This is the fifth installment of a series exploring the history that can be found near a library branch and some of the library resources that help tell that history. The Chatsworth Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library is a great spot to launch a local history tour–it's got something for railroad enthusiasts, cinephiles, hikers, rock climbers, fans of pop culture, and more. Chatsworth is one of the oldest communities in the San Fernando Valley, and the library has several books that include information on the indigenous peoples who lived in the area, as well as the ecosystem of the nearby Santa Susana Mountains.
The arrival of the railroad contributed to Chatsworth’s growth by bringing more people to work and live in the community. Three tunnels through the Santa Susana mountains, completed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1904, connected the Simi and San Fernando Valleys (and therefore Los Angeles to the Central Coast). The rail lines also transported sandstone boulders from the Chatsworth Park Quarry to San Pedro to fill in the breakwater. Central Library has an extensive collection of materials devoted to local railroad history, including Southern Pacific in the San Fernando Valley.
The area surrounding the Chatsworth Library has lots of recreational open space, plus beautiful sandstone boulders and rock formations, which historically have provided a perfect setting for filming locations. Quiet on the Set! Motion Picture History at Iverson Movie Location Ranch explains why Chatsworth looks familiar to so many people. Numerous films and western television shows were shot at the nearby Iverson Ranch dating back to the silent era. Some of the films, such as Stagecoach, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Guns of Navarone, and the 1925 silent film version Ben Hur starring Ramon Navarro, are available from the library. Although enclosed today by a housing development, the Garden of the Gods (which was originally part of Lower Iverson Ranch) is still accessible just a short drive northwest of the library. Other nearby movie locations were Corriganville and the Spahn Movie Ranch. [Spahn Ranch is best known today for its Charles Manson connection, and Diane Lake recalls her life in Chatsworth and at Spahn Ranch in Member of the Family.] The post-World War II era saw the San Fernando Valley covered in subdivisions, but Chatsworth still maintains its ruralness. (For a closer look at the Valley’s transformation from rural to urban check out Richard E. Preston’s The Changing Landscape of the San Fernando Valley Between 1930 and 1964.)
The Chatsworth Branch is close to a large number of hiking trails, and the library has several excellent hiking guides that include the area. The Old Stagecoach Trail, aka the Old Santa Susana Stage Road, is a popular trail. This old stagecoach route between the Simi and San Fernando Valleys dates back to 1861 and includes a stretch known as Devil's Slide. Local history books tell harrowing tales of stagecoaches navigating Devil’s Slide. Stoney Point, a historic-cultural monument north of the library, is another popular hiking and bouldering destination.
Several movie stars have called Chatsworth home over the years, and much has been written about their lives there. The autobiographies of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Veronica Lake, Fred Astaire, and Lionel Barrymore all describe fond memories of living in Chatsworth. Arnaz especially had some great Chatsworth stories. Interesting tidbit—in his autobiography, Val Kilmer shares that he grew up next to the Rogers/Evans ranch and subsequently lived there when his father bought the property after Roy & Dale moved to Apple Valley.
The current library, the most northwestern branch in the Los Angeles Public Library system, was built in 2004 on the site of a previous library that opened in May 1963. (Fun fact: Honorary Chatsworth mayor Dale Evans was on hand to help open the community’s first permanent library in 1963.) Prior library service in Chatsworth included a bookmobile stop at Topanga Canyon and Devonshire and a small station on Owensmouth at Devonshire.
A hunt for photos of Chatsworth in the library’s digital photo collection led to an interesting discovery. The land the library sits on once belonged to the entrepreneur Docia A. Conley who made a name beyond Southern California with her famous spiced Kadota figs and other delicacies. In 1926, she and her husband purchased a small fig ranch at 21032 Devonshire. The two-acre ranch included a fruit-preserving plant and a tea room that later became a retail store. The Paradise Tea Room, complete with rock garden pools, beautiful flower gardens, and several birds, including golden pheasants, was a popular tourist attraction. The Los Angeles Times in the early 1930s suggested tours of nearby Rancho Sombra del Roble (today known as the Orcutt Ranch Horticultural Center), followed by a luncheon at the Paradise Tea Room. Reviews of a typical luncheon at the tea room can be found in the library’s culinary collection. Specifically, Elizabeth Webb Herrick’s 1934 classic Curious California Customs describes the fried chicken and fresh baked biscuits that accompanied Docia Conley’s famous fig and fruit products. The library also has books that offer recipes to make your own spiced figs and preserved fruit at home.
The Chatsworth Historical Society has actively preserved Chatsworth’s history for decades. It was due to their efforts that the Chatsworth Community Church, built in 1903, was moved from its original location to the grounds of the Oakwood Memorial Park in 1965. (The historic-cultural monument also contains wood carvings created by a local artist, the late Myrtle Bradley. She and her husband, former MGM composer Scott Bradley, lived in Chatsworth.) For more local history, don’t miss a visit to the historical society’s headquarters at Homestead Acre (aka the Minnie Palmer Hall House), which is currently open the first Sunday of the month. The homestead is near Chatsworth Park South, a great spot to enjoy sandwiches from nearby San Carlo or Cavaretta delis. Or hit up the nearby historic-cultural monument, the Munch Box, for a hickory burger.
There is more history to explore in the area. The historic olive trees that line Lassen Street between Topanga Canyon and Farralone have interesting origins. They were clippings of San Fernando Mission trees that were planted here in 1893 by Chatsworth pioneer Nelson A. Gray. The old Chatsworth train depot may be gone (it was also a popular filming location, and the new depot has some movie-related displays in the waiting room), but you can still visit the original Santa Susana Railroad Depot. The 1903 depot was moved to its new location off of Old Santa Susana Pass Road in 1975. The depot has an excellent museum (currently open Saturday and Sunday 1 p.m.- 4 p.m.) with a large HO-scale train depicting Simi Valley in the 1950s, as well as Los Angeles and San Pedro. In a nod to tour suggestions from the 1930s, finish up the day with a quiet walk through the Rancho Sombra del Roble/Orcutt Ranch grounds in the shade of oak trees, palms, bunya pines, and more.