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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grave Matters

A mariner traveling up the coast 300 years ago would have seen the round reed houses of the settlement of Humaliwo on this spit of land. There are no visible remnants of the village, but the name, which is said to mean "were the surf sounds," survives as the word Malibu. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises.
—Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, An Indian's View of Indian Affairs, 1879

I had a conversation with Chumash Elder Alan Salazar at the City of Malibu’s Chumash Day festival this year. He said he wished the city still had room for the Chumash. “Maybe they’ll give us a few acres some day,” he said, only half in jest. “Maybe they’ll give something back to us.”

Right now, it seems more likely that the Chumash people and all those who care about preserving Malibu’s Chumash heritage, are instead facing more potential losses.

 I’ve been reading the Environmental Impact Report for the City of Malibu's Civic Center sewer plan and found the following: 




The EIR report concludes that “the main bulk of the site is south of the proposed pipeline routes along PCH, and the resources are probably already disturbed…” 

The logic is that the site has been disturbed before and makes it OK to disturb again, I guess. The report states that a monitor will be employed for excavation work in the vicinity of the wastewater treatment facility. Any artifacts or burials that are uncovered and not accidentally pulverized will presumably be reinterred elsewhere, but it’s disheartening.

As the EIR states, the sewer construction project is planned for the area that gives Malibu its name, Humaliwo, where the surf sounds. The EIR states that the main village site is “one of the largest, deepest, and best studied archaeological deposits in Southern California. It contains both a prehistoric cemetery, dating back 1,000 years, and a historic‐era cemetery that was in use from 1775 to 1825.”

Humaliwo has been excavated and re-excavated in the 1960s and '70s, but artifacts still reportedly turn up.  More than 200 burials have been removed from the site. Even the authors of the sewer project conclude “it’s possible that prehistoric deposits remain intact.”

Malibu is built on shattered fragments of the past. This coast was inhabited for an estimated ten thousand years by the Chumash and their ancestors. The descendants of Malibu's original residents are still working to piece together a heritage and cultural identity almost entirely erased first by the California Missions, and then by generations of persecution and discrimination.


Fragments of shells, bird bones, charcoal, flakes from tool making, and a shell bead are weathering out of the base of this Malibu Chumash midden. The exposed fragments will eventually be washed away by the tides. Middens, or shell mounds, also frequently contain tools, effigies, beads and shell ornaments, pipes, charm stones, fish hooks, and human burials. This one is several meters deep. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann
The potential for the sewer project to disturb what remains of the community's Chumash heritage is troubling, but there’s another important cultural site in the Civic Center area that is at even greater risk of irreparable damage, and that’s the Malibu Rancho Hotel project site on the corner of Malibu Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway. This small undeveloped piece of old Malibu is a significant Chumash village site and is also said to be hallowed ground, where human bones may still lay undisturbed in the earth.

Bulldozers were at work there this week, clearing the ground, despite the fact that the owner reportedly doesn’t have a permit for excavation work. It wouldn’t be the first time a developer bulldozed an important cultural site accidentally or on purpose.When it’s gone it’s gone and one can build whatever one likes without worrying about the ghosts of the past. It doesn’t matter that it was sacred, or that the bones of someone’s ancestors were laid to rest there. It doesn’t matter that a priceless piece of history is gone forever. 


A portion of the Malibu hotel site, which is also a major Chumash archaeological site, was bulldozed last week. While brush clearance is an important part of fire safety, bulldozing is overkill for weed removal and can damage fragile cultural resources. © S. Guldimann

Large Chumash and pre-Chumash cemeteries are known to have existed at Arroyo Sequit, Trancas Canyon, Point Dume, Paradise Cove, Solstice Canyon and the Malibu Lagoon area, and archaeologists estimate that there are thousands of smaller grave sites scattered throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. Many of the most significant Chumash sites were allegedly leveled or buried in the 1920s to make way for Pacific Coast Highway, and disturbed again in the 1940s, when the road was widened.

