Between the multi-million dollar houses of the Pacific Palisades and Will Rogers State Park sits Murphy Ranch. Only a few buildings remain, all them a canvas for graffiti artists. I knew little about this area when I hiked there. I deliberately didn’t do any research on the ranch before I wrote this post, wanting to just give my impressions. I was then going to research the ranch and add a coda about what I found out. Done with the first draft, I googled ‘Murphy Ranch’ and got a tale where truth and myth blended together. Instead of a coda, I revised my post, writing in blue what I discovered.
The trail to Murphy Ranch isn’t signed so it can be tricky finding the right path. I used the trail app AllTrails (free) and Motion-X (paid), both which have map trails and accesses the phone’s GPS capabilities. Beware though, cell reception is sketchy. Both apps have options to download a trail map, but AllTrails will require a subscription to do so.
The trail begins in the Pacific Palisades above Sunset Boulevard. From Sunset Boulevard, turn up Capri Drive till you get to Casale Road. Find parking in the residential neighborhood (which I’m sure the millionaires living up there just love…). There is no parking at the trail head. Once parked, from Capri Drive take a left onto Casale Road. The end of Casale Road is gated, beyond which the road continues as Sullivan Fire Road.
The landscape changes from lush yards full of exotic plants to the heavy growth of native vegetation. It is a reminder of how fast urban can turn into wilderness around Los Angeles.
Along the side of the road invasive grasses and plants grew, the hillsides were dominated by natives. And the fire road was dominated by graffiti. A lot of graffiti. Tags, doodles, slogans, pictures done on anything paved, as well, sadly, on a few of the tree trunks.
Sullivan Fire Road is paved. A hike doesn’t feel right when I’m stepping on asphalt. I can’t even call it a hike. It’s a walk. Hiking required dirt. A dirt fire road would be better, but a narrow trail through the brush is best.
The walk begins with a gentle climb along the mountain side. Looking ahead rugged mountains rise about Rustic Canyon. Be sure to stop and look behind you. A grand view of the canyon winding down towards the Pacific awaits, the hills green and the ocean blue with fancy mansions overlooking it all. If the Los Angeles Tourist Board hasn’t come up here to snap a picture, someone should be fired.
This view wasn’t always here. At places, the hillside becomes bare, exposing the sedimentary rock that forms this mountain. Called conglomerate, small and large boulders, polished smooth and round are fused together with sand and silt. At several hundred feet above the canyon floor, I’m standing in the bed of an ancient fast-flowing river, likely pouring out from a long gone mountain range that now forms the soil Los Angeles sits on.
Perhaps the ancestors of the plants surrounding the trail were growing here too. The climate may have been wetter or cooler and the small leaves that grow on most California scrub and chaparral plants would have been larger, softer, a lighter shade of green. As the climate dried, the leaves changed, becoming smaller, tougher and darker to preserve precious moisture. Those that didn’t adapt, died. But these changes in climate and plants took place over thousands, if not millions, of years. In this period of rapid climate change, the plants and animals living here may not be able to adapt fast enough.
But the plants are changing and adapting as the seasons change from cool and wet to warm and dry. Being on hillsides facing the ocean, there may be some light drizzle from the heavy morning clouds that roll in from the ocean, but if it amounts to even a tenth of an inch it would be an anomaly. It can be four to seven months before there is any significant rainfall.
As Spring advances, the invasive grasses and annual wildflowers will die after sowing their seeds. But the perennial plants and bushes remain green. With the wet winter of this year, many of them will stay green the whole summer, though they may look a little scraggly by the time the rains return. With the perennials, flowers continue to appear. (For more on the change of seasons, see the previous post ‘Succession.’)
Among the plants blooming are two of the backbone plants of the coast sage scrub and chaparral – chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). Both plants have similar leaves, short and narrow like small pine needles. Chamise grows into a large bush or small tree. California buckwheat is smaller, rarely more than five feet wide and three feet high. They both have small white flowers growing in bunches. On buckwheat, the flowers grow at the end of a long stalk, the flower heads after blooming drying to a rust or chocolate brown, lasting on the plants through the fall.
