History repeats itself, as a fallen boulder once again forces the closure of PCH

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A boulder nearly falling onto Pacific Coast Highway forced the closure of a portion of the road nearly 25 years ago for three months. A similar thing happened last week, although the highway was closed for a much shorter time.

By Troy Dove/Special to The Malibu Times

With high sandstone cliffs and soil that is easily loosened by rainfall, Malibu residents are no strangers to falling rocks. But what they rarely see falling is a 1,200-ton boulder, like the one that slid down a wet hillside toward Pacific Coast Highway last week, causing the closure of the highway for several days.

The large boulder, which became dislodged from the hilltop due to heavy rains from numerous winter storms, slid partially down the hill, coming to rest 100 feet down the slope, dangerously close to Pacific Coast Highway and the residential homes below. The boulder caused the closure of the road from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to Big Rock Drive, while California Department of Transportation workers labored around the clock to remove the rock and other debris from the road.

A similar situation occurred in 1979. That year, a portion of Pacific Coast Highway was closed for three months while crews worked to remove the rock and the debris that resulted from a rain-induced landslide. Though the initial fall and subsequent closure of Pacific Coast Highway may be a similar tale for both boulders, the outcomes of their stories are different. The boulder that fell in 1979 received much more public recognition than that one which fell on Tuesday and was quickly jack hammered into small pieces by Caltrans, and removed later that same week.

In 1979, the 116-ton boulder, nicknamed the “Malibu Rock,” was not destroyed but rather was purchased from Caltrans by a local artist, Brett-Livingstone Strong. Strong had the rock transported, via helicopter, from its location on Pacific Coast Highway to his nearby home.

Strong, originally from Australia, moved to Los Angeles around 1977 and gained both local and national attention when he purchased the boulder from Caltrans for $100, with the intent of carving it into a bust of John Wayne.

Longtime Malibu resident Bob Sutton said he saw Strong at the site of the most recent boulder, apparently hoping to also purchase this one from Caltrans. “I met him [Strong] down there [at the boulder], he said he wanted to buy the rock from Caltrans and asked how he’d go about it,” Sutton said.

“He explained to me what he did,” Sutton said. “And [he] said he wanted to make a Princess Diana portrait out of it. He said he sold [the John Wayne sculpture] for $1.3 million. He told me before that, he was almost penniless.”

Strong had approached Caltrans last Thursday about purchasing the new fallen boulder, but Deborah Harris, a spokesperson for Caltrans said it was too late. Crews were already planning to break up the boulder into smaller pieces for removal later that evening.

Strong approached Caltrans Thursday, Harris said, “but it was really too late in the game because we had to go through management to get the OK. They were able to break up the rock faster than anticipated. By the time we came in [Friday] Morning, it was done.”

Harris added, “Our plan was to let him purchase part of the rock for a nominal price. But we moved faster than anticipated. So the timing just didn’t work out.”

The “Malibu Rock” received so much attention in 1979 that the television show “CHiPS” aired an episode based on the incident in 1980 called “The Great 5K Star Race and Boulder Wrap Party.” In the two-part episode, a boulder falls down a hillside, coming to rest dangerously close to the home of Milton Berle (playing himself in the episode), who refuses to evacuate.

Sutton said in 1979, the boulder came close to hitting the home of movie producer Robert Radnitz. And much like Milton Berle in “CHiPS,” it appears Radnitz didn’t want to leave either. “He still lives there today,” Sutton said. In the television episode, the engineers attempt to remove the boulder by blasting it apart with dynamite. After this plan fails, a retaining wall is built around the boulder and it is broken up and removed piece by piece.

What occurred in the television show is similar to the situation surrounding the most recent boulder. Many attempts were made to remove the boulder, though blasting was always considered too dangerous due to the location. It was finally decided to remove the boulder by jack hammering it into smaller pieces for easier removal. The boulder, just like the one in “CHiPS,” was held in place by a retaining wall, built along the highway by Caltrans in the 1970s.