Thousand Oaks, CA
Today the trip from northern Conejo Valley (Thousand Oaks) to Oxnard and Port Hueneme on the Pacific, or Moorpark to the north, can be made via modern roads, but prior to the building of the Norwegian Grade, the journey was long and treacherous, especially when hauling dry farming crops.
The Norwegian Colony in the Conejo was founded by 5 families seeking a better future in the US. In 1890, they purchased 651 acres in the northern part of the valley from George Edwards, which they divided into 5 lots, which were then allocated by lottery:
Lot #1 – 199 acres to Ole Andersen;
Lot #2 – 111 acres to Lars Pedersen;
Lot #3 – 139 acres to Nils Olsen;
Lot #4 – 97 acres to Ole Nilsen;
Lot #5 – 105 acres to George Hansen.
With no source of irrigation water available, they were dry land farmers, working other jobs in the off season. Transporting their crops to market required traveling west to leave the valley over the Potrero and Conejo grades, or north on a precarious stagecoach road over a saddle in the mountains and down into the Santa Rosa Valley.*
After an accident with the wagons, leaving George Hansen bedridden for a year, the families combined the upper right of way, donated by Nils Olsen, with a 40-foot right of way bought for $50 from Adolf and Roumaine Wyseur.
“Historic Norwegian Grade was built by hand between 1900 and 1911, using picks, shovels, crow bars, farm equipment and $60 worth of dynamite given by the County of Ventura.
“The grade was constructed by members of the Norwegian Colony and their hired help to provide a safe way to move bales of hay and sacks of wheat and barley to the farmers on the Oxnard Plain and to the Hueneme Wharf.
“The route for the grade was selected because it provided a gradual descent with no hairpin turns and would be safer than existing routes to the Oxnard Plain and Moorpark.**
“In the early 1900’s, there were no bulldozers, earth moving equipment, etc. Work was done by hand using a star drill and a sledge hammer to pound holes into the very hard volcanic rock; dynamite was inserted into the holes, fuses lit, everyone ran for cover, and it blew. The resulting rocks and debris were moved by hand and a horse-drawn fresno (scraper), to build the narrow one lane roadway.
“Construction was done in the winter and early spring months because baling and harvesting took precedence during the summer and fall. The road was later widened to two lanes.”
The new route cut a full day off the trip. Today the farms are long gone from the Conejo; the Santa Rosa Valley has farms and scattered housing developments. In 2010, the City of Thousand Oaks renovated the deteriorating road, and unveiled the memorial plaque at its reopening.
*I am still trying to pin down the location of the wagon trail north to the Santa Rosa Valley. Accounts I have read say it was partially obliterated by grading in the 1950’s.