Obscura Society LA loves to take advantage of the natural area that surrounds us in Southern California, especially to explore areas off the beaten path, with curious and mysterious histories whose mythologies develop over time.
A group of United States-based Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s certainly found the right place to live in seclusion undetected for years: at the bottom of Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Mountains. We set out to uncover their former hideout, where they waited for Hitler to conquer the US and retreat here, hidden away, but close enough to hang out with the Hollywood elite.
In front of the Paul R. Williams-designed gated entry to Murphy Ranch, as we embark down into Rustic Canyon
But why would a group of Hitler-supporting white supremacists hire the first certified African American architect, Paul Revere Williams, to build such a grandiose gated entry for the famed, isolated, and supposedly hidden Murphy Ranch?
Concrete stairs leading to one of the tanks
There are many unexplained mysteries surrounding the tale of Murphy Ranch — named after a mining heiress “Jesse Murphy” who probably never actually existed — including where they actually lived down there (at one point, 40-50 Hitler supporters strong, many of the “Silver Shirts” Nazi group).
Cistern full of graffiti, thanks to a rusted ladder leading down into it
But there are signs as to how they survived, including giant tanks and cisterns that held enough diesel fuel and water to help them sustain life in isolation for up to three years without supplies from the outside world.
Garden at the ranch
The residents of Murphy Ranch survived for nearly a decade by growing their own food in a concrete-walled garden, now exposed to the elements but probably once covered by a greenhouse roof.
Fenced-off machine shed area
The parcel of land that houses Murphy Ranch is technically owned by the City of Los Angeles, whose parks department has begun some rehabilitation and graffiti abatement work.
That includes fencing off the iconic Murphy Ranch power house, left empty when its diesel engines (used for generating power for the compound) were removed years ago. A fresh coat of municipal gray paint has covered up the façade of the power house, but the graffiti on the exterior side walls, roof, and interior still remain… for now.
In Rustic Canyon, nothing is safe from graffiti: not even this Boy Scout camp farmhouse
But the history of Rustic Canyon does not belong solely to the inhabitants of Murphy Ranch, which was raided the day after Pearl Harbor in 1941, and eventually abandoned fully by 1948. On our way through the property, we also stopped by an old abandoned farmhouse, reportedly once part of the neighboring Boy Scout Camp Josepho.
VW bus, underside
Signs of the artist colony that took up residence down here in the late 1960s and early 1970s are also evident, including an abandoned VW bus.
Documenting the rubble
The area may technically be abandoned, but it’s visited frequently by hikers and vandals, who always make sure there’s a fresh coat of paint on anything that remains down there.
Heading up the infamous stairs
In addition to the road that leads down from the wrought iron gate entrance, there are several concrete stairways that provide access points from the fire road above down in to the canyon.
The 300 mark up the stairs, more than halfway there.
We climbed over 500 of these narrow stairs (with no railings!) to make our exit, marking our progress thanks to some graffitied markers.
Happy hikers emerging from the canyon floor
We were happy to have made our trek on a sunny spring day before the weather gets too hot, and certainly before the city government “improves” the area by removing any trace of its disturbing and baffling history.
All photographs by the author.
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!