Traveling Back in Time- Palomar Mountain via Nate Harrison Grade

25 Jun

Elsie moved from Virginia to Long Beach, California in 1897. The city of Long Beach had been incorporated that same year. The first lots in Long Beach were sold in 1881. It was advertised as a seaside resort community, but it was a semi-arid landscape. The variation of temperature between winter and summer was often only 20°. Today Long Beach is the seventh largest city in California. In 1897 the attraction to Elsie’s family was the health potential for her younger brother Gilman. Sadly, he only lived for seven years after they moved, dying in 1904. Elsie’s father, Alonzo Hayes, knew the family longed for the lush green countryside they had left behind in Virginia. So in the summer of 1904 Alonzo decided the family needed a trip up Smith Mountain. It was quite the adventure, taking three days by horse and wagon to travel about 120 miles. The family camped along the way sleeping under the wagon. In those days there was only a wagon track that made the ascent up the mountain grade. It took less than 10 miles to go from 700 feet to 4,700 feet. Today that wagon track is called the Nate Harrison grade. It is named for a freed slave who homesteaded a ranch that served early travelers by providing water for the horses and weary mountain visitors. Elsie told many stories about her friend Nate Harrison. He was quite the character and Elsie enjoyed the refreshment from his mountain spring and the shade from the lovely oak trees. Recently we decided to travel up Palomar Mountain (formerly Smith Mountain) via the Nate Harrison grade. It remains not much more than a wagon track. It is a graded road, extremely steep, winding through sagebrush until you reach the Nate Harrison ranch. Suddenly lovely oak trees replace the low sagebrush. The temperature seems to drop, the birds begin to sing and  you feel you are on a mountain. We were the only car attempting to ascend the mountain on Nate Harrison grade that day. I tried to imagine what it was like that first trip up for Elsie. Even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle I felt fear as I looked upon the treacherous drop-off. Yet I could imagine 16 year old Elsie giggling in delight as they approached the lovely oaks and the smiling “Uncle Nate”, as he affectionately became known to them. Soon after that first trip up the mountain Alonzo Hayes purchased an apple ranch that became their summer home. This week when my grandchildren travel up Palomar they represent the sixth generation to love the mountain. We will travel up the paved road created in the 1930’s. Perhaps someday my grandchildren will experience the adventure of traveling via the same road Elsie first took over 100 years ago. I look forward to the fall and the prospect of picking apples from the trees Alonzo planted in 1904. “Elsie’s Mountain Years” will include some of her stories about Uncle Nate and mountain travel in those early days. This photo taken a few weeks ago shows the windy road and the trees burned in a recent forest fire. I love hearing from readers and I am delighted with 225 Amazon reviews for “Elsie.”

Nate Harrison Grade

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