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The road much traveled

Photo credit: Mark Hall-Patton

The highway we know today as I-15 got its start as a rough, raw, dusty — and sometimes dangerous — road. (Keep an eye out for horse thieves)

Interstate 15 is an umbilical cord to Southern California, bringing countless party-minded tourists and profit-driven business trips from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. But long before I-15 became such a lifeline, a decidedly rougher road connecting L.A. to Las Vegas went by another name: the Arrowhead Trail Highway. (Today, its most recognized vestige is Las Vegas Boulevard.) Indeed, I-15 is just the latest version of a highway that was developed to provide a well-maintained (or at least tolerably drivable) road from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City through Southern Nevada. It’s interesting to consider that I-15 we know today was born as a rough passage that has been a trading route, a desert driving challenge and even an irresistible draw for horse thieves.

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But horse thieves soon caught wind of the trail, tempted by the California missions and ranchos that frequently used the Arrowhead. These thieves were known as Los Chaguanosos, and began their depredations about 1832, when Juan Jesus Villapando led the first band over the trail to California, posing as horse traders to gain trust before making off with their victims’ stock. Horses stolen by these Chaguanosos bands were often led back over the trail and sold for a fat profit in Santa Fe. Sometimes, the thefts were brazen in their ambition and scope. In 1840, a group of Chaguanosos led by Tennessean Philip Thompson made quite a haul, stealing more than 3,000 head from missions and ranchos ranging from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. The Chaguanosos drove the horses and mules over the trail through the Mojave Desert — with an angry posse not far behind, intent on getting their property back. Alas, the members of that posse should have known when to cut their losses: Near Cajon Pass, the Chaguanosos ambushed the posse and killed two of its members, dissuading the rest from continuing pursuit.

The rugged Arrowhead Trail was the focus of, let’s say, more heavenly pursuits as well. With the move of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the promised land of Utah and the Great Salt Lake, the borders of this promised land were ill-defined. Brigham Young considered all the area that is today’s Nevada — and that part of California east of the Sierra Nevada — as part of his new land. With movement to settle the land, it was necessary to have routes that provided access, and the Old Spanish Trail became a part of that trail system.

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Growing up fast

The Old Spanish Trail would grow up fast as America settled the West. By the early 20th century, the business-led movement for transcontinental highways discovered the route and saw in it a vital piece of America’s slowly developing transportation network. Boosters in Utah, Nevada, and Southern California began promoting the route through Southern Nevada. The Automobile Club was supportive of the effort to have an all-weather highway, since the Lincoln Highway, which ran through the northern part of the state, was typically closed during the winter. With a lot of hype, the Arrowhead Trail Highway association formed in 1916 and got to work on transforming the trail into a full-fledged roadway. Celebrity endorsements certainly helped. Between 1915 and 1916, race-car driver Charles Bigelow drove the entire route many times in the twin-six Packard he named “Cactus Kate.” By 1917, the Goodrich Tire Company had gone over the road, setting up its familiar signposts to help travelers. These signs (you can see an example in the Clark County Museum) consisted of a heavy steel plate with a center circle in red and white, and arms in black with the names of towns and mileages noted in deep drilled dots on the black surface. These signs were meant to survive in the harsh desert climate, and many did.

As the routes for the road changed, the newspapers covered the attempts to drive the route that took the shape of publicity stunts. A spectacular trip by a U. S. Army vehicle in 1917 showed what could be accomplished over the new road. To test how long it would take to get to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles in case the telegraph and railroad were both knocked out, Captain O. R. Bird and three others drove a truck with a mounted machine gun over the proposed Arrowhead Trail Highway route. In spite of road troubles, including a broken axle at St. George and torrential rain south of Salt Lake City, the actual driving time was 36 hours and 14 minutes — almost 60 hours less than the previous record.

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Estimates of 2,000 travelers over the highway in 1919 led to renewed efforts to lock in the route and build the roadway. (The highway was not paved, but the effort was initially to build a gravel roadbed over the finalized route.) Autos in the 1920s were still not the most reliable overland transportation. They tended to overheat in the desert, and many entrepreneurs would build service stations in the open stretches between towns.

The Arrowhead Trail Highway eventually became known as the Salt Lake Highway, and when the federal government began numbering highways rather than naming them, it became Highway 91. Until the creation of I-15 in the early 1960s, it was the only sensible route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and on to Salt Lake City. Our own “all-weather” highway helped Las Vegas become the destination it is today. If you get a chance, try driving a piece of it — even if it is only the Strip.