Burials from the Leo Carrillo area excavated during the construction of Pacific Coast Highway in the 1920s. 140 burials were identified at this site, but many had been disturbed by earlier grave robbers and the site was salted with numerous fake artifacts—more about that in a future post.


An inventory of human remains at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum that was published in 2007 to meet the requirements of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides a glimpse at the vast number of Malibu graves excavated up to the 1970s, when protections were enacted. Examples include:

 In 1915, human remains representing a minimum of two individuals were removed from 'the Malibu Ranch,' an unknown location in Los Angeles County, CA. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County by Irving V. Auger. No known individuals were identified. No associated funerary objects are present.

At an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of 13 individuals were removed from Arroyo Sequit Mound in Arroyo Sequit. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum by E.D. Mitchell. One set of human remains was identified by a tag reading 'EDM. 281, burial 18, Arroyo Sequit Mound." The other 12 sets of human remains were identified by a tag reading "California Los Angeles County Arroyo Sequit Shell Mound Misc. Bones EDM-274."  

(I can't help wondering what happened to the other five skeletons that weren't donated. Are they still floating around somewhere in a private collection? Or stored in a cardboard box in the basement of some other museum or university?)

At an unknown date, human remains representing a minimum of three individuals were removed from a site in Solstice Canyon. The human remains were subsequently donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in 1971 by the Native Daughters of the Golden West.

(Apparently there is still a Daughters of the Golden West. Their website states that they are a "fraternal and patriotic organization," and they appear not in any way connected to the writings or mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, but it doesn’t explain why they were donating dead people.)

Archaeologists from UCLA, USC, LACC, and the Southwest Museum, dig up bones at an unidentified Malibu location in 1956, while residents watch with interest. The accompanying caption reads: "A bulldozer uncovered ancient Indian skeletons about two feet underground while preparing a site for a real estate development." This photo is from the USC Digital Archive, and was originally taken for the Los Angeles Examiner.

The bones excavated at the Trancas Canyon Cemetery site, CA-LAN-197, really did end up in the basement of a university. The area was initially excavated in 1968 by a group of Malibu residents. This wasn’t a scientific investigation as much as it was a sort of entertainment, like the Victorian fashion for acquiring Egyptian mummies and then having a special unwrapping party. UCLA archaeologists later stepped in to supervise the excavation, but only after other neighbors, alarmed by the cavalier treatment of human remains, called the sheriff to report suspicious activities.

The late Dorothy Stotsenberg provided a brief account of the amateur archaeologists' efforts in her book My 50 Years in Malibu. She wrote: "In 1968, Bobbie Sanders, my amateur archaeologist friend, uncovered a primitive burial ground beside Trancas Creek. The sight of people digging in the field attracted the attention of her Malibu neighbors and the County Sheriff, just as Bobbie unearthed a perfectly preserved skull. The sheriff told Bobbie he had to take the skull to the L.A. County Coroner's office for investigation, and that he would return it later.”

Self-appointed amateur archaeologists began excavating bones at what is today the Trancas shopping center in 1968. It was a sort of anthropological free-for-all. Eventually the sheriff was called and university archaeologists stepped in. Very few grave goods were discovered but the longstanding rumor that the best artifacts ended up as paper weights and in curio cabinets could help account for that. This photo is from the 1968 Chamber of Commerce phone directory.

Stotsenberg recounted that "Her Malibu neighbors became the Malibu Archaeological Society and received written permission from the property owners to continue the dig...revealing 14 burials. Word spread of the Trancas dig and John Beaton and Nelson Leonard of UCLA and the Archaeological Survey got themselves into the act."

According to Stotsenberg, the initial skull was cremated by the coroner's office because "the bones were not of interest." Stotsenberg reported seeing a portion of the Trancas site remains "in a drawer in the UCLA archaeology department" in 1981. "Nothing was ever done with those bones," she wrote.

