THS Presents: Living on the Edge of America

Photo of Topanga Beach circa 1960s. Photo courtesy of Pablo Capra/Brass Tacks Press Archive

Ever wonder about the local folklore concerning the cabins on Topanga Beach that were demolished in 1978? Or stories before the bulldozing of the Rodeo grounds in 2003? And how did it get its name anyway? The Topanga Historical Society will answer these questions and more at its quarterly meeting, Wednesday, July 19, at the Topanga Community Center (TCC). The potluck begins at 7 p.m., the program starts at 8 p.m.

Our story begins around 9,000 years ago when Topanga Beach was inhabited by Chumash and Tongva tribes. The area was called Humaliwo (Malibu), “where the waves sound loud.” A friendly line in the sand was drawn dividing these two tribes for living, but commerce and creating unique canoes (tomol) kept them neighborly.

Fast forward to the Mission Movement and Ranchos when longhorn cattle studded the landscape. Again, the land was divided—between Boca de Santa Monica Rancho and Malibu Rancho—coincidently on the same line that divided the first people’s tribes.

Recreating that time, silent film actor Tom Mix filmed Westerns on Topanga beach and in the Canyon. Also hanging around was William Randolph Hearst who purchased the land when building a palatial Santa Monica beach house for Marion Davies in the 1920s. He also built small houses on Topanga Beach for use of his movie star friends; the likes of Garbo and Keaton lived there and, later on, Shirley Temple and others.

The biggest housing explosion was after 1929 when the Rindge family, owner of the Malibu Rancho at the time, lost control of the property and Roosevelt Highway (PCH) was built. The workers lived in a Topanga beach Tent City. The community was later known as Elkhorn, complete with a café and dance hall.

The depression hit Hearst hard and, in 1938, he sold the land to the Los Angeles Athletic Club and remained a Hollywood escape. Rumors are that Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Peter Lawford and others stayed in the now defunct motel.

Fast forward again to the 1960s when the bohemian world invaded Los Angeles, settling in Topanga. Different groups gravitated to three distinct locations: the beach, the Rodeo Grounds, and the Snake Pit. There were hard-core bikers called the Heathens, a group called the Pirates, who lived up to their names as robbers, and surfers, known as the Bombers, who were not always willing to share the waves with outsiders. Of course, the poets, artists, and musicians such as Mama Cass, Bear from Canned Heat, and Buddy Miles from Jimi Hendrix’s band. The most notorious resident, who lived in a black bus in the Snake Pit with his “family,” was Charles Manson.

Life on the beach was life on the edge for many, but for others, there was added value in the bohemian lifestyle that produced writers, filmmakers and even a skateboard champion. The occasional fire or flood experienced up-Canyon also impacted those at the mouth of the creek. There are images of a VW Bus being washed out to sea and an Amerigas truck that nearly met the same fate.

Local historian Eric Dugdale and poet Pablo Capra, both former Rodeo Grounds residents, will bring their own “I was there” experiences to the historical photos, before handing the program over to other locals to share their stories and recollections of living on Topanga Beach.

Copies of “The Topanga Story” will be available for purchase, as well as books published by Pablo Capra’s Brass Tack Press and and a recent anthology, “Bohemia in Southern California,” that contains a first-person essay by Capra.

Become a Member—Topanga Historical Society membership is only for $20/year for individuals or $30/year for a family.


The program is open to all and free of charge. For the potluck (7p.m.), bring a main dish, side dish or dessert to share. Coffee and tea will be provided. The program follows at 8 p.m. The Topanga Community Center is located at 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.


By Rebecca Catterall


No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.