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Malibu Rancho owner May Rindge fought long and hard to block the expansion of Pacific Coast Highway through her property. She eventually lost that battle, spending nearly all of her family's $30 million fortune. (photo by Santa Monica History Museum Photo Courtesy)

The 40-mile drive from Santa Monica north to the Ventura County line on Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most spectacular coastal routes in the country. It is hard to believe that at one time the coast highway actually ended near Topanga Canyon, with a “No Trespassing” sign and a fence manned by guards.

But, back in the early 1900s, all of Malibu was owned by the powerful Rindge family. Totaling more than 19,000 acres, their property stretched as far north as Oxnard and was one of the most valuable real estate holdings in the entire Untied States. On his death in 1905, Frederick Hasting Rindge turned over the ranch operations to his wife, May Rindge, who shared her husband’s burning desire to keep their massive Malibu Rancho intact and isolated from outside influences.

Nearly 6 feet tall, she he was an imposing woman, towering over most of her employees. Her gruff voice only hinted at her toughness, as she managed the estate with an unyielding iron hand. She was fiercely protective of her family’s private coastal paradise, and was determined to keep most outsiders from entering or passing through the grounds. This included allowing any public roads to cut their way through the sprawling property.

The Rindges had successfully rebuffed an attempt by the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad to lay tracks across their land to link the Long Wharf in Santa Monica with Santa Barbara in the 1890s. By shrewdly utilizing a loophole in a law that disallowed a second railroad running parallel to an already existing railroad, the Rindges simply built their own railroad first, thus canceling any rights the Southern Pacific Railroad had to lay down its own tracks. But the battle to keep a coast highway off their property would be far more problematic and costly, and it would be more than two decades until the issue was finally settled.

In 1905, If an automobile or horse-drawn wagon wanted to travel from Santa Monica to Oxnard or Ventura, the driver would be forced to make a miles-long detour inland at the southern border of their property and drive over treacherous, winding mountain roads all the way down to the San Fernando Valley and only then be able to continue northward to these cities. Adding to the route’s danger was the presence of ruthless and opportunistic bandits, who lurked along theses empty mountain roads armed with guns and knives. Mrs. Rindge did occasionally unlock the gates and let certain locals traverse through their property on an unstable and sandy beach route, but all others were turned away.

In 1907, a group of nearby settlers filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to gain access through the Malibu Rancho. In 1914, as the court battle ensued, the Rindges built a network of roads on their property protected by a series of gates and locks designed to keep their property secure from all trespassers. These barriers were quickly destroyed by the angry settlers in 1917, who nonetheless lost their suit when the courts surprisingly upheld the Rindges’ rights to keep their roads private. Gunmen were then hired to patrol the boundaries on horseback with strict orders to repel any intruders.

But, as the lawsuits continued to be filed by state and federal courts, it was beginning to become clear that Mrs. Rindge would ultimately not be able to stop the government from acquiring her land for a much-needed public coastal road linking Santa Monica with cities north. And, as more people began to own automobiles and nearby populations swelled, public opinion became loud and angry toward the stubborn Mrs. Rindge. But these actions only made her increasingly defiant as she poured more cash into her legal defense, draining the $30 million family fortune. In the early 1920s, one of her sons, who now keenly understood the futility of her fight, successfully sued Mrs. Rindge to gain his share of the fortune before she lost it all.

In June 1929, the inevitable finally occurred, when the “Roosevelt Highway” opened between Santa Monica and Oxnard, 22 years after the first court action. More than 1,000 cars showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony eager to be the first lucky ones to glide north on the freshly-paved roads. For all her troubles, Mrs. Rindge’s family fortune had been sucked dry and she was left with only $8,000. She was now forced to sell off or lease her land to pay off her massive debts. Mrs. Rindge would die in 1941, penniless and confined to a hospital bed in Los Angeles.

And to the bitter end, May Rindge remained defiant and filled with contempt for those who had stolen and ruined her beloved coastal Shangri La. But Mrs. Rindge’s unyielding stubbornness did ultimately have some unintended positive consequences for Malibu. Local historians now credit her long losing battle from keeping Malibu’s development to a minimum and the waters free of Marina del Rey-like harbors. Her efforts also helped preserve Malibu’s stunning shoreline, leaving it almost as untouched and pristine as it was when the family arrived in the late 1800s.

Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Send him some of your favorite pictures of Santa Monica and its landmarks. Maybe he’ll write a story about them. He can be reached at tomviscount@yahoo.com.

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