‘A Bridge to the Past’

Cooper's Camp, circa 1930. The Rust family's house is on the far right. Photo courtesy of the Randy Young Collection.

Part of a series on overlooked Malibu history

by Pablo Capra Special to The Malibu Times

The bridge that crosses the Topanga Lagoon is easy to miss, but it played a major role in the area’s development, and it’s set to do so again by the end of the decade. 

About 80 feet long, the bridge was built in 1933, even though there were already two larger bridges that crossed the creek.

The older bridge, about 150 long, may have been built by Fredrick Rindge, who bought the Malibu ranch in 1897 and directed the construction of the coast road. Located behind today’s Rosenthal Winery, the bridge crossed at an easier spot, but put a 90-degree kink in the road that also appeared in the angularity of its triangular trusses.

A 1923 bridge, 240 feet long, was built by the State to keep the road in line with the coast. It was contracted to two companies, Greene and Lemore, who plowed through Cooper’s Camp (the earliest version of the Topanga Ranch Motel) and added an underpass to a bathhouse on the beach. The contractors also paved over a Native-American burial mound that hadn’t been properly studied. Their road is still in use as the access to the lifeguard station. After Malibu opened, and the highway was completed to Ventura in 1929, the bridge was widened from 20 to 40 feet. 

So why was another bridge needed in 1933? 

The 1923 bridge and its approach used up the nicest beach property, like if PCH went through the Malibu Colony, so new landowners William Randolph Hearst and the Los Angeles Athletic Club negotiated to get back the State’s right of way. 

This accusation was made by David Brant (1889-1974), the son of Otto Brant (1858-1922), a founder of the Title Insurance and Trust Company that had owned Topanga Beach from around 1899 to 1924. He rejected the idea that the bridge should be replaced to make the highway slightly straighter. 

“One of the asserted reasons for making the change is to flatten out the curve from a 700-foot radius to a curve with a 1000-foot radius. This seems so needless, for just a quarter of a mile to the east will be another curve with a 700-foot radius.…” (1933-02-05, Los Angeles Times)

Brant owned a large cattle ranch in Canoga Park called Brant Rancho but also had hillside property at the beach, near today’s Cholada. His hill was condemned and shaved away to soften the highway’s bend.

The 1933 bridge changed the area’s entire topography. Instead of disposing of an estimated 800,000 cubic yards of construction fill, the project’s engineer James Lackey (1894-1966) dumped it into the lagoon area, raising the ground level by 20 feet. “Owners of the land have consented in this because it will make their property much more desirable,” he said, echoing Brant’s claim. More fill was dumped into the ocean, which Lackey framed as a positive.

“…the state has undertaken to widen the beaches in that section by using some of the material from the excavations to build earth groynes extending out from the shoreline. Some 15,000 cubic yards of rock and earth are being used for this purpose.” (1933-03-14, Santa Monica Outlook)

One “earth groyne” still exists by the lagoon. Another shores up Mastro’s Ocean Club.

The motel was raised on top of the fill and moved back about 170 feet. Its ring of cabins was flattened into a triangle layout, and the houses that had been behind it were removed.

The largest house belonged to Clayton Rust (1886-1974), who ran the Topanga Service Station at the intersection. His wife Ina (1901-1988) also had a restaurant called Rust’s Barbecue there. Other family members owned the store that would later become the Malibu Feed Bin and a hamburger stand called Paxson’s Café, where Mastro’s is today.

The Rusts saved their house by trucking it half a mile up Topanga Canyon to the Brookside neighborhood. It was the only residence selected for historic preservation when State Parks bought Lower Topanga in 2001, bulldozing over 50 others. Unfortunately, State Parks didn’t maintain the house, so it fell into ruin and had to be bulldozed as well.

The Rusts’ daughter Thais (1925-2021) shared many important photos of early Topanga Beach that can be seen at topangahistoricalsociety.org/archive. She passed away a month ago, on Dec. 30, at 96. 

Despite its controversy, the bridge was a popular project because it created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression. The Oberg Construction Company did the building. Swedish brothers Seth (1895-1988) and Oscar Oberg (1886-1976), who had previously built Los Angeles River channels and bridges, began the work in January 1933 and finished by the end of summer. Although they demolished the 1923 bridge, they left the older bridge upstream intact. It stood until the late 1930s when it probably washed away in the 1938 flood.

A simultaneous project to widen the highway to 40 feet between Santa Ynez and Las Flores Canyons was held up by property owners in the Castellammare area, who were “scattered all over the United States, Europe, and the Orient,” Lackey complained. It was finally completed in November 1933.

In 2019, State Parks contracted the local Resource Conservation District (RCD) to plan for a 200-foot bridge to improve fish habitat, but once again, other interests underlie the project.

The full plan is called the Topanga Lagoon Restoration and bundles together several projects. Its most popular draft is “Alternative #2,” which calls for demolishing Cholada, Rosenthal Winery, the Topanga Ranch Motel, the Reel Inn, and the Malibu Feed Bin, reducing street parking, building a parking garage at the intersection, moving the lifeguard tower, building an emergency helipad, removing fill dirt, and possibly extending the Los Angeles sewer to Topanga Beach.

People frequently ask why State Parks has yet to complete their original project of opening the parkland and preserving historic buildings 21 years after buying Lower Topanga. Instead, State Parks has profited as a landlord of the business strip and used the crumbling motel sign to advertise $8 parking, where parking was once free. The FAQ page of the RCD’s website does, however, answer the question, “How can I get permission to start a business onsite?” indicating that the business strip will return in some form.

124 Lower Topanga residents, living on less than 2 percent of the land, were evicted to create the park, partly because the RCD blamed them for the lagoon’s poor water quality, yet the problem persists. The RCD similarly blamed Malibu Colony residents for getting support for their Malibu Lagoon Restoration (2012-2013), until United States Geological Survey hydrologist John Izbicki pointed out that stagnant water is a natural breeding ground for bacteria and “blamed fecal matter from birds for much of the lagoon’s pollution” (2012-05-02, The Malibu Times).

Even though the Topanga Lagoon plan acknowledges this, it still uses scare tactics over science to win community support—which, in turn, allows the RCD to draw on “Certain federal benefits [that] are available to counties and cities only through these special districts,” as their website explains. The RCD is now making the homeless the new bad guy and exaggerating fears of a creekside skid row.

“Unmanaged human use is impacting lagoon water quality—human feces, trash, and drug paraphernalia are frequently found floating in the water or washed up on the shoreline.” (2021-08-21, rcdsmm.org)

If some homeless live in the park, what it really highlights is State Parks’ failure to manage the land. Sadly, water quality is not an issue in the eradication of non-native creek plants, which State Parks have already sprayed with herbicide.

And who can be blamed that “The historic Topanga Ranch Motel is deteriorating and does not currently provide any visitor services,” another of the RCD’s calls to action? Built in 1920, the motel is the oldest structure in the area. Under State Parks’ stewardship, one cabin has become the gated residence of a ranger, one cabin has collapsed, and 23 are in ruin.

The Topanga Lagoon Restoration is expected to start in 2026 and last three years. Will it turn back the clock or continue the spiral towards an uncertain future?

Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.