Another important plant is laurel sumac (Malosma laurina). It has elongated leaves, often folded like a taco shell. The new leaves are are magenta-red when they first emerge, then turn a light green, the leaf spine and edges staying red for awhile. Besides the new leaves, clusters of flower buds are forming.
Other large brushes are now bearing seeds. Sugar bush (Rhus ovata) has reddish flat berries with a white coating on them. Ceanothus (Ceanothus species) put on a dramatic flower show in the winter and early spring. Now little seed pods ripen where the flowers once were.
A few annual wildflowers are still blooming. Caterpillar phacelia (Phacelia cicutaria var. hispida) has small white flowers blooming one after another as the flower stalk unravels. It’s cousin, large-flowered phacelia (P. grandiflora) colors the hillsides with its clusters of purple flowers.
After awhile, there is a dirt road that breaks off to the left. The pave fire road continues on, but to get to the ranch, take the dirt road.
While unmarked, I believe it is here where the entrance to Murphy Ranch begins. At one point, a metal gate with a flagstone wall guarded the road but most of the buildings were torn down in 2016 by the City of Los Angeles for safety reasons.
It becomes apparent that this road was once an actual roads. Patches of asphalt come and go, the rest eroded away. At a large curve in the road, a concrete retaining wall and curb remain. But nature is working to reclaim this place, native brush taking root in the cracks of the concrete.
Murphy Ranch was bought in 1933, apparently from Will Rogers. On the deed the seller is listed as ‘Jessie M. Murphy, widow.’ No other public record of Jessie M. Murphy, however, can be found. Nor did any the neighbors recall seeing her.
Further along, signs of human settlement appear. The road starts being lined with oleander (Nerium oleander) with blooms of white flowers. While not native, they don’t appear to be invasive either, not taking root beyond the road’s edge. Old eucalyptus trees appear, looking worse for wear. The drought has been hard on them and many have died off. There are several large cedar trees. While native incense cedars can be found growing higher up in the local mountains, these ones had been planted here.
Murphy Ranch was heavily landscaped and the hillsides were terraced with 3000 fruit, nut and olives trees being grown. Copper pipes ran up the hillside with outlets at each tree to keep them irrigated. The goal was to make Murphy Ranch able to sustain itself. I saw no sign of the fruit trees, but the eucalyptus and cedar trees must of been planted at that same time.
As the road goes further into the canyon, native trees appear. Live oak (Quercus species) forms shaded areas, offer respite from the sun. Large sycamore trees (Platanus racemosa) also flourish, all rebelling against the idea that trees must grow straight up. A lot are growing at 45° angles, seemly defying gravity. Their roots must be steel to prevent them from crashing down.
A small stone retaining walls appear, painted a wide hue of colors – a hint of what’s to come. Most of the graffiti has been left on man-made things.
But there are trees too that have gotten tag. And while the graffiti art on the asphalt and stone walls may add something to the journey, I’ve never seen a tree improved by spray paint. In most cases, the paint will do little or no harm to the tree, though if enough paint is applied or is oil-based the living tissues of the tree can become damaged.
Passing through a grove of sycamores, a ranch stable appears.
The actual owners of Murphy Ranch were Norman and Winona Stephens. There is no public record of the Stephens, but census records from 1930 and 1940 show a Norman and Winona Stevens lived in Pasadena and Hermosa Beach. Norman was a mining engineer with interest in some silver mines in Colorado. Winona was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and had a strong passion for the metaphysical and supernatural.
Ineffectively surrounded by a chain link fence, the building is a canvas to hundreds of graffiti artists – some good, some bad. Barely any surface is left untouched. The back end of the building has collapse from decay. Signs warned to stay out of the building, but are covered in paint and stickers.
I’m always intrigue when I come upon abandon sites while hiking. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere. Others become the destination for the trail. In Southern California, these sites are often abandon after a wildfire roars through burning everything down. Two well known sites that can be hiked to are the Mt. Lowe Railroad in the Angeles National Forest and the Roberts House in Solstice Canyon. While there was signs of some past brush fires here, this building appears to have been untouched.
