Shady Park's Solitude Belies a Tangled History

Times Staff Writer

Generations of dreamers have had grand plans for the place. So why is it that Lake Enchanto remains an enigma for nearly everyone who touches it?

For 16 years the oak- and sycamore-shaded glen next to Triunfo Creek in Agoura has been a 64-acre federal park called the Peter Strauss Ranch. But it is one of the National Park Service's least-used California treasures. And least understood.

Only one visitor was there last Saturday afternoon. Bird watcher Jim Hardesty, a retired math professor from Woodland Hills, had just spied a great blue heron and a black-headed grosbeak. He paused to ponder the park's name.

"I presume he's one of the early settlers in the area. Probably the 1800s or earlier," surmised Hardesty.

Actually, Strauss is an actor and producer. And how his name came to be placed on the land's front gate is just one of the intriguing tales of Lake Enchanto--like the property's unexpected ties to Watergate, the Manson Family and to the Indianapolis 500.

The property sprawls southward from the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Troutdale Drive. It was first developed in the early 1920s as a weekend getaway by Harry Miller, a wealthy Los Angeles automotive carburetor inventor whose "Miller Special" race cars won 11 early Indy 500 races.

Miller built the ranch's stone house and cottage and its concrete-and-rock root cellar. He constructed a house-size aviary and pens for animals such as deer, a mountain lion and a monkey for the amusement of his family. But he lost his shirt -- and his Agoura ranch -- when he tried unsuccessfully to manufacture airplane motors in the late 1930s.

For a brief time, the property was owned by cinematographer Arthur Edeson and lawyer Warren Shobert. They were residents of nearby Malibu Lake who had visions of turning the ranch into a commercial recreation center.

Along with a partner, Charles Hinman, they installed a terrazzo outdoor dance floor made of Italian marble. It was surrounded by white pergolas that trailed flowering honeysuckle vines and was illuminated by twinkling lights hung from overhead oak branches.

They dammed Triunfo Creek to create a quarter-mile-long lake for canoeing. Nearby, they built a 125-foot-wide, 650,000-gallon oval swimming pool. With a capacity of 3,000 swimmers, it was touted as the largest pool west of the Rockies. A platform-like island in the center was reached by boat and served as a stage for musicians who entertained crowds of up to 5,000 that watched from benches carved into a hillside above the pool.

Hinman, a lawyer, took over the place in the early 1940s and expanded on the recreation theme. He built a rock-walled "St. Bernadine's Fairy Tale Land" that depicted scenes from children's stories. He added amusement rides and booked big bands to play on the outdoor dance floor, sometimes for radio broadcasts into Los Angeles.

By the 1950s Hinman was hoping to expand. He proposed constructing a larger, 35-foot-high earthen dam across Triunfo Creek to form a mile-long lake. He sketched out plans to use 300 surrounding acres to create a fairyland park he called "Famous Places -- Cornell World." The name was taken from the tiny nearby community that at the time was called Cornell.

"I was planning something like Disneyland even before Walt Disney started," Hinman said.

By then, Lake Enchanto's popularity had waned. It was being used mostly for company picnics, attracting about 2,000 visitors a weekend during warm months. With miniature replicas of various wonders of the world, such as pyramids, a "Mt. Fujiyama," a steam-belching "Mt. Vesuvius," an Amazon jungle and a "Royal Gorge" canyon, "Cornell World" would be popular again, Hinman was certain.

Hinman's world came crashing down, however. He had married a teenager from Topanga Canyon and in the early 1960s he landed in divorce court. By that time, Hinman had purchased a weekly newspaper, the Topanga Journal, and was regularly writing about the increasingly nasty divorce fight. He was briefly jailed three times for violating court orders.

It was during one of those stints that Hinman tried to hire a cellmate to murder the lawyer representing his wife in the proceedings. But the would-be hit man wore a hidden microphone for one of the discussions, and Hinman was sent to prison for four years for seeking to kill attorney Murray Chotiner.

Hinman lost his newspaper and Lake Enchanto. Various pieces of the land were auctioned off for back taxes between 1967 and 1971. During Hinman's imprisonment, transients -- including some members of Charles Manson's infamous "family" -- lived at Lake Enchanto.

On July 31, 1969, a reported nephew of Hinman, Topanga Canyon musician Gary Hinman, was killed by Manson Family members -- the first of eight victims of a Los Angeles killing rampage that ended on Aug. 9 and 10 of that year.

Chotiner, in addition to being a Beverly Hills lawyer, was a key reelection campaign strategist for President Nixon. He died from injuries from what initially seemed to be a relatively minor car crash in front of Sen. Ted Kennedy's McLean, Va., home at the height of the Watergate scandal in 1974.

As for Hinman, he returned to Lake Enchanto after leaving prison to find that a 1969 flood had wiped out his dam and the lake. He was living there with a group of hippies he said were helping him repair 87 junked cars scattered around the grounds when authorities evicted him in 1976. Hinman died in 1988 at age 81.

Veteran tow truck driver Robert Sommers observed that the clean-up was the largest since "we went up to the Spahn Movie Ranch and hauled off the Manson Family's cars."

Strauss, who had become enchanted with the Agoura mountains while filming the "Rich Man, Poor Man" TV mini-series at Malibu Lake in 1976, purchased the dilapidated Lake Enchanto property a year later for $200,000. He spent six years restoring the place before deciding to move to Ojai.

He sold it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state preservation group, in 1983 for $1.2 million. He had sought about $100,000 more, but the group had no more cash. Agoura-area real estate agent Glen Peterson, who represented Strauss, recalled Monday that conservancy head Joseph Edmiston broke the deadlock by offering to name the park after the actor to make up the difference.

These days the Peter Strauss Ranch is used for occasional concerts and is available for private events. It's open daily for hiking. Ruth Kilday, a preservationist who as a volunteer helped run the park for the conservancy until the National Park Service acquired it in 1987, said Hinman was rumored not to have trusted banks and to have buried vast sums of money at Lake Enchanto. "We never found it, though," she said.

There was gold of another sort found by the park's lone visitor on Saturday, however.

"Listen," bird watcher Hardesty said, pointing toward a eucalyptus tree next to the creek.

"That's a canyon wren. You can do a lot of looking before you see one of those. This is a very important place -- we're rapidly losing our flora and fauna."

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