and our emergency food supply. Our drinking water was in one canteen…What was ahead we could only hope to find out. The valley folk all said we were loco and screwy.
At 8 o’clock of this memorable morning, the whole town was out on G Street to see the take-off. It is here repeated that there weren’t a half dozen motor cars in the entire valley at the time. Many well-to-do ranchers desired them, but had no faith in their performance. If this one were to successfully navigate the horse and buggy trails over that 100 miles of mountain country and return alive to prove it, there would be a line forming to buy automobiles.
To cheers and noisy farewells, we three started, following Highland Avenue to East Highlands, thence up from Mentone through the “terrible” Santa Ana Canyon to Clarke’s Ranch and the nightmarish Clarke’s Grade into Big Bear. We faced three obstacles: the Santa Ana River, the old Clarke’s Grade, and the unknown trail from Big Bear to Little Bear (now Lake Arrowhead) and the steep descent down Waterman Canyon.
On the first leg, large boulders struck front and rear axels, crank cases, and tore at running boards and under gear. We forded water three to six feet deep; quicksand, cactus, and jagged ends of fallen logs didn’t make the trip a Sunday Picnic. The wagon trail was faint, oft-time indistinguishable and a wrong guess as to direction precluded any turning around to try another route. It was often necessary to back up a mile or two over boulder and deep-swirling fords. Planks were unlashed from the running boards to build causeways over boulders that could not be dislodged. Shovels helped build run ways over lots of them. After ten miles of this, we came to the last ford across the deep and swift river, and we could see the only habitation between us and the goal at the top of the mountain grade. This was the Clark’s Ranch, a little mountain fruit and stock ranch.
The Clark’s had seen our approach and came to the bank of the river to hail us and exchange greetings. We asked for advice crossing the stream, and the only advice the Clark’s had to offer was to get the hell out of there. Asked why, Clark retorted that we must be three lunatics; otherwise we would never have gotten that far up the canyon in one of those “devil wagons.” He added that the water was five feet deep there and they wouldn’t even think of taking a team of horses across. To attempt it by automobile was accepted suicide.
Well, the driver hand-fired her up to 1000 pounds of steam, and we hung on as we hit the crossing at 30 miles per hour with a half-block run at it. The entire hood went out of sight under water, the fires were put out and we were all drenched. It was necessary for Opie and Wood to jump off and push the car up the steep sandy bank. But right then and there, the safe arrival of the first automobile to negotiate the Santa Ana and reach Clark’s Ranch was history. It took the boys a little time to refill the gasoline and water tanks and the little pint steam lubricator on the dash for we were hastily preparing for the supreme struggle up that infamous Clark Grade to Big Bear Valley.
The road was different, just a winding, narrow, hot rocky trail clinging to the mountainside by its eye whiskers. There were sharp elbow turns; so sharp in fact that the little car with the wheel base of a wheelbarrow almost had to affect several movements to get around them. Many required unloading the car, and even the driver had to get out and help push, guiding it as he did, as we three young pioneers worried, cussed and struggled on our way slowly up that hot dry grade, under a blazing sun, toward the summit.
Halfway up the top, we ran out of water for the steamer. Opie had faint recollections of a spring somewhere near where we were stranded and eventually found it to bring back five gallons of water, while I rested under the only shade within sight, that of a manzanita bush. Into the hungry water tank went the precious, though rancid-looking fluid, hand pumping a charge of it into the dry generator coils. The fire was turned on, the steam gauge rose to 600 pounds and we were on our way to successfully conquer the impassable Rim of the World.
We soon topped the summit and relished the shade of the huge pines, the shady down grade bordered with ferns and flowers –and best of all, the welcome breeze. We had conquered Clarke’s Grade and our motor car was the first to run its little rubber tires over the pine needles and dusty trail to this wonderful playground.
We drifted in front of the only conspicuous building in Big Bear, a large log cabin that housed the post office and a general store. It was about 2 p.m. and since 8 we had traversed about 45 miles. After answering questions galore about our trip, we took on gas from our slim supply of 10 gallon cases, ate some sandwiches and deer jerky on sale at the store and set out to tackle the Rim of the World return route to San Bernardino, 55 miles. We could have rested on our laurels, but we preferred to carry on to the limit. We were warned at Big Bear just as we had been warned by Clark and others: “You can’t possibly make it. You will be stranded out there in the mountains and it will just be too bad.” He meant it too. There were no tow cars, no oil stations, no phones or radios, just risks and perils.
