One of the pleasing ironies of Los Angeles County is that even though it’s the most populous county in the US as well as the core of the nation’s most densely populated metropolis — it is also a region so vast and varied that it supports dozens of hamlets, ghost towns, and de-populated places which appear on maps (especially Google Maps) but haven’t been actual communities for ages. Sandberg, California is one such place and I visited it — or what’s left of it — the other day.
Sandberg is (or was) the name of a small Los Angeles County community centered around a lodging called Sandberg’s Hotel — also known as Sandberg’s Summit Hotel and The Sandberg Lodge. It was located along the original Ridge Route highway in the Sierra Pelona Mountains of Northwest Los Angeles.
The titular Sandberg of the small community was Harald Sandberg, an immigrant born in Norway in 1867. In 1882, he and his brother Albert began developing land in Los Angeles. On 2 April 1897, Harald, his brother, and a sister, each filed homestead papers for 160 acres of land in Northwest Los Angeles where they established a ranch. In December 1900, the Sandberg brothers reportedly captured a California condor. Why they did so and what they did with the then-endangered captive, I don’t know.
In 1910, Harald planted an apple orchard and crates of “Sandberg’s Mountain Apples” were sent as inauguration gifts to both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was in 1914 that Harald Sandberg opened his lodge and a restaurant, Sandberg’s Meals (overseen by his wife, Marion), along the Ridge Route, the year before the road itself opened. The Ridge Route was the first major road connecting Metro Los Angeles to the San Joaquin Valley. In 1915, the Southern California Auto Club pronounced the Ridge Route, with its sensible speed limit of 15 miles per hour (24 km/h) “the last word in scientific highway building.” The paving of this scientific highway (and its 642 curves) finished around 1919. Predictably, many scofflaw motorists ignored the posted speed limit and more than a few thus ended up at the bottom of a canyon.
In 1918, Harald was appointed postmaster of the Sandberg post office (located inside the lodge). Sandberg also boasted a garage/service station. The hotel, restaurant, and station were all in operation 24-hours a day. At some point after 1921, the original lodge was expanded into a three-story hostelry in which the Sandbergs resided on the second floor whilst guest lodging was on the third or in cabins out back. All boasted running water and electricity — and rates were relatively high — $2.50 to $3.50 per night. Dinner cost $1.00. Sandberg ran a classy establishment. No alcohol was served and a sign hung reading “truck drivers and dogs not allowed.”
In September 1929, none other than Ulysses S. Grant (Jr) died in there of a heart attack. Ida Lupino was knocked from her horse there by an inappropriately placed tree branch. Sandberg’s Summit was soon faced with competition in both directions. Further north, the even more glamorous Lebec Hotel opened in Lebec (a community which interestingly derives its name from an inscription carved on an oak tree which reads: “Peter Le Beck Killed by a Bear Oct. 17 1837”) in 1921. The Lebec was so popular that it attracted guests such as Hollywood actors Buster Keaton, Carole Lombard, Clara Bow, and Clark Gable; gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel; and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
South of Swede’s Cut, the National Forest Inn opened — followed by (nearer to the Sandberg) the Tumble Inn and the Halfway Inn (aka Kelly’s Half Way House). Meanwhile, down the hill, there were the service station/cafés Holland’s Summit and Caswell’s. Fire threatened the Sandberg and hundreds of other buildings in 1924. Another fire followed in 1927 when someone flicked a cigarette from their passing automobile. As a result, about 500 firefighters were called in to put out the blaze.
I’m not sure for whom it was built, but a house was constructed a short distance down the hill from the lodge in 1927. It was acquired by the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 1930 or ’31 and became Los Angeles County Fire Station No. 77 (also known as the Quail Lake Fire Station). On 21 June 1968, the station’s captain, Philip Goodell, was killed defending his crew and Engine 382 when they were trapped on a power line access road. He was 45 years old. In 1978, it was home to captain Willard Sparks and his wife, Shirley. They later moved to Ventura County. Around 1985, the fire station, too, moved — to Gorman — and today the former station is both a private residence.
