Originally published March 18, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
Los Angeles, a blue-skied utopia where the eyes of the world are focused. It’s a place where dreams come true and where people follow the Yellow Brick Road, right? Well, as we’ve mentioned in prior Offbeat L.A. articles there are plenty of shadows in this city. Of course there was the Manson family, the Night Stalker, the Hillside Strangler, the very corrupt LAPD (an apology to the honest boys in blue, you are the minority) and then there was that crazy nazi infiltration in the 1930’s… What? Never heard about that one? Well, it seems that this story is a mixture of fact and perhaps a bit of colorful urban folklore, but then again what in L.A. isn’t? The Los Angeles nazi infiltration WAS documented is newspapers of the day, so perhaps it is more fact than fiction. But be forewarned, as you read this article you may be reminded of certain Scooby Doo episodes you watched as a child.
Apparently, it all began in the 1930s with an upper crust couple, Winona and Norman Stephens. It seems that Winona came from a wealthy Pasadena family who had made a fortune in the thumbtack business. Winona and Norman were part of the American Socialist Party and legend has it that Winona also had an obsession with the occult. Somehow the couple met Herr Schmidt, a very charismatic German, who charmed them into believing that the nazi party would soon rule the United States. He elaborated that a nazi invasion was imminent and that America would soon be reduced to rubble, chaos and anarchy. He insisted that a nazi stronghold, deep in the brush covered canyon above Pacific Palisades, would serve as a nazi nerve center. This would be a place that they could hide away and wait for the nazi instigated American anarchistic bloodbath to end. Then, one year later, they could emerge with their hidden cache of weapons, triumphant and strong, easily taking over the United States. (Isn’t this somehow reminiscent of Charles Manson’s later megalomaniacal fantasy of the United States falling in a Manson family planted civil war between the blacks and the “piggies”?).
So the Stephens invested $4 million dollars in creating a nazi enclave. It was completed in 1933, and consisted of several buildings and many raised gardens so that the stronghold could be truly self-sufficient. The ranch was deep in the canyon, accessible only by a 3.85 mile hike and a staircase of 512 stairs, the leg challenging equivalent of 27 flights. This area is still know as the Murphy Ranch today because the cover name used on the land deed for the purchase of the 55 acres was Jessie M. Murphy, widow.
The ending of this story is pretty obvious. The nazis thankfully never invaded America. No anarchy. No need to use the hidden cache of weapons. Indeed, the FBI was on to Herr Schmidt’s game and his short wave radio calls to Germany. They stormed Murphy Ranch in 1941, the day after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, and carted away the evil Herr Schmidt. As for Winona and Norman, they somehow escaped the FBI’s radar and lived on the ranch until 1958, when they sold the land to an artist’s colony. Perhaps it was Winona’s family’s money or connections that helped the couple avoid arrest. As we know those things have and still continue to count strongly with the powers that be in L.A. County.
Today Murphy Ranch is in ruins, covered by layers and layers of graffiti and littered with trash, consisting mainly of broken glass and old spray paint cans. The 1978 Mandeville Canyon Fire destroyed the hope any future cults might have had of inhabiting the ranch. It is definitely worth the hike however. Besides the quite bizarre history involved, the fun of exploring the ruins is exciting and the photographic opportunities are endless. There is a constant rumor that the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation is going to raze Murphy Ranch. Once that happens this strange piece of Los Angeles history will completely revert back to the reclusive shadows from which it somehow surfaced. See it while you can.
To get to the trailhead: Starting on Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades turn north onto Capri Drive. Follow Capri drive for 2/3 mile until it comes to an end at Casale Road. Find street parking near this intersection. Sullivan Ridge Fire road begins as you walk Casale Road to the the left.
To get to Murphy Ranch: Follow Sullivan Ridge Fire Road (unmarked) about a 1/2 mile through the gates of Rustic Canyon. Hike until there is an obvious gap in the chain link fence on the left. There you will see the staircase that leads to Murphy Ranch.