The site, located under what is now the Trancas shopping center parking lot and the county's flood control channel, contained more than 100 burials dating to approximately 310-430 BC, according to radiocarbon data. Records indicate that the eastern portion of the cemetery was damaged when Trancas Creek was channelized by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District during the construction of the Malibu West subdivision.  A portion of the site was also reportedly graded and covered in 50 cm of fill during the construction of the original shopping center parking lot. Rodent activity, erosion and vandalism have also impacted the site. A survey conducted during the recent shopping center redevelopment reportedly found no evidence of artifacts. A sobering reminder of how easily the past can be swept away. 

And think how ancient that past is. According to radiocarbon dating, the first Chumash ancestors arrived in Malibu more than 10,000 years ago. That's 5000 years before Stonehenge was built. Europe was just thawing out of the last ice age and agriculture was being developed in the Middle East when the first Malibu residents arrived.

A massive stone bowl on display at the Oakbrook Park Chumash Museum in Thousand Oaks shows the Chumash people's skill at working stone. 






According to archaeologist Patricia Martz's 1984 dissertation Social Dimensions of Chumash Burials in the Santa Monica Mountains, the excavators at Trancas positively identified 62 adults, six adolescents, 15 children and nine infants. There were 18 burials that appeared to mark “individuals of special status.” One status burial contained the remains of a child of seven or eight. He was the only individual discovered at the site who was buried with beads. He was also placed in his grave with abalone shells over his body and ceremonial red ochre paint.

Martz notes that the excavators failed to record data on the depth of the graves, information on field methodology is missing from the report, and "as might be expected, there is some inconsistent recording and some missing data."

The two cemeteries associated with Humaliwo cover a 2500-year period of Malibu history. Excavations conducted by UCLA field students in 1970-71 revealed a site dating to the Chumash Middle Period—800-1000 B.C., with more than 90 graves, and a Mission-era cemetery dating to AD 1775-1805 that held an estimated 140 individuals and approximately 58,000 artifacts, including a sword of Spanish steel and a tiny silver Saint Francis medal, recovered from the grave of a child.

In 1995, anthropologists Lynn Gamble and Philip Walker and archaeologist Glenn Russell contracted with the California Department of Parks and Recreation "to organize, document, and complete research reports on the 1970s excavations in Malibu," the sites that had been excavated by UCLA students. According to a 2002 article in American Antiquity, "The collections and associated documentation were in a state of disarray. Hundreds of hours were spent on organizing and analyzing the Malibu material, including the artifacts, skeletal remains, and documentation."


The Satwiwa Native American Indian Cultural Center at Rancho Sierra Vista Park in Newbury Park was founded by Chumash Chief Charlie Cooke to help keep Chumash culture alive and provide a venue for art shows, presentations and events by representatives of all Native American peoples. Event listings can be found here. The park, which includes the Conejo Valley side of Boney Ridge, is an important Chumash cultural heritage site. It's a 10 mile walk from here to the beach at Big Sycamore Canyon, and contemporary hikers and bikers travel the same trade route that the Chumash used for thousands of years. © 2014 S. Guldimann
Chumash and pre-Chumash burials continue to be unearthed in Malibu. In the 1970s, a significant Chumash burial site was bulldozed to make way for the Point Dume Mobile Home Park, without the benefit of excavation or reburial. My mother recalls seeing slides of the destruction. "It was terrible," she says.

In 1998, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $315,000 to settle a breach of contract lawsuit brought by a construction company against Waterworks District No. 29 after the county discovered the project area included archaeologically sensitive Chumash burial grounds on Point Dume. The construction firm argued that the county's bid package and project specifications were inadequate because of the sensitive archaeological site.

A Chumash skull was dug up at a construction project in the Paradise Cove area in 2007. Construction was halted and the authorities notified. Larry Myers, the executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission, said that a member of the Chumash people, having been declared the most likely descendent, had been selected to work with the property owner. 

Three men were arrested in Point Mugu State Park in 2010 on suspicion of illegally removing artifacts from a burial. But Caltrans construction crews, following the 2013 Springs Fire, appear to have had carte blanche to bulldoze Chumash middens located along PCH in the same area. 


