Topanga Vacation Destination c. 1915

For more than a hundred years Topanga has been a destination for summer visitors. In 1905, the Los Angeles Herald proclaimed Topanga Canyon, “One of the most picturesque and best known mountain gorges to be found along the coast.”

Postcard of a family outing in Topanga Canyon, 1915. Photographer: H. F. Rile. Image: San Fernando Valley Digital Library.
Postcard of a family outing in Topanga Canyon, 1915. Photographer: H. F. Rile. Image: San Fernando Valley Digital Library.

In 1910, the newspaper heaped additional praise on the canyon: “A mountain road without a fault in engineering or construction and absolutely well kept,” the writer enthused.  “All the beauty of the Matterhorn of the Alps devoid of snow combines with a replica of the American Ozarks in its forests of oaks.”

The same year the Herald was waxing rhapsodic about the beauties of Topanga Canyon, the Automobile Club of California began sending teams of cartographers and surveyors to map the state’s new and rapidly evolving network of roads. The Auto Club used the data to generate maps for their members, but the club also paid for signs and kept tabs on road construction. In 1915, a new map celebrated the official grand opening of “Topango Cañon Road,” an official state route, was published.

The canyon was an important meeting place for the Tongva and Chumash people, the area’s first residents, and a trade route. The first Europeans arrived in the early 19th century, with horses and mules, and the route was enlarged during the homesteading era in the late 19th century, but it was always narrow, winding, and precipitous. Perhaps that is what attracted the first motorists, in the same way that it attracts sports car drivers and weekend motorcycle clubs today.

The author of the 1910 Herald article was reviewing a “Durable Duro,” a uniquely California car, made in L.A., and featuring high tech “acetylene gas headlamps.” Early photographs of the canyon route show an astonishing variety of automobiles navigating the turns, sometimes sharing the road with horses.

The headline for this 1905 Los Angeles Herald photograph reads: “Typical View in Topanga Canyon as Seen by a Pleasure Party from New 4-cylinder ‘Duro’ Car.
The headline for this 1905 Los Angeles Herald photograph reads: “Typical View in Topanga Canyon as Seen by a Pleasure Party from New 4-cylinder ‘Duro’ Car.

In 1915, after years of work using mule teams and gangs of laborers armed with pickaxes and shovels, the state completed the project to widen and grade the canyon road, transforming it into an official state route, and the only improved road from the Valley to the sea.

Building Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway), across the Malibu Rancho is 1926. Image: Malibu Historical Photograph Collection, Pepperdine University Special Collections
Building Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway), across the Malibu Rancho is 1926. Image: Malibu Historical Photograph Collection, Pepperdine University Special Collections

To celebrate the occasion, The Auto Club organized a caravan of motorists. Participants concluded their adventure with a BBQ in the canyon and received a free commemorative pennant as a souvenir. They also received one of the Auto Club’s first strip maps, showing in detail the route from Los Angeles, along the coast road, up the canyon, across the wide open spaces of the almost completely undeveloped and agrarian San Fernando Valley, and back to Los Angeles via the Cahuenga Pass.

Even with the road improvements the trip was an adventure. The canyon was prone to the same rock falls that plague it today, but much of the surface was oiled gravel, not pavement, and erosion was a major problem. The elegant concrete and steel arches that enable motorists to cross the creek today were installed in the 1930s. Early motorists crossed on wooden bridges. The state installed decorative wooden split-rail fences along some of the more hazardous curves, but there were no real guard rails, and there was no easy way to summon help in an emergency, except by flagging down another motorist.

To reach the canyon via the coast route, motorists had another set of hazards. The state only won its lengthy battle over right-of-way against the Rindge family—the owners of the Malibu Rancho, in 1924—and began building what is now Pacific Coast Highway with funds allocated by a 1919 bond measure. The highway opened in 1929. Before that, the road was unpaved, and subject to rockfalls, high tide, sea lions in the road, and sometimes even alleged sabotage by the Malibu Rancho range riders.

