Words by Josh Rakic, images by Josh McNair.
Before the Crips and Bloods. The Socks and Greasers. The Mexican cartels and Danny Zuko’s T-Birds. There was the original LA gang. A crew of white supremacists intent on raining down hell on Los Angeles some 80-odd years ago. You may have heard of them. They went by the name Nazi.
And while Los Angeles has done its darnedest to erase memories of the Third Reich ever coming to close to having a stronghold in Southern California, the proof is there to see, and hike*, in the affluent Pacific Palisades. It’s a mass of dilapidated Nazi structures kept under even tighter wraps than Kobe or Oprah’s neighbouring mansions. It goes by many names –Stephens Ranch, Murphy Ranch, Nazi Ranch or Rustic Canyon. But it’s best known as “that Nazi camp thing in the Santa Monica Mountains”. Because one thing’s for sure, this 50-odd acres of canopied land deep inside the most prestigious hills in Los Angeles was home to many a Nazi sympathizer – and more menacingly, an apparent soldier of Hitler himself, Herr Schmidt – a German spy charged with helping build a foothold for Hitler on US territory in preparation for when the Allies fell in Europe.
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. Well, sort of. LA’s archives are a little unclear on what exactly went down in the 1930s. But from hours upon hours of online “research”, and some actual research, here’s what we know. Around 1933 when Adolf Hitler first seized power of the Fatherland, a German known only as Herr (Mr) Schmidt – who claimed to have supernatural powers – arrived in Los Angeles and convinced a wealthy and evidently gullible couple, Norman and Winona Stephens, that Europe would fall and the US would be next. As such, and careful not to identify themselves as Nazi sympathizers, the couple bought 50 acres of land deep inside the rugged Rustic Canyon under the pseudonym Jessie M. Murphy – widow. County archives show no record of ol’ Jess ever existing, and according to Captain Obvious it’s from the land title the name Murphy Ranch was derived.
Nones and N-Dawg had themselves some serious cash. They threw down the equivalent of $64million in today’s lucre to build a self-sustainable Nazi utopia that would serve as a command centre for the National Socialist Party. Their plan was to wait out the war and then impose Nazi order on the US. Classic hide-n-seek-n-destroy. Their investment saw the hillsides completely terraced with vegetable and fruit gardens, complete with a timed watering system, green house and horse stables. They built their own 300,000 gallon water tank, 20,000 gallon fuel silo and a power station featuring two giant generators to run electricity to the entire hillside and compound without ever being detected. These shifty fuckers were off the grid in a serious way. Living quarters, a machine shed, giant wood fire ovens, meat lockers, bomb shelters, damning the local creek and erecting iron gates and a high barbed-wire fence – they meant business. And to service it all and patrol the facility? Eight gravity-defying staircases of more than 500 steps each hidden throughout the hillside.
By the time World War II got started in ’39, the compound was up and running being patrolled by a US fascist group commonly referred to as Silver Shirts. The Silver Legion was born out of the south, and surprise, surprise, this bunch of rednecks were white supremacists and anti-Semitic. Which, given the Jewish influence in Hollywood, was quite problematic. Anti-Semitic groups were rife throughout Hollywood and made frequent visits to Murphy Ranch under the cloak of darkness for what locals argued was military training and or line dancing. But their plans came hurtling down on December 8, 1941, when the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese, US federal operatives stormed the grounds and seized more than 50 sympathizers – including Schmidt, who they identified as a Nazi spy. The agents reportedly found a powerful short-wave radio designed to send and receive messages to the Fatherland and Nazi officials. Mystery surrounds whatever happened to the supernatural Schmidt – though some say he re-invented himself as Chris Angel. But the Stephens’s were eventually released on grounds of stupidity and returned to the ranch where they lived until 1948. They then sold the property to the Huntington Hartford Foundation, which turned the Nazi Compound into an artists’ colony and eventually a hippie commune. It housed many award-winning artists and writers, including US novelist Henry Miller.
Ironically, a rusted and burned-out Volkswagen Kombi rests on its side by the creek bed, symbolic of the canyon’s two lives before a fire tore through in 1978 and saw it abandoned for good. Today, the twisted structures stand dilapidated, uninhabited, and vandalized with more graffiti than a Banksy exhibition. LA Parks & Rec now own the land and for years have tried to palm it off to California State Parks. But the latter refuses to accept the grounds until all traces of its history are destroyed for good. It’s LA’s secret shame, and if you ask anyone in the Palisades about it and they’ll refer to it as Camp Josepho – “a schoolboys’ camp just up the road.” The good news for the rest of us is that LA County it too broke to fix a 40-year backlog of damaged roads, let alone afford to knock down a true piece of history – however sordid. The staircases still stand, winding up and down the canyon and making for an epic if not eerie four-mile return hike* through the abandoned ruins. In fact, it’s the second scariest activity in the Palisades – next to walking past Bill Cosby’s very own compound just around the corner.
* Hike, as defined by the beautiful people of LA, is an all-inclusive term for walking that involves any sort of incline or decline – no matter how small. Matter of fact, I hiked my driveway this morning.
- Throw Capri Drive/Casale Road, Pacific Palisades into WAZE, Google Maps or, if you’re visiting and stuck in an Enterprise convertible rental, your $15-a-day GPS.
- Parking is free but the residents don’t take too kindly to hikers
- You’ll see Sullivan Ridge Fire Road on the decline. Follow that until you hit dirt.
- You’ll then see a yellow gate for “Camp Josepho”. Keep walking.
- About two thirds of a mile up is an epic view of the Santa Monica coastline. Take a selfie – or punch someone in the stomach who is – and then start looking for a chain-link fence.
- From here on in, there are several entrances, the furthest along of which is the iron gates pictured. You’re bound to find one of them.
- Then, explore, climb the stairs and pretend you’re Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds and find some Nazi scum to scalp.
- Roughly a four-mile return trip
- 600 feet of elevation.
- As many as eight (we only found five) staircases with 500+ steps