Colonel William W. Coolbaugh was 70 years old in 1909 when he bought Jack Rabbit Lodge from a fisherman named Harry Johnson. It was the only residence at Topanga Beach. For years, this hermit house had been used exclusively by fishermen, the only locals, and Johnson was the last of that “finny” fraternity who could call the beach their own.
According to a Santa Monica Hotel register, “Harry Johnson and nurse” had come from Evansville, Indiana in 1876 when he was still a baby. In adulthood, Johnson fathered two children that died in infancy, the second in 1902, which is the same year that he moved to Topanga Beach. No other details about his life could be found.
The buyer, W. W. Coolbaugh (as he preferred to be called), was an optimist who jumped at new opportunities. He had come to Topanga Beach because he believed that the seven-acre property surrounding Jack Rabbit Lodge was “formed by tidal action” and therefore had never been surveyed by the government. He intended to claim the land as a homesteader and began to cultivate it.
Life at the beach suited him, and his presence there soon seemed like a natural part of the landscape.
“The old delta philosopher… finds ‘books in the running brook / Sermons in stone, and good in everything.…’ Here he is monarch of all he surveys. He enjoys all the rights of a squatter, and is patiently awaiting the coming of the government surveyors and the day for making his final proof.” (1911-02-05, “Will They be Interpreted?”, “Los Angeles Times”)
The year 1906 had seen the collapse of Arch Rock—a picturesque impediment that once stood where Mastro’s Ocean Club is today—allowing better roads and cars to access Topanga Beach. Since Malibu was private and Topanga was primitive, Jack Rabbit Lodge became the popular stopping place, relieving Coolbaugh’s isolation with frequent visitors.
“There he entertained his friends and served coffee or lunch from his private stores to weary or belated travelers.” (1911-03-24, “Litigation is in Prospect,” “Los Angeles Times”)
In July 1910, the discovery of a Native American burial mound brought more attention to Topanga Beach. Coolbaugh and a Stanford geology class both took credit for the find, but Coolbaugh gave more interviews, eager to hold the spotlight with tall tales of an imagined Native American past.
Coolbaugh’s own past was similarly shaped by flights of fancy.
Born on October 19, 1839, in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, he was widely known for having been a Civil War Colonel and, “…for having superintended the construction of several important buildings and stretches of railway in the east and south…” (1910-10-20, “His Seventy-First Birthday Anniversary,” “The Daily Outlook”)
The article referred to in particular, the Chicago Alley Elevated Railroad, or The “L,” which opened in 1892.
In 1877, as the father of a six-year-old girl, Coolbaugh co-signed a petition asking the Chicago mayor to include women on the public school board. Sadly, his daughter, Mattie Wright Coolbaugh, died at age 22 in 1894, an event that seems to have spurred him and his wife, Anna A. Coolbaugh, to leave Chicago and head west—first to Colorado, and then to New Mexico and California.
In 1904, he and Anna bought a 1.5-acre tract in the Strawberry Park neighborhood of Gardena. However, in 1905, they began selling off portions of their property, which may mark the beginning of their split. In 1906, Coolbaugh appeared to be living alone in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica.
Coolbaugh was interested in inventions. In 1893, he was awarded for his design of a bathtub seat by the Chicago Department of Plumbing and Sanitary Materials. In 1905, he submitted a machine for cremating garbage to LA City Hall.
He was also interested in mining. In 1906, following the tip of a dying man, he went in search of a lost gold mine in the Santa Monica Mountains. Gold mines were reported in Tuna Canyon in 1895, so his plan didn’t seem that far-fetched; and, weeks later, he returned to the city announcing that he had actually struck gold. Newspapers began to speculate about a second California Gold Rush, but Coolbaugh’s gold never materialized, and soon he was back in the mountains chasing new leads.
This pattern of big announcements without results kept repeating. In an attempt to lure investors, he banded together with other miners to form the Ocean Park Prospecting and Developing Company in 1908, telling the press…
“…sufficient minerals can be found to keep 1,000 men employed for years to come, and when the area is thoroughly developed it will surprise the country….”
“It is my prediction that within the next ten years the Santa Monica range will resound with the noise of oil derricks and mining machinery of almost every kind. The canyons will be thickly inhabited and the at present primitive roadways will have been improved until almost every nook and corner of that inaccessible country will be opened up….” (1908-06-19, “Santa Monica Range Abounds in Wealth,” “Los Angeles Herald”)
Fortunately for the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains, Coolbaugh again couldn’t back up his words; but no matter how many times he failed (sometimes risking his life, like when he barely outran a fire in Las Flores Canyon), he still believed that success was just within reach.
The discovery of the Native American burial mound must have been deeply satisfying for him after years of trying to impress people with important finds. Although not what he’d been searching for, the mound was still a kind of treasure, and he immediately saw the profit in it. He sold some of the artifacts, left others lying on display for visitors, and enjoyed building himself up as a local celebrity—while also surely thinking that the attention would help establish his homestead. But the city was expanding rapidly, Topanga Beach didn’t seem so distant anymore, and Coolbaugh’s claim on the land was aggressive compared to when it had just been a wild place used by fishermen. Neighboring landowners began to contest his right to live there.
On March 22, 1911, the Los Angeles Title Insurance and Trust Company’s attorney Mell Frasier and a sheriff’s deputy arrived to evict Coolbaugh. The two men piled his belongings in the road, then set Jack Rabbit Lodge on fire, burning down two outbuildings in the process. The legality of their actions appeared even more questionable when Coolbaugh revealed that he had recently sold Jack Rabbit Lodge to a Santa Monica company with plans to turn it into a private clubhouse. He threatened to sue but never went to court, perhaps because the new owner was his own Ocean Park company.
Dispirited, Coolbaugh returned to Ocean Park, floating between hotels and private residences. There were also some hospital stays as his health began to mysteriously decline. His last residence was 201 S. Bonnie Brae St. in Echo Park, where he died at age 73 on March 21, 1912. The fact that he died one day before the anniversary of his Topanga Beach eviction and his poor mental state seem to indicate a suicide.
“After his eviction he seemed to lose interest in things of [this] earth and his death was a natural dissolution rather than the result of [a] mortal disease.” (1912-03-22, “Eccentric Character,” Los Angeles Times)
Coolbaugh’s one-paragraph obituary, ungraciously titled “Eccentric Character,” said only of his past that he was a Civil War veteran and a pioneer of Southern California. It didn’t mention that he had built the Chicago Alley Elevated Railroad, nor has any evidence of this surfaced other than the hearsay printed in California newspapers.
A Civil War website confirms that Coolbaugh was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia while fighting for the North on May 3, 1863, but it also says that he was promoted from a private to a commissary-sergeant, not a colonel. Further research shows that there was another Colonel Coolbaugh in the Civil War who was Superintendent of Military Railroads, a known conman who was always looking for investors and claiming to have access to gold mines. His name was George Nyse Coolbaugh, the brother of prominent Chicago banker William Findlay Coolbaugh, and he died in 1883 under mysterious circumstances. George Nyse Coolbaugh was born one county away from W. W. Coolbaugh, and their similarities are hard to ignore.
William W. Coolbaugh was buried in Los Angeles’s Rosedale Cemetery. One year later, his wife Anna A. Coolbaugh was also buried there. Her headstone says that she was born in 1848, and it is inscribed with only one extra word, “Mother.”
Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.