Place names may seem an unlikely repository for history but they can hold a surprising amount of information about the locations they describe and the people responsible for selecting and bestowing the names. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Here at The Malibu Post we're not convinced that the bard is right about that whole rose-by-any-other-name idea. Suppose, for example, that 19th century Malibu Rancho owner Frederick Hastings Rindge discarded the Chumash-derived name and rechristened the old Topanga Malibu Sequit Spanish Land Grant “Zumaland,” “Billowbay,” “Midocean,” “Happyland,” "Archangel,""Ozone," “Puritan,” or Hopehaven,” hypothetical names he proposed for the Malibu City of Tomorrow in his book Happy Days in Southern California. What would that have meant for Malibu?
We were discussing local place names the other day at The Malibu Post because the Malibu City Council recently took the first step towards a discussion on naming protocols, following an offer by resident Brian Strange to donate $1 million in matching funds for a skatepark in memory of his son, much loved Malibu native and extreme athlete Johnny Strange, who died in a wingsuit accident in Switzerland in 2015.
Councilmember Joan House pointed out that naming rights can be a surprisingly complicated matter, and she’s absolutely right. Whether it involves naming something new or renaming something old, the process inevitably sparks debate.
The Malibu community was shattered by the death of 13-year-old Emily Shane on Pacific Coast Highway near the intersection of Heathercliff in 2010. However, while there was a tremendous sense of shared sorrow, not everyone supported the Shane family’s push to rename Heathercliff Road after her.
Residents and businesses were dismayed at the potential cost and confusion the name change could cause. Some expressed concern at the precedent the change would set, fearing that the unintended consequences could transform the community into a city of the dead. A compromise was reached that involved adding Emily’s name to the Heathercliff sign but not officially changing the name of the street, leading to confusion for visitors, but not requiring residents to reorder their lives.
Here is a Google maps image of the intersection renamed to commemorate Emily Shane. However, the name does not appear on the actual map.
I grew up reading Marianne De Butts' column in the Malibu Times. It was called "Squeaky Mesa" and featured the family's quirky menagerie of animals, including the eponymous dog Squeaky, and a lost lifestyle that involved growing vegetables, chopping wood to heat the house, and pumping water from the ranch well.
The same people that couldn't bear the name De Butts didn't want to call the place Squeaky Mesa when councilmember Ken Kearsley, who opposed the change, suggested it as an alternative. They wanted “Paradise View Way” but failed to convince the council that their choice had sufficient historic significance. In fact, Paradise was the name chosen by developers to replace the historic name Banning Harbor in the mid 20th century. In the end, the 16 property owners on De Butts Terrace opted to rechristen the road Murphy Way, after the family of film director Dudley Murphy who owned several Malibu-area properties, including the celebrated Holiday House Inn, now Geoffrey’s Restaurant, and Cold Creek Preserve, one of the most pristine and undisturbed portions of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Perhaps its not surprising that Fauquier Road, also named by Marianne and Edward De Buttes in the 1950s, was changed decades ago to Winding Way.
If developers and the occasional homeowner sometimes exhibit the sensitivities of a Victorian maiden aunt over unsuitable names, they also seem to have a weakness for a sort of highly ornate and somewhat fussy Victorian romanticism, which is why we have streets with names like Heathercliff, Boniface, Selfridge, Wandermere, and Galahad, Fairside, and Idlewild and also fluffy pretty things like Ocean Breeze, Sea Star, and my personal favorite, the wonderfully incongruous Royal Stone Drive.
Ever since the end of WW II, developers have had the last word in Malibu's place names. Those names are layered on top of the old rancho's Spanish and Chumash heritage, with a little bit of the old west thrown in for good measure.
The plan for Point Dume in the 1930s was intended to be the new "American Riviera" and included a massive hotel, piers, groins and breakwaters, a polo field and golf course, and a fake lighthouse, but no street names were recorded on the plans.