In 1978, the Mandeville Canyon fire swept through this area and burn many of the existing structures. However, by then, the buildings were abandon.
I can’t help but wonder what happen. And while I find the graffiti fascinating, it also disturbs me. This building is part of the history of Los Angeles representing the lives of people with their own dreams and goals. If this was a Native American site or of the first Spanish settlers, there would be outrage. There are signs up saying graffiti isn’t allowed but seeing the extent of the graffiti, they appear to be a formality. This area is a magnet for graffiti artists.
A German man named Herr Schmidt became acquainted with the Stephens (Stevens?). Herr Schmidt claimed to have supernatural powers and was a persuasive man. He convinced the Stephens that Germany will win the war in Europe resulting in the United States falling into anarchy. He directed them to built a self-sustaining retreat where they will be safe.
Next to the ranch building, a large grassy field is turning brown. I’m guessing this was where horses and other livestock were corralled. But nature is reclaiming this field with several young oaks (Quercus agrifolia) digging in their roots.
By 1948, the Stephens lived in quarters above a steel garage. They sold their land to the Huntington Hartford Foundation who had an artist colony located next to the property. Goats, sheep, and cows grazed in the canyon at the time of the sale.
Apparently, Germany lost the war…
By now the dirt road has become a proper trail, cutting through the brush. At one point, a recent landslide crossed the trail but a path has already been established over the debris by previous hikers. I’m now at the canyon bottom where a little stream, Rustic Creek, is still running.
Near the stream edge I come upon the remains of a large concrete chimney. The building for it is mostly gone except for a large concrete wall. Again, the graffiti artists added their touch to these ruins. This wasn’t a chimney for a nice home fire, but for heavy duty work requiring a lot of heat. Perhaps a blacksmith shop?
Among the buildings on the ranch were a machine shop, double-generator power station, 20,000 gallon fuel tank, steel garage with living quarters above, cold storage locker for food, and 395,000 gallon water tank. Apparently the scale of the infrastructure being built confounded the workmen. The job was far more expansive than anything being done by the other well-to-do property owners in the area.
The area around this ruins was landscaped. A large non-native cactus grows on a terrace above it, and a bottlebrush tree, an Australian species, was growing next to the ruins.
The little stream runs right by the chimney ruins and my guess it was this stream that destroyed the building. Now just a gentle brook, not deep enough to float anything bigger than a twig, these canyon streams can become deadly torrents when heavy storms roll in.
Culverts and dams, along with the water tank, were built to gather and store the stream’s water. Located next to Will Rogers’ ranch (now the Will Rogers State Park), Rogers’ attorney wrote a letter to Murphy Ranch requesting they cease diverting Rustic Creek.
As the trail continues there are several concrete pads and walls and stairs leading nowhere. Near one large concrete pad remain small ornamental fencing that marked off a garden area. A crumbling stairway weaved up to the hill. Branches from large bushes and trees hung low over it.
From 1933 to 1945 the ranch was home for up to forty people. Starting in 1934, multiple plans were drawn up for the center piece of the ranch – a four story mansion with basement, recreation areas, servants’ work and living quarters, indoor pool, a separate indoor fountain, multiple libraries, large balconies, and a grand central hall. The mansion was never built.
Then I came to the house. Any color that can be found in a spray can was used on this house. The quality of the graffiti wasn’t that impressive, often hard to make out as one layer of graffiti was sprayed on top of another. But the collective whole of it was impressive. Though the litter of spray cans and bottles was annoying, reflecting badly on the graffiti artists, regardless how one felt about the graffiti on the abandon buildings.
In the pictures I found on-line for the house, it never looked the same. Who knows how many layers of paint cover the building. At one point, people were able to go inside the house and mark up the inside walls too.
Why the house was abandon it isn’t clear. As I walked around it, I see all the entrances have been boarded up but the house appears solid. Looking more closely, I realize the entire house besides the window frames was made from poured concrete. Even the rafters under the eaves are concrete.
This is probably how any house built up in wildfire area should be built. Nearby are stairs leading up to a series of low concrete walls, part of something larger but what, I can’t figure out. The smell of fresh spray paint filled the area as one guy worked at the far end creating a new layer of graffiti.
