Chapter 24: Nazis in the Canyon
Murphy Ranch | Los Angeles, CA
It was a ranch, owned, operated, and occupied by Nazis in the canyons of Los Angeles.
Yep, you read that right: a ranch, owned, operated, and occupied by Nazis in the canyons of Los Angeles.
Before Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra blew the lid off the little-known story about Nazis attempting to overthrow American democracy from the inside, I took a day trip to the abandoned Murphy Ranch in La-La-Land.
The quick backstory: in the canyons of the too-wealthy-for-its-own-good-neighborhood of Brentwood sits an abandoned ranch — or at least, the couple of buildings and staircases that are left. A majority of the ranch has been completely demolished, though a few lingering structures, now embraced by graffiti, stand tattered and torn as solemn reminders of the property’s dark past. The legend of Murphy Ranch is only a tiny part of a much larger fascist storyline about the imminent threat to American democracy by an almost century-old attempt to infiltrate and overthrow the United States government during World War II. Originally erected in the 1930s, the ranch was the brainchild of Winona and Norman Stevens, both Nazi sympathizers and members of the white-supremacist, antisemitic Silver Legion of America, a failed alt-right organization eventually obliterated by the US entrance into World War II on Dec. 8, 1941.
The ranch was constructed to be a self-sustaining property and boasted several spaces: a power station, gardens, bomb shelters, bunkers, water and fuel storage, and a smattering of outbuildings, including a neoclassical mansion, with some original blueprints of the property having been attributed to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Murphy Ranch existed as a safe haven for Nazi-related activities until it was raided the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (though it’s worth noting that several key members from the LAPD were secretly aligned with the Silver Legion). All 50+ occupants were arrested and removed from the premises. Despite the city of Los Angeles’ decision to level most of the derelict and unsafe compound in 2006, hikers and explorers can still plunge deep into Rustic Canyon to see its remains.
I park on the corner of Capri Drive and Casal Road, though it feels like I shouldn’t. These houses are fucking massive. Google Maps informs me that I’m a tenth of a mile from the Murphy Ranch Trailhead, which, much like the now-abandoned Murphy Ranch, is hidden in plain sight. I walk down (then up) a winding road, passing mansion after mansion, exorbitant amounts of wealth staring down at me from all sides.
Once I reach the defunct security gate, I immediately note that this otherwise dusty and brown landscape is a haven for graffiti artists. Almost every manmade and natural shred is spread thick with colorful pieces. I push a few of the buttons on the security gate keypad then proceed, noting the cultural commentary, “Zoot!”, splashed across the gates. (Google “Zoot Suit Riots” if you’re unfamiliar with that particularly wild and dark story, also from 1940s America.)
I peer down the incline into the canyon as I begin my hike, taking stock of mementos of past explorers: shoes dangling off telephone wires, abandoned backpacks and waterbottles, and spray painted sketches of American pop culture icons like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Homer Simpson, Pokemon. It’s a blue-sky day, virtually no clouds in sight, a temperate, 78 degrees — perfect November weather for Southern California. I begin to notice small artifacts that indicate at one point, this was a heavily guarded place occupied by real people: metal ditches built into several spots all over the canyon, metal and barbed-wire fences, strange, makeshift doors that lead out to tiny platforms that look like guard posts overlooking the canyon. And stairways, long and narrow, tumbling into the expanse, steep and serious entry points to the former site of the Nazi-owned Murphy Ranch.
I finally choose a staircase down, and as I begin my descent into the canyon, I see a large water tower in the distance, and thought it might just be my imagination (I wouldn’t be surprised), I watch a man duck underneath the structure and out of sight. Chills run up my spine, the first of two times I feel spooked today by the ghosts of Nazis past.