Many of Malibu’s Spanish names are largely pragmatic: Encinal, which means oak grove, was named for the canyon’s impressive live oak woodlands. Big Rock is a sedate English version of the more colorful original Spanish Piedra Gordo—fat rock. Las Flores was named for the canyon’s abundant spring flowers. Tuna Canyon gets its name from the native prickly pear cactus. La Costa means simply coast, while Escondido means hidden. Trancas means barrier, perhaps describing the narrow box canyon that was ideal for containing cattle, while Latigo means harness leather.
Most of Malibu’s Spanish names are said to date from the period when the Rancho was owned by the Tapia family, in the early 1900s. I was always told that Puerco Canyon, which means means pig in Spanish, was an exception. The canyon was home to a pig farm in the 1940s and '50s owned by land speculator William De Bell, and tradition has always given DeBell credit for the name, but I recently found it labeled Puerco on a 1901 geologic survey map. Either way, the old pig farm now has a new name: Cameron Wilderness Preserve, for filmmaker James Cameron.
Puerco Canyon already has its name on this 1901 map of the Malibu coast, but Latigo is called Dry Canyon, and Carbon Canyon, Coal Canyon.
Leon Victor Prudhomme, who acquired the Malibu Rancho through marriage into the Tapia family in 1848, appears not to have left any names behind, but Irish immigrant Matthew Keller, who purchased the Rancho in 1857, is commemorated in the name “Keller’s Shelter,” the official if seldom used title for a stretch of coast along Old Malibu Road. Rising Sun Trail in Solstice Canyon is a 20th century tribute to Keller, named for his famous Los Angeles vineyard and the grapes he grew in the canyon.
This archival photo dating to around 1908, the year the Rindge family's Hueneme, Malibu and Port Los Angeles Railway was completed. It shows the impressive Rindge railroad trestle over Ramirez Canyon that connected the mesas at Paradise Cove. Some early maps show Ramirez Canyon spelled Ramera—Spanish for mesa, but the 1870 plat map created for Rancho owner Mathew Keller gives it as Las Ramirez. Zumirez remains a mystery. It may represent a developer’s effort to Spanish-ize the Chumash name Zuma.
The first detailed map of Malibu was produced for Keller in 1870 as part of his effort to confirm that he had legal title to the property. Almost all the names on the map are still in use, from Arroyo Sequit, to Cañada Malibu, but there are some curious variations.
The 1870 plat map records Solstice Canyon as Cañada del Solto. Rindge later refers to it as "Soston" but a 1900 geologic survey map shows it as Solstice. Lechuza Canyon is listed as “La Chusal” on Mathew Keller’s 1870 plat. Tradition says this canyon was named for the Spanish word for “barn owl,” which is also the name of an enigmatic shape-shifting witch woman from Mexican folklore. However, the name may be folk-etymology. According to Chumash language specialist Richard Applegate, Lechuza may be derived from the Chumash name “Lisiqsihi.” Applegate's paper Chumash Place Names, published in the Journal of California Anthropology, indicates that Arroyo Sequit may also be a version of the same word, which in Ventureño means “beachworm.”
Leo Carrillo State Park brings together almost every type of Malibu naming convention: there's Sequit, the original Chumash name; San Nicholas Canyon, named by Spanish explorers; Mullholland Highway, from the era of developer and water baron William Mulholland; and Leo Carrillo, for the philanthropist and park advocate. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Arroyo Sequit was an important cultural center for the Chumash. In Malibu the canyon and the road the cuts through it represent a symbolic class of cultures. Mulholland Highway bears the name of the man who rewrote Southern California history, water baron William Mulholland. Unlike earlier inhabitants, who usually chose descriptive names for their landmarks, California's developers had no scruples about naming things for themselves.
In Malibu, those place names include Merritt Drive, commemorating Merritt Adamson, Jr., the son of Rindge family heir Rhoda Rindge and Merritt Adamson; and Busch Drive, named for Malibu Realtor Louis Busch who had the responsibility of splitting up and selling the Malibu Rancho for the Marblehead Land Company after the Ridge family was forced to sell.
The map on this 1946 real estate ad for Louis T. Busch Associates features all of the modern canyon names, but gives Ramera—the singular form of the Spanish word mesa for Ramirez and Piedra Gordo—fat rock—for what is now Big Rock.
