They Tramped to Topango

Above, Topanga pioneers celebrate the opening of the new road. On the left, Ben Failor (with back to camera) goes to check the horses in the corral. Columbus Cheney has his left arm over his wife, Lucy’s shoulder. Lucy Greenleaf has her arm on her husband Charles’s neck. The face of Mary Failor appears directly behind Charles Greenleaf’s head and Tillie Manners is sitting next to Mary. Mrs. Edwin Erdman, wearing a straw hat and a white apron, sits next to Mort Allen, who is lying in the sand.  In the background is three-year-old Eddie Erdman, who is walking away from the photographer. Photo likely taken by Edwin Erdman, c/o Topanga Historical Society, 1898.

About 40 years after the last Native Americans departed Topanga Beach, the land was given by Mexico to Ysidro Reyes (1813-1861) and Francisco Marquez (1798-1850) as part of a 6,656-acre grant in 1839. They turned this property into the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, building the first permanent structures in Santa Monica Canyon. When the land was divided among the children, Marquez’s son Bonifacio Marquez (1838-1891) lived at Topanga Beach.

In the early 1870s, after California had changed hands in the Mexican-American War, much of the Rancho was bought by Colonel Robert S. Baker (1826–1894) and Nevada Senator John P. Jones (1829-1912), cofounders of the city of Santa Monica. In 1902, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided to use the name Topanga…“Not Tobanao, Tobanca, nor Topango.”

Confusingly, “Topango” was still preferred for decades, and Topanga Beach was considered part of Santa Monica.

In 1889, a French fisherman named Pierre Aubriere was living at Topanga Beach, according to a report that his cabin was robbed. Several days later, the robber was arrested in the hills wearing Aubriere’s clothes and watch. Aubriere had come to Topanga Beach via San Francisco, perhaps as early as 1883, when a San Francisco Examiner ad for unclaimed foreign mail listed his name. 

Aubriere’s legacy may have been to interest future landlords of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in Topanga Beach. In 1894, nine members of the Club’s “Trampers’ Annex” hiked from the Mile Long Pier (near Temescal Canyon) to Topanga. There they met and were entertained by Aubriere, whom they described as an “old Portuguese fisherman,” likely another side of his ethnicity. The Trampers returned for a second visit in 1895. Is it possible that some of these young men, remembering Aubriere’s hospitality, were influenced to buy the land 30 years later?

Aubriere would have seen the county prison gang at work on the first canyon road and greeted the Topanga pioneers who came down it in 1898. Lucy J. Cheney (1868-1952) was given the honor of driving the first wagon, and they celebrated with an open-pit barbecue at the lagoon. Yet even after the canyon road was built, it was so treacherous that some Topangans continued using longer routes to Los Angeles like Santa Maria Road. 

In 1907, a search for bandits led police to Topanga Beach, where they encountered a “halfbreed, who spoke a polyglot mixture and confessed to a name which sounded like a printer’s pi,” or Latin placeholder text. This deplorable description could only refer to the mixed-race foreigner Aubriere, even though fisherman Harry Johnson was living at Topanga Beach at that time.

“The detectives could not determine clearly whether it was yesterday morning or a week ago yesterday that the man had seen something, but his enthusiasm made up for the lack of small details and his testimony was encouraging.” (1907-02-14 “Follow Clews to Vanishing Point,” Los Angeles Herald)

Aubriere and Johnson subsisted by ocean fishing. The earliest account I could find on fishing in the Topanga Creek called it a well-known trout stream, but also said that it had been restocked with 10,000 trout fry by the State Fish and Game Commission in 1909. This is significant considering that one reason for evicting the Lower Topanga neighborhood in 2006 was to restore the habitat of the steelhead trout that had supposedly thrived in the creek. In 1910, car salesman E. Roger Stearns made a publicity stunt out of fishing from the seat of his red Velie, and in 1913, author J. Smeaton Chase wrote, “The stream contained some fair-sized trout, and a half-hour’s fishing produced my supper.” However, by 1918, fishermen weren’t having luck anymore, so in 1922, Topanga Creek was restocked again.

“If the Topango brook ever held a trout it must have been in the days when the red man roamed the hills.” (1918-05-01 “Fishing for Trout a Sad Stunt in Topango,” Santa Monica Outlook)

Until 1911, Topanga Beach rarely had more than one inhabitant, yet it had many visitors.

They naturally flocked there because it was the end of the beach road before the private Malibu Ranch. They also came to see the Southern California landmark, Arch Rock, that spanned 30 feet over the road. Native American and Mexican histories said Arch Rock had been much bigger and recalled the intense roar of the ocean as it rushed through at high tide. When plans for a railroad were discussed, Malibu Rancher Frederick H. Rindge (1857-1905) advocated a tunnel under Sunset Mesa to protect Arch Rock.

“This rock was the especial favorite of the late F. H. Rindge, who, when letting the contract for the grading of the road up the beach, inserted a special clause in the memorandum of agreement with the contractor that Arch Rock was to be neither defaced nor disturbed in any particular.” (1906-03-26 “Arch Rock Mystery,” Los Angeles Daily Times)

Rindge’s connection to Arch Rock continued when he died within months of its collapse. His health began to decline around the time he heard the false report that Arch Rock had fallen in a 1905 storm. Road workers found Arch Rock still standing when the tide receded, however they had to remove some stones from the top that posed a falling hazard. Rindge’s own sudden collapse spared him the news of Arch Rock’s true end the next year.

“The heavy rainfall of last night proved too much for picturesque Arch Rock…. Little by little it has been crumbling and melting away. The storms of last winter weakened the arch and when the road graders removed the crumbling portions it was seen that it could not endure much longer.” (1906-03-24 “Pretty Arch Rock is No More,” The Daily Outlook)

The supporting column did not break, but road workers removed it with the rest of the debris anyway. This may have contributed to rumors that “enthusiastic railway promoters” had blown up Arch Rock, even though the rise of cars soon obviated the need for a railroad. The last remnant of Arch Rock, on the cliffside, was demolished in 1915 to move the beach road away from the high tide line.

Before cars, the favorite method of transportation to Topanga Beach was a hayride. The Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica regularly toured guests to Arch Rock. Leo Carrillo (1880-1961), later a famous actor, enjoyed picnics and deer hunting there.

A large gathering happened on June 28, 1906, when more than 150 Methodists held their annual picnic at Tuna Canyon. Their caravan included five large wagons draped in bunting for the young people with a band playing in the first wagon. On the way home, the girls stopped to play baseball at the mouth of Topanga.

Another noteworthy excursion happened in September 1910, when a wagon, full of chaperoned teenagers, camped for a week at Topanga Beach.

“There were a couple of Kodaks in the party, and some interesting pictures were taken of the interesting places around the camp and of the different members of the party.” (1910-09-19 “In Social Circles,” The Daily Outlook) 

Since this was the summer of William W. Coolbaugh’s discovery of a Native American mound, the accidental repetition of “interesting” is no error. If only we had those pictures!

The last grand party of this time was on July 16, 1911, when 75 guests attended “an old-fashioned Rhode Island clam bake” for employees of Levy’s Cafe, Los Angeles’s biggest restaurant. The host was Al Levy (1860-1941), with assistance from manager B. W. Singer, cashier “Fat” Henry, and head waiters Arthur Godfrey and Will Canon. After lunch, the “Levy Negro Minstrels” entertained with song and dance.  

The parties came to an end when deputy sheriffs took control of Topanga Beach that same year. Camping was prohibited, and a prison camp was built.

In 1910, car salesman E. Roger Stearns made a publicity stunt out of fishing in Topanga
Creek from the seat of his red Velie, and in 1913, author J. Smeaton Chase wrote, “The
stream contained some fair-sized trout, and a half-hour’s fishing produced my supper.
The last remnant of Arch Rock, on the cliffside, was demolished in 1915 to move the beach road away from the high tide line.











* The Los Angeles Times published an article in 1894 called “They Tramped to Topango.”

Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website,, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society,



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