Las Flores Canyon, the site of the Malibu Rancho gatehouse, was the end of the road for early motorists, but travelers headed to Topanga fared better, provided their vehicle could make it up the canyon.

Enterprising homesteaders opened refreshment stands, campgrounds, and hostelries. McAllister’s Tavern was one of the first homegrown Topanga camps. Stella McAllister and her husband homesteaded a claim near Cheney Road in 1905. Her husband died shortly after they arrived in the canyon, and Stella started the business to support herself. She was already well known as a superlative cook. The tavern offered home-cooked meals and tent cabin rentals. Guests were expected to help with the chores, and their host had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but her dinners were legendary, and the tavern was a local institution for more than a decade.

Topanga Canyon c. 1909. A postcard of Topanga Canyon showing the grade above the spring in 1909. That’s legendary Topanga mail and stagecoach driver Jack Woods, driven by Joe Robinson, according to the notes that accompany the image. 1909 was the year Stella McAllister opened her restaurant and camp in the canyon. Motorists faced a challenging drive to enjoy her famous home-cooked dinners.
Topanga Canyon c. 1909. A postcard of Topanga Canyon showing the grade above the spring in 1909. That’s legendary Topanga mail and stagecoach driver Jack Woods, driven by Joe Robinson, according to the notes that accompany the image. 1909 was the year Stella McAllister opened her restaurant and camp in the canyon. Motorists faced a challenging drive to enjoy her famous home-cooked dinners.

McAllister’s Tavern was soon joined by Camp Topanga in Old Canyon. This ill-fated resort opened in 1909 and was almost entirely swept away by record flooding in 1914. The nearby Moel-y-Gan Mineral Springs fared somewhat better. A brochure advertises “Auto Stage trips,” via “electric cars” from Santa Monica, $3 per passenger, including “a dinner fit for a king!” The advertisement enthuses about the health-giving mineral spring, views that “resemble those of the Grand Canyon,” and that there were “no mosquitos or vermin.”

The resort reportedly closed precipitously after the proprietor, George Pickett, eloped with a guest.

Visitors arrive via electric car, c. 1910, at the Moel-y-Gan (“Hill of Song” in Welsh) resort. Photo courtesy of Topanga Historical Society
Visitors arrive via electric car, c. 1910, at the Moel-y-Gan (“Hill of Song” in Welsh) resort. Photo courtesy of Topanga Historical Society

The number of camps and resorts continued to grow throughout the early years of the century. They ranged from Kneen’s Camp, built in 1916 by stonemason Thomas William Kneen, with stone cabins featuring concrete floors, to Cooper’s Camp, a ramshackle collection of tents and cabins by the side of the Topanga Lagoon. Visitors were entertained with fishing trips, nature walks, and 1920s jazz era dance bands.

The popularity of Topanga meant that visitors to Topanga summit were soon greeted not by unsurpassed views but by giant billboards advertising “Arrowhead Beverages,” “Sunset Gasoline,” and “Good Old Eastside, the Perfect Brew.”

The Depression temporarily dampened America’s enthusiasm for the motoring craze, and fuel and tire rationing during WW II continued to impact car culture for another decade. When the post-war boom arrived, it brought with it shiny new motels with boomerang-patterned linoleum and modern conveniences like air conditioning, swimming pools, and adjacent diners advertised with futuristic neon signs. There were still a few canyon camps: Camp Wildwood was one—it opened in the 1940s and continued to accommodate visitors until the 1980s, but the era of the Topanga Canyon campground, with home-cooked meals, rustic tent cabins and live dance bands was over.

On a warm summer evening in the canyon, when conditions are just right, it’s easy to imagine that one can hear the sound of holiday makers dancing to the music of a live band 100 years in the past.

Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is a writer, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s covered environment, arts, science, history and crime for the local media for more than a decade and is the author of nine books of music for the Celtic harp. She can be reached at s.guldimann@messengermountainnews.com

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