Homesteaders and other early residents also left their names behind. Cotharin Road, above, Houston Road, and Decker Canyon Road are all named for homesteader families who carved out a living in the remote and inaccessible western Santa Monica Mountains in the first years of the 20th century. Cavalleri Road was named for Enrico Cavalleri, who moved to Malibu just after WW II. His son Louie ran an earthmoving company and was the bulldozer operator for almost all of the early development on Point Dume, in an era when the first roads were being built. The family also raised dry crops like lima beans in the open fields of what is now Malibu Park. Kanan Dume Road combines elements of history and developer influence: it was named in the 1960s by Oak Park tract developers Louis and Mark Boyer for a family of 19th century Agoura area settlers. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
There's also a politician or two lurking in Malibu's nomenclature. One of them is Robert H. Meyer, who had the honor of having three of coast's most beautiful pocket beaches named in his honor, despite the fact that as assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration he was forced to resigned amid allegations that he using his position to secure extra water rights for his personal Central Valley agricultural holdings, according to the September 8, 1977 New York Times.
Beautiful El Matador Beach is part of Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beaches, named for a politician who served on the California State Parks Commission but who was also forced to resign his government position over allegations that he abused his position as assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration. One can't help wondering what performer, humorist, and social commentator Will Rodgers, whose State Park and beach is just east of Malibu, would have thought of this naming choice. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Philanthropists have also made their mark on Malibu. Leopoldo Antonio Carrillo (1881-1961) was a fourth generation Californian, and an actor, vaudevillian, political cartoonist, and conservationist. Carrillo served on the California Beach and Parks commission for eighteen years and was involved in the acquisition of Hearst Castle, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and other properties. He purchased 1500 acres in Arroyo Sequit from Waite Phillips, a Los Angeles financier, in 1952 and left an endowment after his death to fund the conversion of the ranch into a State Park. It's fitting that one of the most popular parks in the state is named in his honor.
While Rindge appears to have enjoyed creating names for landmarks on his ranch but few if any of the names mentioned in his book “Happy Days in California” appear to have stuck. There’s a good chance that “Conviction, Conversion and Salvation” peaks may be the three peaks visible from Heathercliff and Selfridge on Point Dume that once bore the official designation “Lion Peaks,” but “Cataclysm Chasm,” “Mocking Bird Valley,” “Crag Noble,” and “Sycamore Grove” are anyone’s guess today.
A clipping from a 1946 Malibu Times shows the first post WW II roads being cut on Point Dume. The U.S. Government took possession of the Point during the war, and placed the area off limits. Development was delayed first by the Depression and then by the war. By the time the windswept peninsula was divided into parcels and sold in 1946, there was no longer any talk of polo fields and golf courses and the grand vision of an American Riviera lives on only in the names of the three Point Dume homeowners associations: Riviera I, II, and III.
Rindge appreciated Malibu's Chumash history. It would have been easy for him to discard the name Zuma and even Malibu in favor of one of his fanciful ideas, most developers of the era wouldn't have hesitated, but he didn't do it, and in a very real way it is thanks to him that the local Chumash place names we still use have survived.
Malibu was home for thousands of years to Chumash communities. The city’s name is adapted from a Ventureño Chumash word generally translated as “where the surf sounds,” but the Chumash, rounded up and sent to the San Fernando Mission, had been gone for nearly three quarters of a century when Rindge bought the Rancho only the names remained.
The Adamson House, Malibu Lagoon State Park, Surfrider Beach and a half mile or so of Pacific Coast Highway occupy the site of the original community of Humaliwo. The Chumash name is generally translated as "where the surf sounds." Applegate cites a paper published in 1957 that "suggests the etymology '(the surf) sounds loudly all the time,' based on the stem iwo, 'to sound,' and a prefix mal, which can refer to the terrain." Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Topanga means “a place above” in the Tongva language. Anacapa Island, visible on clear days from west Malibu beaches, is said to mean mirage, Sequit was beach worm, and Zuma was the word for abundance. According to Applegate, Sycamore Canyon may dirive its name from the Ventureño word ˆsuwalaxˆso.
