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Early City Planners Saw Future in Scenic Drive
Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.
By Elizabeth Trevizo
A road that follows the rim of the Franklin Mountains, the lower tip of the majestic Rocky Mountains. A road that overlooks two countries, two states, two cities. A road that attracts the young and old, a tourist attraction and beloved site for natives, and all for $200,000? Impossible, you say? Today, yes. But city fathers in the 1920s saw the future and created this wonder — Scenic Drive — for generations to enjoy.
The magnificent Franklin Mountains and Scenic Drive, the road that leads to the most spectacular view of our city, have always fascinated El Pasoans. The Franklins are a unique feature of El Paso for their location in the middle of the city. In 1921, W. E. Stockwell wrote, "The city of El Paso, Texas, in growing from an adobe village in 1900, to a city of over 80,000 people, has spread around Mt. Franklin so that the point of the large mountain projects almost to the geographical center of the city."
Natives and tourists alike enjoy the view from Scenic Drive. Photo by Danny Martinez
No longer the geographical center of the city, the Franklins still divide El Paso into West and East sections. It is impossible not to notice the rugged crags of the Franklins whether one is flying in or out of the city or driving in any direction. But tourists and new residents must be guided to Scenic Drive. Eighty years later when the automobile has become our second home, this mountain road is still a popular place to visit, as it was as soon as it was built.
Mayor C. E. Kelly's administration enthusiastically supported the construction of Scenic Drive, and Kelly even held a citywide celebration to encourage the plan. Tom Lea, candidate for the 1915 mayoral race along with Kelly, also backed the road's construction. Hughes D. Slater and George E. Kessler also promoted Scenic Drive. Slater, the editor and owner of the El Paso Herald, supported attempts to eliminate slums and to build public parks and develop points of interest. Writer Clinton Hartman says, "There had long been talk about ways to exploit the mesa and the mountains for scenic attractions." George E. Kessler referred to Scenic Drive as "mountain drive" when he wrote "The City Plan of El Paso, Texas." He felt strongly that "nothing of a permanent nature should be done here [on the Franklin Mountains] until funds are available for something worthy of the place and the city."
Building Scenic Drive was no easy feat. The project was begun in March 1920 and completed by the end of the year, with a chain gang helping with early construction of the road. More than a mile of the road was carved from solid rock on the slopes of Mt. Franklin. Workers excavated more than 26,000 cubic yards of solid rock, 5,800 cubic yards of loose rock and 3,500 cubic yards of caliche. R. E. Hardaway, a civil engineer, was named the consulting and locating engineer for the mountain drive, while R. M. Dudley and W. E. Orr were hired as contractors. Dudley was in charge of the west side construction, while Orr took care of the east side.
By the 1920s, more members of an expanding middle class had the means to see the wonders of the nation. The West with its mountains and spectacular natural beauty was fast becoming America's playground. Records show that from 1907 to May 1913, El Pasoans registered 1,495 automobiles. Seating from two to five persons, these automobiles began to be used for recreational purposes. On October 6, 1920, the rough dirt road still under construction known as Scenic Drive formally opened for automobile traffic. During construction, the road was widened in places so that cars could park and their occupants could enjoy the stunning view.
Once completed, the road became popular with the driving public. Historian W. H. Timmons notes that in the 1920's more El Paso citizens could afford automobiles to go to movie theaters and drive up to Scenic Drive on a "starry moonlit night." During construction, a brick wall was placed around the road to insure the safety of travelers. Scenic Drive attracted both natives and tourists. But the view was not entirely beautiful.
Travelers did not see the beautiful, stately homes that now line Rim Road as they drove to Scenic Drive. The area before the construction of Scenic Drive was known as Stormsville, and the city considered it a public health nuisance. D. Storms, a lawyer, owned a great deal of land along the rim where about 400 people lived in squalor.
Stormsville had no water, electricity, gas, phones or sewers and only four toilets for all residents. Stormsville was torn down in 1928 when plans for the new Rim Road development were made. No one entering this area today could believe such a neighborhood existed.
The paving of Scenic Drive occurred after it had been opened to the public. In 1932, the city contracted with J. C. Wright to grade and surface the road and over 4,000 tons of gravel were smoothed over the road. Some funds for paving came from a Reconstruction Finance Corporation grant and the project employed many El Pasoans out of work during the Depression. Hartman says it cost around $87,000 to pave Scenic Drive, making the total cost of building of the drive less than $200,000.
In February 1933, Scenic Drive reopened. "Streams of cars clogged the newly-paved road, and at 'Inspiration Point,' now Scenic Point, motorists honked their horns impatiently as they tried to move through the traffic jam," writes Hartman. By 1933, 18,851 passenger automobiles had been registered in El Paso County. Those who visit Scenic Drive today can see several markers and monuments at Scenic Point identifying historical and geographical points of interest. Two bronze markers honor the city officials who had the foresight to build the road and those who were responsible for paving it. In 1972, the city council raised a flagpole at Scenic Point honoring El Pasoans who lost their lives in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Many young couples still visit Scenic Point as part of a romantic date, just like their parents and grandparents did. And just like in 1933 when the paved road was opened, drivers experience traffic jams on the mountain road, especially on weekend evenings. Tourists and natives alike use the coin-operated telescopes to magnify a particular view as they gaze out over two countries and the sparkling night lights.
The narrow, winding road high above the city still terrifies new drivers while the views from Scenic Drive remain breathtaking, even in this jaded, technologically-oriented society. Not many cities have a mountain range right in the middle of their city. Still fewer have a spectacular drive around the rim of their mountains. El Paso has both.
For only $200,000 early city fathers successfully built one of El Paso's top tourist attractions. Hartman speculates that "if the pioneers who were responsible for Scenic Drive could stand at its apex on a clear evening, when millions of city lights shimmer in the distance, their hearts would skip a beat or two at the marvels spread before them." Who can argue with that?