More damaging to the lodge’s fortune than the competing lodges, cafés, and service stations was the re-routing of the Ridge Route, which began in 1930 with the opening of a new bypass through Piru Canyon known as the Ridge Route Alternate Highway (aka Ridge Route Alternate). The first portion opened on 29 October 1933. In 1934, Harald Sandberg put the lodge up for sale. Harald Sandberg died on 9 July 1939 after which Marion sold the lease owed the United States Forest Service for the land on which the lodge stood. Marion Sandberg died in 1954. The first of the post-Sandberg owners was Larry Brock, who re-opened it as the Sanberg Lodge and Dude Ranch.
Nearby, on Bald Mountain, a weather station opened in 1933 — initially staffed by four employees. It was automated in 1978. Nevertheless, when a Los Angeles Times reporter visited in 1981, she found two residents. One was Donald Derr, Jr. He was a CalArts student who lived there rent-free as a caretaker with his dog. He apparently spent his time practicing Classical guitar. The other resident was Jeffrey Ball, a physicist then experimenting with a Thomas Modular Wind Turbine. Derr graduated from CalArts in 1983 and later taught guitar before dying at the age of 48 in 2005. Ball went on to have a career as a writer and speaker on environmentalism and energy — and China.
The most infamous of the lodge’s post-Sandberg owners was a man known as J.H. Cox. He reportedly introduced sales of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution to turn a profit. Although there were no more of Marion’s apple pies or dumplings, Cox also continued to sell Sanberg’s Mountain Apples. Cox eventually sold the lodge to a German ceramicist named Lillian Grojean, who turned the hotel’s garage into a ceramics workshop. She rented the property on which the lodge stood from the Forest Service for $90 a year. Rumors arose that she’d done time for passing bad checks… or that she’d been a Nazi spy. In fact, it seems, she was imprisoned, for having been German, as an “enemy alien” under the authority of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Around 1950, Walter “Lucky” Stevens, a stuntman and actor, (he appeared — uncredited — as “peon” in 1950’s The Capture) bought the lodge from Grojean for $15,000. Stevens apparently owned a ceramics business in Burbank, which I’ll wager brought him into contact with Grojean. He originally planned to re-open the lodge as a guest ranch and took over the lease with the Forest Service. His grand plans included adding a swimming pool and fishing pond.
Around 1959, Stevens seems to have changed his mind and decided instead to turn the property into a “children’s ranch” to be known as “Sandberg Town for Lucky Children.” Toward that aim, money was raised, furniture was purchased, second-hand clothing acquired, and trash burned… the latter of which reduced most of the property to smoldering cinder and ash on 29 April 1961 — despite the presence of the fire station not 700 meters away. Two cabins survived. One was moved to a nearby ranch and the other’s fate is unknown. The Forest Service canceled the lease on the property in 1963. Sandberg, although it still appears on some maps, was effectively erased from the face of the earth.
There’s almost nothing left of Sandberg today except for the former fire station and the ruins of the lodge, which includes some walls and foundations. There’s also an historic plaque although it’s so faded that it’s almost impossible to read.
The grounds are characterized by the presence of large, gnarled California live oaks — various conifers, sage, and other shrubs. Many of the trees host mistletoe and other obligate hemiparasitic plants.
There are few signs of recent human presence. There are motorcycle tracks and horse-shoe prints (as well as a surprising amount of horse excrement) from horses presumably ridden by people. Other than that, a bit of graffiti here, a faded Coors Light can, and a box that recently contained a bottle of Johnny Walker Black were about it. It wasn’t exactly quiet, however, with the near-continuous lonesome whistle and hum of the wind through the scrub and trees.
“Sanberg residents learn to live with isolation” (Marika Gerrard, Los Angeles Times, 1981)
Highway 99: The History of California’s Main Street (Stephen H. Provost, 2017)
To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments.