October 21, 2011
Nazis in the canyon
Go past Whoopi Goldberg’s house in Pacific Palisades, veer left at Bill Cosby’s, then curve your way around Steven Spielberg’s compound.
Now you’re almost there. Hike along a winding fire road up, up, up into the Santa Monica Mountains, then gaze down into Rustic Canyon. Lush and green, this once was the home of actor and humorist Will Rogers.
But that’s not the only bit of history that draws people here. They also come for the Nazis.
For decades, locals have told stories about what might have been going on down in the canyon in the years leading up to World War II. All of the elements for a best-selling novel are present: a millionaire heiress, a mysterious building project of gigantic proportions, a charismatic Nazi and whispers of occult activities that included plans for a government takeover.
Local historian Randy Young, 57, probably is more familiar than anyone else with the tales of what he is convinced was a Nazi compound, whose ruins still exist today. He and his late mother, Betty Lou Young, investigated the stories while doing research for two books, “Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters” and “Pacific Palisades: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea.”
“We always heard a rumor about Nazis in the canyon,” the former commercial photographer said. “And we thought, ‘Well, you know, you have bad neighbors, but are they really Nazis?’ ”
In this case, years of extensive research and interviews suggest that the answer is yes, that from 1933 to 1945, a group of up to 40 Nazi sympathizers attempted to create their own self-sufficient utopia in one of the most beautiful, secluded parts of Los Angeles.
Here are the facts as Young relates them:
In 1933, records indicate that a Jessie Murphy acquired 50 acres of canyon land. Her daughter, Winona — heiress to a thumb tack-manufacturing fortune — and son-in-law, Norman Stephens, later took up residence at the location.
There they began construction on a $4 million stronghold, which was to be — according to Young — a secret Nazi compound, complete with a 20,000-gallon fuel tank, 500,000-gallon water tank, and a power station large enough to support a small town. Later plans that were never carried out called for a four-story, 22-bedroom mansion designed by the noted black architect Paul Williams.
“Everything was really weird about this. The neighbors were a little freaked out about it,” Young said. Still, “Until the war broke out, it was just eccentric people.”
But there was more to the story. Collected oral history suggests that Stephens fell under the influence of a German referred to as “Herr Schmidt.” He conducted séances and convinced the couple that he had supernatural powers. When Nazi Germany defeated the West in the war, he prophesied, anarchy would engulf the United States. The couple’s Murphy Ranch, as it was known, would be a self-sufficient community from which the group of Nazi sympathizers they had gathered around them could emerge and restore order.
Young said that based on eyewitness accounts of what group members wore and other testimony that provided bits of information, he is confident they were associated with the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi organization that had thousands of members across the country. No one seems to know anything about Schmidt, other than that he supposedly was arrested following the attack on Pearl Harbor, effectively ending the activities at the compound in 1945.
While there is limited tangible evidence to act as proof, Young said the puzzle pieces all fit together. And he’s not surprised that those most directly involved weren’t more forthcoming.
“People don’t advertise that they were Nazis,” he said.
What was going on at Murphy Ranch may have worried people at the time — including a Jewish neighbor who told Young, “I kept a loaded gun wherever I went,” and construction workers who were reportedly baffled by the scope of the building project — but the supposed Nazi stronghold doesn’t look so scary now.
The power station, with its foot-thick walls of cast concrete, is empty and covered in wild, psychedelic graffiti that changes from week to week. The tall fuel tank behind it more closely resembles a giant, crushed beer can after a wildfire destroyed it in 1978.
The huge cistern meant to collect water now holds only charred debris and more painted evidence of vandals. While the imposing iron gate at the main entrance remains intact, the elegant, flagstone wall attached to it is reduced to rubble in one part.
As for the living quarters above a garage — one of the only habitable structures in the Stephenses’ grand plans to come to fruition — there is nothing more than rusted piles of twisted metal, another casualty of a canyon fire.
These days, the scariest thing about the site is getting there. From the Sullivan Fire Road, near Casale Road, it’s a 2.5-mile hike. One route requires taking more than 500 narrow steps down the canyon’s steep slopes, past terraced gardens the Stephenses created to grow fruit trees to feed their clandestine community.
Not that any of this keeps people away. It never did.
In 1948, the property was sold to the Huntington Hartford Foundation and was used as part of an artists’ colony. Later, it was bought by the city of Los Angeles. These days, the allure of shadowy ruins and picture-perfect scenery — there are lovely sycamore trees and a year-round creek — continues to draw visitors.
Santa Monica resident Susan Suntree, author of “Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California,” has made the trip to the remains of Murphy Ranch many times.
“For years and years, I’ve hiked around there and knew the stories. It’s really creepy and fascinating,” she said. “It always intrigued me. You can’t help but want to populate it with your imagination. What was going on here?”
The truth is that no one knows all the details for sure, but as more bits of information emerge, the story continues to unfold.
For a local historian like Young, that’s part of the fun.