Old Highway 395 advocates react to sign-stealing spree in Rainbow
Thursday, October 17th, 2013
Issue 42, Volume 17.
"We’re still out here putting up signs and giving presentations," said Jeffrey Harmon of Murrieta. Harmon and a small group of comrades anchor a tight-knit group that was formed to showcase what was also called the "Three Flags Highway" because it linked three nations after passing through California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
It is a recent string of events – the theft of nine commemorative road signs – that has angered the tight-knit group.
The thefts, which all occurred in the tiny community of Rainbow, have prompted group members to alert the local media, scour Internet sales sites for stolen signs, and urge business and home owners to keep an eye out for the keepsakes displayed in yards, garages or other locations.
"It’s been happening over and over again," said Tom Casey, a Rainbow resident who played a crucial role in winning a state historic designation for the route. "Four (signs) were taken in a short period. It seems to be entirely focused in Rainbow."
The thefts are puzzling for the tiny community that is wedged between Temecula and Fallbrook and is mainly known for its sprawling nurseries, sparse businesses and an abandoned proposal to open a controversial granite quarry atop a lofty ridge.
Highway 395, which at one time was simply called California’s Inland Route, traces its origin to the days of the first automobiles when wind-swept dirt and gravel roads from San Diego to the Cajon Pass and other points north were cobbled together and mapped.
The route was tagged with a series of local names and number designations over the years as it was paved and improved. It was designated Highway 395 in 1939 after federal legislation was passed. About that time, it became known as the "Three Flags Highway" because it linked three nations with Mexico and Canada serving as its bookends.
In this area, the highway threaded its way through the then-tiny towns of Poway, Escondido, Vista, Fallbrook, Rainbow, Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Perris, Val Verde, Alessandro, Riverside and Ontario. It was a vital link for Vail Ranch, Perris and other agricultural outposts to ship potatoes, cattle, carrots and other crops to San Diego, Los Angeles and other key markets.
As the region’s population grew, so did the need for transportation improvements.
Preparations for World War II fueled the need for improved links between San Diego’s Navy base, a weapons depot west of Fallbrook and March Field in what would eventually become Moreno Valley.
State officials allocated $1.4 million and the military significance of that segment of the route prompted it to be nicknamed the "Cannonball Highway." The route’s importance grew as northern segments were added and it skirted the eastern Sierra and reached the Canadian border.
But segments – including many throughout Riverside and San Diego counties – began to disappear and fade into distant memory when Interstates 15 and 215 were built from the 1960s through the 1980s. Those freeways split Escondido, Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore and Perris as they skirted San Marcos, Fallbrook, Rainbow, Moreno Valley and Riverside.
Construction of those freeways also fueled massive development booms that changed the faces, and fates, of all those communities. The remaining marked segment of the original highway continues to run from Hesperia in San Bernardino County along the eastern Sierra Nevada and up to Canada.
Harmon was an early leader in local efforts to recognize the historical significance of the highway and seek ways to reviveinterest in the route.
He helped organize a month-long exhibit at the Temecula Valley Museum in February 2002 that was dubbed "Take a ride on the 395." The exhibit culminated more than a year that Harmon spent researching the highway and borrowing maps, photographs, personal accounts and other materials. The 36 photos, five maps and other items that made up the exhibit gave glimpses of life along various stages of the highway’s history.
He stepped away from the preservation effort briefly due to health difficulties.
Casey, a Rainbow resident who had worked closely with the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce, focused on the highway as a way to lure drivers off hectic I-15 and into the so-called "Friendly Village." Casey searched for the right sponsor for legislation to designate Highway 395 as a historic route. For that, he turned to then-state Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lakeland Village, whose father achieved legendary status in custom vehicle design and fabrication circles.
But Casey knew it would be difficult to win approval of legislation if a bill required the allocation of scarce state funds. As a result, Casey and Jeffries left it up to counties, cities and communities to produce and place road signs along the historic route.
A resolution shepherded by Jeffries was approved in June 2008 and signs soon began popping up in San Diego, Riverside and other counties along the way. Harmon did not know Casey during the period when the historic designation was granted. Jeffries eventually left the state Legislature and now serves as a Riverside County supervisor.
Meetings with business, historical and tourism groups spurred the purchase and placement of scores of signs, which cost $75 each and are typically installed by city or county crews. The signs are often placed near historical homes or commercial structures that still exist along the route. Some of the sign buyers place their names on them before the signs are installed.
A small group of donors led a push to install 14 signs in Temecula that together cost about $2,700. That string of signs begins south of Temecula along Rainbow Canyon Road and continues to the city’s boundary with Murrieta.
Other signs have sprouted in Fallbrook, Murrieta, Wildomar, Lake Elsinore, Riverside, San Marcos and San Diego. Casey said he has purchased more than a dozen signs himself, and has had them placed at various places. He is especially proud of a pair of signs in San Diego that mark the start of the route in California and the Balboa Park location where Highway 395 skirted the California Exposition.
Casey said he soon hopes to soon have signs placed in San Bernardino, the El Cajon Pass and other northern locations. He estimates that about 120 signs now pinpoint the highway’s location throughout Southern California.
He is also focusing on the Rainbow sign disappearances. Casey and Harmon attribute the thefts to locals who have taken advantage of the rare locations where signs were once mounted atop wooden poles.
"People are taking them for their man caves or whatever," Harmon theorized. He said similar sign thefts have occurred over the years along Route 66, an iconic highway that crisscrosses the country. Public works crews eventually gave up replacing signs in some locations on that highway and simply painted sections of the pavement to help motorists follow its course, Harmon said.
Casey noted that San Diego County crews are now using metal poles and theft-resistant hardware when they replace the stolen Highway 395 signs. At least four of those signs have been replaced and others are in the works, he said.
"The county’s been really, really cooperative," Casey said. "They really like the program."
Signs can be purchased by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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