[Update: 23 March 2015. The Malibu Post was contacted by a State Parks archeologist who clarified that, during the extensive PCH closure following the December 2014 rains, State Parks and Caltrans archeologists were aware of the midden situation, and carefully monitored the mudslide that impacted the site.  The material that had washed down was sequestered and sample screened for artifacts. The archeologists found animal bones in addition to abundant shells, but no human remains were found. A Native American monitor was involved throughout the process.]


My mom carefully saved this October 17, 1977 article for the Westside section of the Los Angeles Times about a 3000-year-old submerged Chumash site near Point Dume.

It is illegal to remove items from a Native American historic site. That doesn’t stop people from picking up bits of the past and carting them home. Astonishing Chumash artifacts are occasionally found at Malibu garage sales. Other collections probably end up in the landfill when the owner moves or dies. 

There's no way of estimating how many sites have been destroyed during construction projects. Until the 1970s there were no real protections, and even with increased awareness and federal and local laws, including provisions in Malibu's Local Coastal Program, sites get bulldozed because no one notices the bits of shell and stone until it’s too late. However, disturbing a burial site, no matter where it’s located, is a felony. Burial sites located on private property can be legally covered over, but only after the find has been reported and the closest living tribal representatives have been contacted.

A Malibu Sheriff's Deputy poses Hamlet-like with a pile of prehistoric bones in this 1951 Los Angeles Examiner photo from the USC Digital Library. 

State and federal law requires that the finder of human remains immediately contact law enforcement. In Malibu cases, the sheriff's department will contact the coroner. Once the remains are determined to belong to a Native American burial, tribal representatives are contacted and reburial, often in situ, is arranged. Property owners may opt to have finds excavated by an archaeologist before reburial takes place, but Native American Civil Rights advocacy groups stress that all human remains should be treated with respect and not regarded as curiosities, collectables or trash.

Some would argue that it’s already too late, that most of the damage to Malibu’s cultural heritage took place decades ago. I don’t agree. There’s still time to cultivate awareness and to remember and preserve Malibu’s ancient heritage. There’s still a place in the future of Malibu for its past.


A sandstone outcropping in the local mountains still shelters this rock art painting of a  swordfish. The red ochre is still vivid after more than 500 years. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann


When I was a child we were taught right here in Malibu public schools that the Chumash were a "primitive" people with little culture and none of the "hallmarks of civilization," and that the entire culture and people were extinct. 

That antiquated perspective has changed. There's extensive archaeological documentation that this "primitive" culture developed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, navigation, boat-building, woodworking, and a trade network that extended across the continent. They must have also had great skills of diplomacy, because they were a mostly peaceful people who coexisted with their neighbors for hundreds, and maybe thousands, of years.

There's also been a renaissance of contemporary Chumash culture, beginning during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The descendants of the Chumash are stepping forward to reclaim their culture. Chumash is a language group, not an ethnic designation. The fact that the Chumash language tradition lapsed is probably one of the reasons the extinction myth is so prevalent. But just because the language is gone, doesn't mean the people who spoke it have vanished. Only the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians have so far received federal recognition, but it's estimated that there are at least 5000 Californians who claim Chumash heritage, and an effort is underway to revive the Chumash languages. 

"When the last Chumash Indian left Malibu, he left a curse," commercial real estate developer Roy Crummer quipped to the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "Malibu is filled with lots of people who are committed and a lot of others who ought to be." Crummer sold his company when it appeared that cityhood was inevitable and the climate for development became less favorable. 
The Chumash, on the other hand, are still here. Their culture isn’t dead, it’s rising again from the ashes.