It takes a good ten minutes to reach the bottom of the canyon, and once I do, I spot more leftovers from an extremist history: concrete walls, brittled asphalt road, various household centerpieces including a brick hearth and fireplace standing next to a defunct bathtub, covered in band stickers and more graffiti. I meander around a circular path that clearly used to be a driveway and happen upon a fenced off area, “protecting” (there are several holes and gaps in the fence) a collapsed structure, one of the few buildings the city kept up as a reminder of the ranch’s dark past, but even this one finally buckled underneath the pressure of the elements. As I begin to hike away from the torn-up wood and nails, I spot a tree limb with the word “WAKEN” on it, which, admittedly, I didn’t even know was a word.
I slowly climb out of the canyon slowly, passing metal signs that used to indicate a far more protected city park that feels like it no longer exists, save the various trailheads. I loop my way around the backside perimeter of the park, and as I turn a corner into a hillside, I peek down into the ravine again and notice that same water tower I saw earlier, surrounded by trees, propped up on a portion of flattened ground jutted into the canyon walls.
I walk carefully, quietly down the steps so as not to disturb the potential ghosts I might have already seen, but when I duck underneath and stand up inside the hollow storage tank, whatever specter I thought I saw has vanished. There are several cracks in the rusty metal, but it’s quiet in here. It’s been eerily quiet all day, and I haven’t come across a single human being, except for that partial mirage I thought I saw earlier. I smell the dust and dirt and spray paint and wonder if anyone’s ever slept in here before.
As I maneuver back out of this metal structure, I feel a strange longing and disappointment to have missed this place before it was demolished in 2006. This happens a lot with this kind of hobby. I can do as much research as I want on a particular abandoned space, but sometimes the internet can’t keep up. I may rev myself up to go exploring somewhere, only to discover that it’s been completely demolished. This happened a few months ago, back in October. I drove about an hour outside of Miami, FL to the remains of the Broward County Women’s Prison, but I pulled up, large parcels of land had been carved out to make room for Amazon shipping warehouses. There were no remnants of the prison at all. Just a bit of concrete on the ground, a small chain laying across the dirt to indicate that something sat here at one point in time. If you didn’t know, you’d never realize a giant abandoned prison used to stand here.
I climb back up to the main path and begin to make my way back to the car that I’m borrowing from my friend Alix while I cat-and-house-sit for her during her and her fiance John’s wedding in France, ooh-la-la. I circle around a bend with a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance and pause to breathe it in. The vastness feels so endless and makes me think of the thousands and thousands of abandoned buildings all over the world that I’d like to visit someday.
I press on, content enough with my trip to the Nazi ranch when I happen to glance down into the canyon one last time and spot a truly wondrous sight: pummeled into the side of the canyon wall, buried deep, is a truck. An old pickup truck. For a moment, I think my imagination is acting up again, but as I look closer, I realize it’s really there. I wonder if getting down to it will be possible — or safe. Finally, I shrug and slowly start to inch my way down the hill on my ass until I reach the spot where about a third of the vehicle is still showing, the rest lost underneath piles of pebbles and stone.
These are the moments I hope for, the curious happenstances where I ask myself, “How the hell did this get here?” I inch closer to the cabin of the truck and when I look inside, I jump back in fear. My imagination, mostly empty today, just busted out of my skull. Two Nazis sit inside the truck, trapped, begging for help. I listen to their cries, unaffected by their torment, and slowly pull my camera out. As I begin to photograph their demise, I suddenly remember that, as fascinating as all this abandoned Nazi shit is, what it actually represents is horrific. A genocide, a complete wipeout of multiple populations of people, myself included. Surely I would’ve been tossed into those concentration camps alongside the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered between 1933 and 1945.
As the Nazi screams get louder, I close my eyes for a few seconds and open them again. The assholes are gone. I sit there in the stillness and look up at the sky while my thoughts of World War II and the distant sound of the Pacific echo through the canyons of Los Angeles.
This story is dedicated to every victim of antisemitism worldwide on International Holocaust Day of Remembrance, 2023.