Tucked away up Rustic Canyon is a sordid bit of local history.
Surrounded by the rugged mountainsides and overgrown by brush, the burned-out and crumbling buildings are what remain of the Murphy Ranch, where during the late 1930s a small group hoping to establish a Nazi utopia built an elaborate infrastructure that included a 395,000-gallon concrete water tank, a 20,000-gallon diesel fuel tank and a power station.
Hikers who reach the site, usually by climbing the creek bed from Will Rogers State Historic Park, are sometimes surprised.
“People who don’t know the story come upon this and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” said Thomas Young, a professional photographer, local historian and president of the Palisades Historical Society. Young learned about the ranch while growing up in the Pacific Palisades area, and it was included in a book on the history of Rustic Canyon written by his mother, Betty Lou Young. Thomas Young took the photographs for the book, which was published in 1975.
The story, which Young admits is sketchy, centers on the owners of the Murphy Ranch, Winona and Norman Stephens, and a mysterious but persuasive German named Herr Schmidt. Although county records say a Jessie M. Murphy purchased the property in 1933, Young said there is no other record of her, and no one in the area ever saw her, leading him to suspect that Murphy was a front name. The name Murphy Ranch, however, stuck.
Norman Stephens was an engineer with silver mining interests in Colorado, and apparently financed the operation. His wife, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, had a strong belief in metaphysical phenomena, and apparently fell under the spell of Schmidt, who claimed to have supernatural powers.
Schmidt convinced the Stephenses that once Europe collapsed and Germany emerged victorious in the war, anarchy would break out across the country, and law and order would break down. His plan was to create a command center in which the National Socialist community would wait out the war. They could then emerge from their mountain retreat and impose order on society.
It apparently made sense to the Stephenses, for they proceeded to spend an estimated $4 million to build an infrastructure that would be enough for a small town. They also made plans to build a four-story mansion that were never carried out, probably because they ran out of money, Young said.
“Thank God they didn’t have the assets to pull it off,” he said.
What they did accomplish, however, is amazing. The entire hillside above the ranch was terraced, and a sprinkler system, complete with timers, was laid out to irrigate the numerous fruit, nut, carob and olive trees and other plants that covered it. Several concrete staircases ascend the hillside, which were either to allow for maintenance of the trees, or more likely, Young believes, to patrol the property.
“What they did is they created a whole environment of their own,” Young said.
The water tank and the power station, with its double generators, ensured that the community would be self-sufficient. The power station is the only structure basically intact, although the generators were removed and donated to Loyola Marymount University in the early 1970s. The inside walls are covered with graffiti, many of them typical of what one would find in an abandoned building, including, ironically, several swastikas.
“I think there are a lot of gangs and skinheads who come here,” Young said. “Nuts are attracted to this place.”
The only other structure standing on the property is a two-story steel-frame building that was used as a garage and machine shed. It is now a rusted hulk, everything around and in it having burned in the 1978 Mandeville Canyon fire.
“I mean, they were here to stay. This was to be a real monument,” Young said.
Workmen hired to build at the ranch were reportedly confused at the scale of what they were constructing, according to Young, who spoke to several of them years later. Even for an estate, the scale of the project and the extensive infrastructure made no sense to them.
“They were setting up something beyond even what an extremely wealthy person could do,” Young said, which makes him suspect that at least some of the funding for the project came from Germany.
Plans were drawn by architect Welton Becket in the late 1930s for a mansion, with barn, silo and cottages, for a client, “Mrs. Murphy.” But these were apparently deemed insufficient, according to Young, and a new set of blueprints were drawn in 1941 by Paul Williams, the noted black architect. The client this time was Winona Stephens.
Young finds great irony in the selection of Williams as the designer.
“The ‘master race’ couldn’t get it together enough, so they had to go to a black architect. I think that’s wonderfully poetic,” he said.
Although the Nazi utopian community was never successfully formed, Schmidt did apparently have some followers. There were reports from neighbors of the ranch that paramilitary maneuvers took place during the weekends. Young believes that people would drive up to the ranch from the city to take part in the activities, and then drive back at night.
“I think really that it was Joe Blow Loser coming up for a weekend,” he said.
The plan came to a screeching halt on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when federal agents, who apparently had been watching the progress of the compound and its activities with some interest, stormed the ranch. They arrested Schmidt, whom they identified as a Nazi spy. The agents also found a powerful shortwave radio, reportedly for sending messages to Germany.
Schmidt was apparently imprisoned, Young said, but nobody knows what happened to him.
The Stephenses remained on the ranch, living in the upper floor of the steel garage structure until 1948, when they sold the ranch to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, which combined it with the property to the north and formed an artists’ colony.
John Vincent, a UCLA music professor who negotiated the sale of the property for the foundation and served as the foundation’s director until the 1960s, provided Young with most of the details of the story of the Nazi compound.
The property eventually came into the possession of the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, which wants to turn it over to the state as part of the Topanga State Park, said David Conetta, supervisor of land management and environment activities for the city agency. The state, however, will not accept the property unless the structures are demolished, a task the city lacks the money to do. So for now, the relics of the Murphy Ranch remain.
Although Young admits that many of the details of the Nazi presence at the Murphy Ranch are untraceable, and some aspects of the story have taken on the characteristics of a legend, the one fact about which he feels most certain is that there was a Nazi encampment in Rustic Canyon.
“There was a powerful presence here,” he said. And then, looking around at the craggy hillsides that he has hiked and photographed since his youth, he concludes:
“It’s such a pretty place for such a stupid pursuit.”