Suzanne Guldimann
24 June 2014

A contemporary tomol—Chumash plank canoe—is pulled up on the sand near the location of the ancient Chumash community at Paradise Cove. A reminder that the descendants of the Chumash people are still here and that the culture and traditions are relevant, worth protecting and preserving, and an integral part of Malibu's past, present and future. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Leaving Paradise

The meadow at Charmlee Wilderness Park on a March morning between rain showers in 2010, peaceful and green, a sort of Malibu Parnassus, or perhaps a forgotten corner of The Shire. All photos © 2014 S. Guldimann


“Farewell happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells."

—John Milton, Paradise Lost


Milton might be a bit melodramatic, but that was how I felt when I learned that the Bluffs Park-Charmlee exchange was completely last week, and that Charmlee Wilderness Park, acquired by the city in 1999,  is no longer part of Malibu. Of course, this Paradise Lost is still there, and will continue to be protected, but it isn't ours anymore, it belongs to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy now, not to the City of Malibu.


Looking east to Point Dume from Lower Loop Trail at Charmlee Wilderness Park. Would you trade this view, and the 532+ acres that accompany it, for the 83 acres of Bluffs Park shown below? 

This is the park the city received from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in exchange for Charmlee. That's Point Dume in the distance again, but looking west this time. Sports activists have propose placing ball fields and a skatepark on the property, which is west of the city's two playing fields and the Michael Landon Community Center. 

That Charmlee is a wilderness preserve and not a golf course and housing development is a near-miracle. A succession of developers faced fierce opposition from local residents and environmentalists. The development plans were finally dropped and the land became a County Regional Park in 1981. It was transferred to the newly incorporated City of Malibu in 1999 as part of a legal settlement.

The park was named by (and for) Lee and Charmain Schwartz, the last owners who ranched the property. They built a ranch house and ran cattle in the 1950s, but were burned out in the catastrophic 1956 Malibu fire. 


This coast live oak survived the 1956 and 1978 wildfires. The black patches are charcoal.

I remember seeing Charmlee for the first time as a child with my parents just after it opened as a park. There were still many reminders of  the ranch era—windmills, pipes, a reservoir that still held water. There were more reminders of the 1978 Malibu fire, which followed the path of the '56 wildfire and burned all the way to the sea: blacked oak trunks, melted shards of glass and the skeletons of the old eucalyptus windbreaks.

In the past 30 years the land has recovered. The eucalyptus trees killed by fire have weathered into picturesque snags. There is very little left of the ranch infrastructure, although the reservoir is still there, mostly filled in to prevent accidents. The foundations of the old ranch house are still there, too, although they shelter sunbathing lizards and somnolent snakes now, instead of human inhabitants.



Encinal Canyon was named for its oaks, and many of the coast live oaks at Charmlee are ancient, old enough to remember when the Chumash lived here, long before the ranch era. This grove is also home to a weathered ring of enormous sandstone boulders, looking for all the world like a neolithic monument instead of an accidental arrangement created by geologic process.

Long before the Schwartz family or any of the 19th and 20th century landowners arrived on the scene, Charmlee was home to the Chumash people and their ancestors. The official Charmlee Docents brochure states that there are sites at the park that are approximately 10,000 years old. If that date is correct, it makes Charmlee one of the oldest documented settlement sites in the area.

An important Chumash trade route reportedly runs through the park. There is also evidence of Chumash rock art at several locations. Although it is damaged and badly faded, it suggests that this was an important place, maybe even a sacred place. It still feels that way to many 21st century visitors. Watching the rock formations emerge from the morning fog is like watching the emergence of giants, and seeing the moon rise over the mountains and make a path of silver across the sea is breathtaking.







The moon rises over the Santa Monica Mountains on this August 2012 Charmlee full moon hike. In the middle of the park, with a 360-degree view of mountains and sea, and hardly any houses or telephone lines or other human clutter in view, it feels like stepping back into time.


Thanks to the remarkable city staff and volunteer docents, for the past 15 years walkers have had the opportunity to explore the park on the night of each full moon. The walks were never the same twice. I am blessed to have participated in many. I've had the chance to see the moonlit meadow full of deer, hear the soft tapping of the tarantula's courtship dance, watch the elusive glimmer of shooting stars, feel the cold air flowing like water at the bottom of the ravines on warm summer nights and see the Milky Way—the backbone of night—on clear, cold winter nights.



