A New York stage actor who found greater fame as a gun-slinging cowboy in silent films left a legacy for his fans. William S. Hart willed his 230-acre ranch and hilltop mansion to the people "who gave me their nickels, dimes and quarters."
As a result, the public is forever welcome to visit Two-Gun Bill's estate without charge. His scenic property in Newhall is Hart County Park and it's open daily from 10 a.m. to dusk.
A highlight is a tour of the 14-room retirement home of the Hollywood hero, who starred in 80 Westerns before quitting the movies in 1925. He lived there with his sister for nearly two decades until his death at age 81.
Besides visiting Hart's fanciful house that's a museum of Old West art and artifacts, you can explore more of the Santa Clarita Valley. Two historic sites are especially notable: California's first gold discovery and first oil refinery.
Begin from Los Angeles by driving north on Interstate 5 to the Lyons Avenue exit. Go east through Newhall to Newhall Avenue and the Hart park entrance at No. 24151.
Take a self-guided tour of the original Horseshoe Ranch house next to the parking area. Hart lived in the rustic building while completing his hilltop mansion, and it's filled with memorabilia from his movie days.
You'll see pictures of Fritz, a pinto pony that also starred in Hart's films in the early 1900s. A path behind the ranch buildings leads to the grave of that famous horse of the silver screen.
In nearby pens are the ponies, sheep, peacocks and other live ranch animals that children love to watch and pet.
Don't leave the park without walking the steep dirt path or longer paved road to reach La Loma de Los Vientos, the Hill of the Winds. Built in Spanish-Mexican style, Hart's impressive home is just as he left it; even his clothes are still in the closets and bureau drawers.
Collection of Paintings
Most impressive are 18 paintings and five bronze sculptures by Hart's longtime friend, famed cowboy artist Charles M. Russell. His collection also includes five works of the other foremost painter of the American West, Frederic Remington.
The interior is decorated in an Indian theme, and 67 Navajo rugs are scattered throughout the house. Also look at the elaborate beadwork by Sioux Indians that's in display cases.
Up to 25 visitors are guided through the mansion on 30-minute tours every day except Mondays and Tuesdays.
Tours begin every half-hour from 10 a.m., with the last one at 4:30 p.m. on weekends and 2:30 p.m. on weekdays. Tours are free, as Hart directed in his will.
From the parking area near the animal pens you can walk to an older attraction, the 1887 Saugus train depot. Recently saved from demolition, it was moved to a new site to serve as a museum and home of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
The restored station (open Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m.) features exhibits about Indians and early settlers as well as railroad and oil development in the area. On a track outside is a turn-of-the-century steam locomotive brought from Gene Autry's nearby movie ranch. The engine is powered by oil instead of coal.
First Oil Refinery
Not far away you can view the state's first commercial oil refinery, the Pioneer, built 110 years ago to make kerosene and benzine. Two of the four original stills remain, and signs describe the refining process of crude oil that was hauled to the site in wooden barrels.
Drive there by going right (east) from Hart Park on San Fernando Road across the train tracks to Pine Street. Turn right and look for a sign to the remote refinery that's beyond a horse arena.
Another historic site is in more scenic surroundings, Placerita Canyon State and County Park. That's where you'll find the Oak of the Golden Dream, an ancient oak tree where gold was first discovered in California.
As the legend goes, Francisco Lopez was having a siesta under the oak and dreamed of becoming wealthy. After he awoke and was gathering wild onions around the tree, he found gold particles clinging to the bulbs's roots.
Days of the 42ers
That was in 1842, and his discovery prompted a gold rush to the Southland six years before the more famous gold strike at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento. Miners who raced to Placerita Canyon recovered an estimated $80 million in gold.
To visit the old oak, continue east on San Fernando Road (California 126) and turn left on Sierra Highway just before reaching the Antelope Valley Freeway (California 14). Then turn left on Placerita Canyon Road and go under the freeway to the park.
Before reaching the right-hand entrance you might catch glimpses on the opposite side of the road of movie sets in Disney's private Golden Oak movie ranch. Pictures of those sets are among the displays in the park's nature center at the end of the entry road. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The center has exhibits about the area's Indians and natural history, as well as some live wildlife that inhabits the canyon. Also ask for a map that guides you on the Heritage Trail to the Oak of the Golden Dream.
Along the way you'll pass a settler's cabin, the 1920s home of Frank and Hortense Walker and their 12 children. The cabin and canyon have appeared in many Hollywood films and TV shows, including episodes of the Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy.
To return to Los Angeles, go back on Placerita Canyon Road to the Antelope Valley Freeway and head south to pick up Interstate 5.
Round trip from Los Angeles for an enjoyable outing in William S. Hart Park and Newhall's environs is 77 miles.
Readers are advised to confirm the hours of attractions, restaurants, etc., before embarking on any trip.