June 08, 2017

Photo Essay: The Ghost Town of Cornell and Its Abandoned Lake Enchanto (Updated for 2022)

[Last updated 12/26/22 11:37 PM PT with info on the reopening of Peter Strauss Ranch.]

Wherever you find water in Southern California, you're bound to find a town nearby.

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... 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... 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 [Ed: which survived the Woosley Fire]...

...the stone ranch house (*Update: The Woolsey Fire took the ranch house, leaving only the stone walls and fireplace/chimney, which were since demolished)...

...the aviary...

...which no longer holds any exotic birds [Ed: and survived the Woolsey Fire but was partially crushed by a falling tree]...

...and a pool that was once the largest of its kind in the West [Ed: and survived the Woolsey Fire].

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 [Ed: which survived the Woolsey Fire].

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. [Ed: Which miraculously survived the Woolsey Fire.]

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, as was Frankenstein).

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.

Long before that, a rogue Lake Enchanto employee had unbolted three of the kiddie ride cars to take home with him—which is a good thing, since the remaining ones had been left to rust on an embankment by the road and are now officially missing or gone altogether.

But as of sometime in 2017, the rescued ones ended up strung up above the tasting room at Cornell Winery, next door to the old post office.

Now, though, the closest operational 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.

And if you're looking for the old one-room schoolhouse, it's been converted into a private residence (and expanded), but you can still find it along Cornell School Road.

The local hot springs still bubble, though nobody travels very far to smell like sulfur anymore.

The old hot tub has been filled in.

But the water runneth—and it's not runoff, like the waters found in Malibou or Century Lake. It comes from within the earth, and although it's not "hot" per se, it's pretty warm. Just now it's surrounded by a mobile home community.

And still no oil—which explains why Cornell never became a boomtown.

If you want to know more about the history of this area and more, check out the book Three Magical Miles by Brian Rooney, which is sold at Cornell Winery and various other local retailers and online. I had the pleasure of traveling those three miles with Brian and am indebted to him for helping me find the schoolhouse, hot springs, and salvaged amusement park cars.

Update: In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire ripped through Peter Strauss Ranch. The ranch house is destroyed (see above) but the park has reopened. Cornell Winery and The Old Place across the street still stand. For recent pics by Ruben Vives from the LA Times on Twitter, click here

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Paramount Ranch & Raceway
Photo Essay: Oakridge, An Old Hollywood Celebrity Ranch
Crossed Off the LA Bucket List: M*A*S*H at Malibu Creek State Park

1 comment:

  1. I just love visiting pools but these ghosts pools are really scary.