Moonrise from the lookout point at the edge of the old ranch reservoir, November 2013.  This view was the ultimate  destination  for full moon walk participants. Sometimes they were rewarded with a sight of the moon, sometimes the entire walk took place swathed in silent fog, so thick it was almost tangible. Every night hike was extraordinary, an experience to be savored and remembered.

Both Bluffs Park and Charmlee offer beautiful ocean views, and the bluff terrain that gives Bluffs Park its name is vanishingly rare in Malibu, existing intact as parkland only at this park and at the Point Dume Nature Preserve and some of the pocket beaches in western Malibu. It's also near the center of the community and next to the city's existing recreation center. 

However, there is no comparison between the two parks. Without diminishing the value of Bluffs, Charmlee is stellar. It's like a piece of Tolkien's Middle Earth transplanted to Malibu. There are acres of  rolling meadows, ancient oak groves, dramatic rock formations, spectacular views of the ocean and the mountains, miles of trails, ancient Chumash cultural sites and amazing biodiversity that includes everything from mountain lions and ring-tailed cats to tarantulas and fairy shrimp. 



Celestial stars aren't the only kind visible at Charmlee, these delicate flowers are Padre's shooting stars, the only local native member of the cyclamen family and one of my favorite wildflowers. 

Will future Malibuites regard this City Council's decision to swap the parks as forward thinking? Or will they be remembered instead as a kind of 21st century Esau, trading a 532-acre birthright for something much less remarkable than the thing they gave up? 



A view of the Santa Monica Mountains looking east from the highest elevation in Charmlee. I am reminded of the famous quote from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah: "Ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it, and you shall find rest for your souls."

hope the five-year trial period for the swap offers everyone involved the necessary time to take a long hard look at what's at stake. Every stakeholder in the swap—park visitors and residents—should take the opportunity to explore both parks and weigh in on the issue, whatever their perspective.  All the stories I've ever read indicate that once you've lost Paradise, you aren't likely to ever find your way back again...


Suzanne Guldimann
17 June 2014










Friday, June 6, 2014

Mr. Toad’s Day at the Beach, or How the Automobile Changed Malibu


Early motorists enjoy a postcard-perfect trip to the beach c. 1926.

Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today—in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped—always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!

—Kenneth Grahame,
The Wind in the Willows, 1908

Oh, Toad. Canary-colored cart, patient horse, friends, river and home forgotten, all care and caution tossed to the wind at the seductive sight of his first motorcar. It must have been that way for many, not just Scottish author Kenneth Grahame’s infuriating but endearing character who first appeared in print in 1908.

The automobile craze came early to Los Angeles. The Automobile Club of Southern California was founded in 1900.  According to Richard Mathison’s fascinating 1968 history of the Auto Club and SoCal car culture, Three Cars in Every Garage, the population of the LA area had burgeoned to 350,000 people that year. The City of Los Angeles went from 11,183 in 1800 to 102,478 in 1900. Mathison writes that a total of 4192 cars were manufactured in the US in the first year of the 20th century. Advocates for alternative fuel vehicles in the 21st century might be amazed to find that less than 1000 of those vehicles were powered by gasoline. The rest were steam and electric. 

The Automobile Club of California hosted car races in 1904 and 1905 at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, in the heart of Los Angeles. The club, founded in 1900, was soon looking to the open road. It became a major proponent for the creation of the California highway system and began producing maps and books of car routes for recreation. This photo is from the Automobile Club Archive and is reproduced in Richard Mathison's 1968 book Three Cars in Every Garage.
In 1909, the State Highways Act was passed, allocating $18 million in bonds to create a  “continuous and connected highway system.” The first stretch of highway was built in 1912. Things would never be the same. 