But we took off across the meadows behind the receding waters of the lake. There was no road nor trail, just a herd of about 1000 cattle feeding on the meadow grass. Now these T-Bone steaks on the hoof had never seen a motor car either. If a White Steamer had not the inherent habit of howling like a half-starved wolf in Alaska, the cattle would have minded their own business. However, they took exception to the howling noise set up in burners and did not seem to relish the smell of gasoline, nor the speed of the jumping thing hurtling across their pasture. Consequently the head man laid down his horns on the grass and took off after us like General Grant must have when he took Richmond. The truth is, we got a kick out of scaring the cattle, and even blew the old rubber bulb horn at them and yelled at them; we invited trouble.
And did we get it. The large bull took after us. Bouncing over grass and dried hoof-holes left in the mud by the receding lake, it was fun for a moment, but as the bovine got closer and closer to our rear-mounted gasoline tank with 50 pounds of air pressure in it, it soon ceased to be a joke but a race for cover. I opened the steam throttle and gave it all it had and as we bumped along we expected to break a spring any moment. Opie and Wood yelled and threatened the bull, but that only just made him open his throttle the more. But we finally outdistanced him.
In Fawnskin Valley we passed a little cabin of native logs, and then started the lonesome 55 miles through the pine forests, over the hazardous snow slide grade to the next sign of civilization, the Tillots, at Green Valley. Stumps on the trail had to be negotiated the same as boulders into the Santa Ana Canyon. Trees were so close to the trail that we scratched paint off the roadster getting through them, and finally arrived late in the day at Green Valley to the immense surprise of the startled Tillots, who couldn’t believe their eyes at beholding an automobile in their wilderness.
At that time, Green Valley was a nursery for the forest service, and thousands of baby pine trees were growing there to be set out in the mountains where the Brookings Company had logged off mature trees. The road this far had been one nightmare after another, but we took no chances and drove slowly but surely toward our goal. As we passed Green Valley we were about exhausted and it was almost sundown. We came to Deep Creek, and again faced nothing but trouble, for there were no bridges or paved highways then. We lay down on a sand bar, ate our last sandwich, lit a Bull Durham cigarette and relaxed. The car was still in fine shape, and we had enough gas for 40 miles or so.
Opie figured we could make Pinecrest and the old Baylis resort about 15 miles ahead in time to get a swell feed and maybe communicate with the valley over his magneto telephone line he had boasted of. We only had 22 miles more of mountain driving along the rim, and then we would be on our way down hill, after which we would drift back to San Bernardino and be able to parade up and down before all the saloons and hotels and pool rooms where the boys were waiting to collect their wagers on the trip.
After a good rest at Deep Creek we steamed up and hit the trail again, stopping for a few minutes at Heaps Ranch, which was the only sign of habitation between Green Valley and Pinecrest. Finally we lit our carbine lights and drove under the arch to Pinecrest, where we were given a welcome fit for a king. It did not take them long to wind the old wall magneto phone to San Bernardino and announce our safe arrival at Pinecrest. But the diehards still wouldn’t concede it could be done, and started placing bets that we would not be able to get down the steep, rocky switch-backs into Waterman Canyon.
But after a real feed, we set off to complete the history-making trip. On the entire journey so far we had met only three vehicles, all horse drawn: one horse and buggy on Clarke’s Grade, a ranch wagon in Santa Ana, and another rig near Waterman Canyon toll gate.
We took things slow and easy down that 10-mile steep grade. Our brakes, little rear cast-iron shoes now almost worn out to paper thickness, did not hold the car at all times. It was necessary to put the steam engine in reverse many times to hold the car back. Our headlights flashed all over the mountain-side and could be seen glaring through the darkness on the Rim of the World.
Our return to San Bernardino from this trail-blazing expedition really set the pace for mountain travel, and within the next three years in anticipation of more automobile travel, roads were improved, and in recent years the engineering of fine high-gear roads has opened up this wonderful mountain playground to millions of vacationers who make the trip in an hour, thanks to the foresight of a handful of pioneer-spirited men willing to risk lie and limb in 1908 to pioneer mountain travel by automobile.
A few weeks prior to this “Rim of the World” trip, Mr. Heyser startled all of Southern California by driving the same White Steamer to the top of Strawberry Peak. This spectacular trip was made to prove the ability of the car before attempting the longer route through Big Bear Valley.