Photo: Cornell Recognition Campaign
And whenever that water dries up (or is taken away), you'll find a ghost town.
Such is the case with the hamlet of Cornell, just north of the Santa Monica Mountains and adjacent to Malibu wine country.
The Triunfo Creek used to run through here, this canyon that shares the same name, for thousands of years while the Chumash inhabited it, as well as throughout the land grant era, when this place was known as "Rancho Las Virgenes."
This was the site of an old wagon pathway, so it started seeing some travelers passing through—and even some folks who came here to stay.
When the local community wanted to build a schoolhouse in their new hometown, they found a patron in Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University in New York—and so became the town on Cornell, named after him in gratitude.
By 1884, Cornell had become enough of a town to necessitate having its own post office, which operated out of Hank's Country Store (also the trading post for the nearby Malibou Lake Country Club).
In 1911, prospectors were looking for oil but found hot springs instead.
This remote area of the mountains was largely inaccessible to many until 1925, when William Mulholland opened up a highway that allowed motorists to drive from LA to Malibu. Then called the "Mountain Highway," it was a new, exiting, direct route "from Griffith Park to the sea."
Although Cornell is no more (at least not officially), you can still visit the country store—which was rescued from shutter in 1970 by Tom Runyon, the son of East Coast coal barons who'd come out to the Wild West. He opened The Old Place Restaurant in its stead and has been feeding locals, celebrities, and tourists alike ever since.
Today, you can still grab some grub at The Old Place—at the long, antique bar or in the private dining room (aptly named the Mail Room)—or you can grab coffee from the old truck out back...
...as you listen to the the peacocks that still call Cornell home.
Not coincidentally, a year later after the opening of Mulholland Highway, an automotive engineer and race car builder, Harry Miller, bought the parcel across the street.
In this glen shaded by oaks and sycamores, he built several of the structures that you can still see today on the property to transform it into a weekend retreat from his L.A. home and automobile factory.
Those include the tower by the front gate...
...the stone ranch house...
...which no longer holds any exotic birds...
...and a pool that was once the largest of its kind in the West.
When filled with water, it could hold as many as 3,000 swimmers.
But the pool is empty now, too...
...overgrown with weeds...
...and fenced off.
Miller's patented carburetor and car designs had made him both a millionaire and a hero among Indy 500 racers; but, in the wake of the Depression, Miller went bankrupt in 1933 and lost his ranch.
Throughout the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, the property changed hands again and again: its name changing from “Shoson” (a combination of the surnames of its then owners, attorney Warren Shobert and cinematographer Arthur Edeson) and “St. Bernadine's Fairy Tale Land” to "Cornell World," a theme park featuring replicas of the various wonders of the world.
It was a would-be Disneyland even before Walt had his infamous light bulb moment at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round.
The local source of water, Triunfo Creek, was dammed to create not one but two lakes (one in Cornell and one down in "Malibou")—and that proved successful for tourism, but only for a while.
In Cornell, Here, the ranch eventually became known as “Lake Enchanto,” a family-friendly amusement park that reportedly drew hundreds of visitors and performers like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. who performed on its terrazzo-tiled patio.
But, unable to compete with other, larger amusements and resorts in the area, the business went belly-up and closed in 1960. Its owner, lawyer Charles Hinman, ended up in jail. The property languished, with squatters (including members of the Manson family) taking it over and Cornell becoming a haven for rowdy hillbillies.
We have TV actor and producer Peter Strauss to thank for wrestling the ranch away from the transients and other ne’er-do-wells of its checkered past, buying it for a mere $200,000, and restoring its structures to their original condition and adding a cactus garden to the driveway.
Strauss became the last private owner and resident of the property in 1977, the year after he starred in the TV movie Rich Man, Poor Man (filmed at Malibou Lake).
In 1983, he sold it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and in 1987, the National Park Service acquired it for inclusion in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and named it after him.
Now, the closest post office to the unincorporated community of Cornell is in Agoura Hills, the city with which it shares a zip code and an area code. But that's really just a formality—because if you address a letter to Cornell, CA, the mail carriers still know where to deliver it.
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