According to Mathison, the Auto Club grew from "a few hundred enthusiasts" in 1906, to "3200 serious motorists" in 1911. The organization began publishing maps and tour books in 1909, encouraging motorists to take to the roads in search of adventure and a grand day out.  

The Auto Club also became a powerful voice lobbying for new roads. motorists began to clamor for a highway through the exclusive, entirely off-limits Malibu Rancho. It would be 1929 before that road was built, but that didn't stop early motorists from pushing the boundary. As early as 1915 there were maps promoting road trips to the Las Flores Inn—it's Duke's Restaurant now and was the Sea Lion when I was growing up. 

Las Flores was the end of the road for motorists, the ranch gate that's at the top of the Malibu Post's home page was located there, and uninvited visitors to the ranch were not welcome. Instead, motorists might opt for a round trip adventure along the coast to Topanga Canyon, up the narrow, winding mountain road and through the vast unexplored San Fernando Valley to exotic destinations like Van Nuys, before heading home through the Cahuanga Pass. The Auto Club printed a map for just such an adventure in 1915.

The trip from Santa Monica through Topanga Canyon to the Valley was a journey through wilderness into the wild west in 1915. It's still an adventure, even in 2014.

We have the map, but before we begin our motoring adventure, here are a few points of etiquette for motorists, c. 1901:

Motoring is a stimulating and rather dangerous amusement. When not overdone, it is healthful and pleasant. Ladies should wear warm wool garments free from encumbering draperies, with heavy shoes and sensible gloves. Her escort should provide a protective duster and goggles. No young lady should go alone with a gentleman on an extended afternoon motoring trip. An automobile often stops without apparent cause and is sometimes in disrepair for hours or even all night. A party of young people should have a chaperon.

—Etiquette of Social and Official Life, 1901, excerpted in Three Cars in Every Garage.

Got your goggles and your chaperon? Let's go.


We'll start our adventure at the California Incline in Santa Monica. The artist who painted this romantic 1915 postcard scene either didn't know or care about the geography or captured an eerie pre-dawn full moon setting in the west, it certainly isn't rising over there. Not in the real world.
Here's a 1915 view of the coast route looking north from Santa Monica Canyon. Remarkably, the apartment building on the corner of PCH and Chautauqua is still there and looks much the same. 

We'll be driving right past the first Port of Los Angeles, and "the Longest Wharf in the World," as this postcard boasts. There's nothing left but a sign today, and in 1915, the 4600-foot-long wharf was already a relic, replaced by the port at San Pedro. The Long Wharf was torn down in 1920, but when it was built in the 1890s, steamers full of freight and passengers arrived around the clock. 
Once past the wharf, the road dwindled to a narrow track. Motorists in 1915 had to contend with road obstacles that included high tides, horses, cattle, sea lions and elephant seals on the road and, just like 21st century travelers, falling rocks. 

The USC Digital Library preserves this wonderful 1915 photo of the Los Flores Inn. The resolution on the downloadable version isn't great, but in the original image you can read "Crescent Ice Cream" on the awning, and "Ice Cream, Sodas, Cones, Sandwiches, Tobacco, Kodak Films, Groceries, Candies,"  around the front of the building. The giant beer can to the right advertises: "When your [sic] dry drink Maier Select, on draught." At the right of the building, past the picnickers, a horse is tied up. A reminder that anyone headed up the coast to Yerba Buena or Oxnard had to travel by horse or on foot along the beach at low tide, a journey that could take two days, depending on conditions. We'll just stop by to fortify ourselves with ice cream, before making our way back to Topanga Canyon

This photo postcard from the early 1920s shows Topanga Canyon looking not that different from the way it is today.


However, once you were on the Valley side you were in a different world. Hundreds of acres of rolling grassland, dotted with valley oaks and cattle and crossed with a network of ravines and creek beds spread from the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains to the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains with just a few ranches and small farm communities. 