There's substantial evidence to support the theory that Point Dume is also a Chumash name. While British explorer George Vancouver is credited with naming Point Dume for Father Francisco Dumetz, whom he visited prior to naming the peninsula in 1793, there is substantial evidence to suggest the word Dume may have come from the same root as Zuma, the Chumash word Sumo.
Vancouver named Point Mugu for the Chumash community of Muwu, shortly before assigning the name Dume, not Dumetz, to the eastern point. “This Point I will call ‘Point Dume,’” he wrote.
Rindge, who purchased the entire 13,300-acre Malibu Rancho in 1892, always called the point “Duma,” and states in his book Happy Days in Southern California that the name was derived from Zuma.
His view is supported by information provided by Chumash elder Ferdinando Librado to ethnographer John Peabody Harrington between 1912-15. Librado stated that “Sumo extends out to sea and at the end of the point there was a hill.” Librado added that “Sumo is called in nautical language Dume.”
Here's a detail of the 1870 plat created for Mathew Keller that describes the point as “rocky” and calls it “Duma or Zuma Point.” The Adamson House has a printed version of the map. A scan of the original hand-drawn sketch can be viewed at the Huntington Library's digital archive.
Point Dume was a significant Chumash population center. The portion that is now part of Point Dume State Beach was reportedly a shrine site. Other portions of the point, now developed, contained the remains of large villages and several cemeteries. The street name “Indian Mound” within the Point Dume Club Mobile Home Park is the only reminder of what was there before homes were built.
The sign post at the corner of Indian Mound Road and Metate Lane in the Point Dume Mobile Home Park is all that's left of an extensive Chumash village and burial site that was bulldozed in the 1970s. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Here at the Malibu Post we think the Johnny Strange Malibu Skatepark could be a great addition to the community, and there is no reason why an amenity provided to the city through a generous donation that is made in memory of a much loved community member should not be named in their honor—Michael Landon Community Center at Malibu Bluffs Park and Leo Carrillo State Park are good examples. However, we confess to being less enthusiastic about some other recent naming conventions.
It's easy to see how Malibu Bluffs Park got its name. With the insipid exception of Legacy Park (visitors always want to know whose legacy), the City of Malibu has sensibly used the geographic location for the names of its parks. However, since we already have a Trancas Canyon Park it remains to be seen if Trancas Fields, the city's newest acquisition, keeps its everyday name or receives a new title. Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Some longtime Malibu residents were dismayed when the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy renamed old McCoye Ranch Wientraub Family Park, without a single mention of its pioneer family.
It wouldn't have cost the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy anything extra to stick the words "Old McCoye Ranch" on the sign welcoming visitors to the Ana and Cole Weintraub Family Park. Weintraub is to be commended for selling the property to the Conservancy instead of going through with controversial plans to build a resort with yurts, but naming rights shouldn't overwrite history, especially in a case like this where the property is filled with the ghosts of the past (you can read more about it here). Photo © 2016 S. Guldimann
Choosing stoner surfer dude comic strip character Zonker Harris as the namesake for the west Carbon Beach beach accessway in 1981 made a certain amount of thematic sense, but with so many amazing real people with a connection to the area—real life New Yorker cartoonist Leo Callum lived nearby, so did Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs—it might have been nice if they'd picked someone with an historical connection to Malibu, or maybe even a Chumash name, for the people who were Malibu's first residents and stewards. On the bright side, having a beach accessway named after him seems to have inspired this eternal slacker to become, in his own way, an active access activist.
As Malibu continues to evolve there may be many new naming opportunities. As residents, it will be up to us to make sure they reflect the real Malibu.
So far, Garry Trudeau's eternal surfer dude Zonker Harris is the only fictional character to be honored with a place name in Malibu.
As Malibu continues to evolve there may be many new naming opportunities. As residents, it will be up to us to make sure they reflect the real Malibu.
Names traditionally have power, choosing them wisely is important. Just the name Malibu is enough to conjure with, in a way that "Billowbay" or "Puritan" never could be. But the best and most important name those of us who are lucky enough to live here can give this community is home.