While this building may have been well constructed to handle wildfires, it turns out it wasn’t a house. This was where the double-generator power plant was located. The building also doubled as a bomb shelter. The lower concrete walls located up the stairs were the foundation for the vegetable greenhouse.
I wonder about the people that lived here. What were they doing or trying to achieve? Why did they give up?
I imagined they wanted what most of us wanted, a good life, be able to provide for family, a safe place to call home and find comfort, perhaps sell fresh milk and eggs to the new Hollywood royalty moving into the Palisades.
What I didn’t imagine was the creation of a new world order. The Stephens and Herr Schmidt’s plan was to use Murphy Ranch as a base to establish Nazi power once America falls into anarchy. The never built mansion was to be the headquarters – a ‘western white house,’ if you will, for Hitler when he came to visit his American providence.
And I wonder about what if? Abandon building in the wilderness remind me that we are only temporary. Time marches on and all that is built will crumble. We don’t have to look at old civilizations to realize that. These mountains were made from the debris of an long lost mountain range and then laid under the ocean for thousands or millions of years before being lifted back up. One day these mountains, and Los Angeles, will be gone too.
Luckily, in this case, the what if resides in alternative history and science fiction. The day after Pearl Harbor, the ranch was raided by the federal government. Many of the people were rounded up and taken away, including Herr Schmidt. In one of the building was a powerful short wave radio able to communicate with Germany. The Stephens may have been arrested too, but were soon released and return to the ranch.
After poking around awhile, I continued on. The trail started up the canyon side where it turn to something that fills any hiker with dread. Stairs. A lot of them. With a deep breath to steel my resolve, I started climbing them… for a three hundred feet elevation climb. I hike for many reasons, exercise one of them. Exercise I got.
There are 8 stairways in the area that lead up to the upper canyon. The stairs were made up of over 500 steps (my thighs believe that!). The stairs on the trail were in good condition, unlike some of the other ones. Use extreme caution climbing any stairs that are not a part of the trail.
The stairs gave access to the terrace garden as well as provide path for the security patrols. Residents in the canyon reported seeing armed guards patrol the property wearing the uniforms of the Silver Shirts. The Silver Shirts was a national group of Nazi sympathizers, modeling their group after Hitler’s Brown Shirts.
The stairs end back up at the paved fire road I started on. I headed back to my car parked among the huge mansions. Where the fire road turned back into regular road, one of those mansions were being renovated, perched on the edge of a steep drop, looking down where people once tried to make a living.
Or tried to rule the world…
The thing about this story though is it is hard to know what was real, what was exaggerated, and what was made up. Most of the information came from a one page document written by Dr. John Vincent, an UCLA professor and the director of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. Dr. Vincent had visited the Stephens in 1948 to purchase their property for the art colony.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Nazi sympathizer groups were active in Los Angeles, however, there is no record of Herr Schmidt except a possible reference to him in a 1940 Los Angeles Times article. Nor is there any record of the raid on Murphy Ranch following Pearl Harbor, though the Feds were keeping close tabs on suspected Nazi supporters in the years leading up to WWII.
An interesting note about the blueprints drawn for the never built mansion. The final set of drawings, done between 1939 – 1941, were from the firm of Paul R. Williams, a famous African-American architect (who also designed the Roberts house mention earlier). Not quite the person you would picture Nazis hiring. Whether Paul Williams worked directly on the plans isn’t clear. The blueprints from his firm were initialized with JTR and ECD.
If true, even partially, it is poetic that nature is taking over the ranch, as if cleansing the land from its recent past. And I like that the remaining buildings have been taken over by graffiti artists, a final insult to injury. It is a continuation of the story of this area, one that started long before a ‘Jessie M. Murphy, widow,’ was given deed to this land.
Below are links to several articles about Murphy Ranch, the most interesting one from Curbed Los Angeles (be sure to read the comments, including one claiming to be from the daughter of the Stephens).
From Curbed Los Angeles:
From Los Angeles Times:
From Daily Beast:
All photographs by Alan Starbuck