That's the intersection of Topanga Canyon and Ventura Blvd in 1922. Today it's Woodland Hills, back then it was Girard. Motorists could be forgiven if they thought they were hallucinating a desert mirage. That really is a minaret. Or, more accurately, it really is a fake minaret. Girard was one of the first local roadside attractions, bus tours and motorists made a day of it, lured by the promise of something wonderful and exotic.
What they got was painted plywood and a real estate pitch. But then, illusions are part of the Southern California experience, too. And the 13 miles through Topanga were definitely scenic. Thanks to concerted preservation efforts, they still are. That concludes our 1915 road trip, but the road building effort is just getting under way.

Here's a 1920s steam shovel powering through miles of precarious coastline to build the Ventura stretch of Roosevelt Highway. Tons of explosives were used to blast the coastal route through the Malibu Rancho.
On opening day, June 26, 1929, thousands of cars crowded Roosevelt Highway, their occupants eager to have a first look at the fabled Malibu Ranch. The grand opening ceremony, featuring Miss Canada and Miss Mexico, took place at Big Sycamore Canyon. The original of this photo is in the Adamson House Museum collection.
Without pressure from the developing car culture May Knight Rindge, who carried on her husband's fight to keep the county from railroading the right of way for a railroad through the ranch they both loved fiercely, might have prevailed. But the era of the automobile had arrived with a vengeance and nothing was going to stand in the way, not even the area's unpredictable and disaster-prone geology. May Rindge's determination, however, delayed other road-building plans indefinitely. Here's a look at what might have been:

This is a detail of a map showing proposed freeways in 1956. There's the freeway through Malibu Canyon that helped fuel the fight for cityhood, but also a Topanga Expressway, a Decker Freeway, a Sycamore Canyon Freeway, and a Reseda Freeway, cutting through Temescal Canyon. There's even a Latigo Expressway. It's unclear how many of these proposed mega-projects were more than just lines on paper and wishful thing, but the engineers only let go of the idea of a multilane Mulholland Expressway cutting all the way across the Santa Monica Mountains in recent years. That it's still called a "highway," even where it's an impossibly narrow mountain road filled with hairpin turns much loved by motorcyclists but unlikely to ever accommodate anything bigger than a trash truck is a lasting reminder of the abandoned plan. Could they have built it? Probably.
They approved this in 1955, and built it in 1961. Today, this section of the 405, which splits the Santa Monica Mountains in two, is one of the busiest freeways in the world. The builders of Los Angeles' freeway system bulldozed thousands of homes, divided neighborhoods, and overcame opposition in much the same way an invading army overcomes resistance, with a complete disregard for the environment and civil rights. At least it was a bloodless battle. Or, at any rate, without visible bloodshed, because California's freeways came at a price. 
In the end, the road building got out of hand. We've already had a look at the plan to build a six-lane freeway through Malibu Canyon and the even more outrĂ© Santa Monica Causeway, but by the time Caltrans released plans to use atomic bombs to blast new freeways through the mountains in the Mojave Desert in the early 1970s, even the most energetic road building lobbyists in the Auto Club were ready to say enough is enough.  (Although it may be hard to believe, the atomic civil engineering plan is not a figment of the author's over-active imagination, it was called the Plowshare Program, and they're still trying to mop up the mess made while testing how to use nuclear weapons for things like road construction). 

Southern California's mountains are a graveyard for over-ambitious and abandoned freeway projects, but Roosevelt Highway—Pacific Coast Highway—remains a popular weekend drive, in addition to being Malibu's lifeline. Malibu had an estimated 363,000 visitors over Memorial Day weekend this year and summer hasn't even officially started yet. However, if sea level rise predictions are accurate, the ocean will eventually take back the road.


A 21st century earth-mover shores up Pacific Coast Highway near Thornhill Broome State Beach after powerful spring tides damaged the rock revetment. 
The fabulous Mr Toad, with his bombast and his passion for motorcars, steals the show in the Wind in the Willows, but it's wise old Badger whose words stay with one down through the years:

People come, they stay for a while, they flourish, they build, and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.
—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

See you on the road. 

Suzanne Guldimann
6 June 2014