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Gaudy Days of Castaic's Great Range War : Land 2 Patriarchs Fought Over Soaked Up Their Feuding Blood

January 29, 1989|STEVE PADILLA | Times Staff Writer

The "Jenkins-Chormicle Affair" is all but forgotten these days, but, in its time, the great range war of Castaic was as bitter and savage as the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud.

The killing started in 1890 when a crusty rancher known as "Old Man" Chormicle pierced one man's heart and another's liver with a few well-placed rifle blasts. By some accounts, the ensuing feud took 22 lives by the time that the last gunshots rang through the Castaic hills 26 years later.

Today, two local historians are working on books that may resurrect interest in the colorful but little-known conflict, which started over a boundary dispute. And since the Castaic Union School District is celebrating its centennial this year with an expanded local-history curriculum, schoolchildren will learn about the feud in their studies.

As a result, the story of the Jenkins and Chormicle clans will once again intrigue and horrify the townspeople of Castaic, perhaps for the first time in decades.

"It's a sad story," said Pat Clark Callachor, an Ojai resident and granddaughter of Robert Emmett Clark, a ranger credited with temporarily halting the hostilities in 1905. "There's the romance of the Old West tied to it."

Jerry Reynolds, a former president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, said most people are unaware that Castaic, now a growing bedroom community more commonly known as a truck stop, was the site of barn-burnings, ambushes and gun battles on horseback. The Jenkins-Chormicle Affair faded from memory, he explained, because old-timers and descendants of the combatants simply refused to talk about it.

'A Black Eye'

"It was something they would just as soon forget," Reynolds said. "I think they thought it was a black eye on the community."

The result is a story that is part fact and probably part myth. Some newspapers of the era said 22 people were slain. Others said 11 died. Callachor's grandfather put the death toll at 21.

A full account has never been written, said Callachor, who is publications director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art and one of the two historians researching the subject.

"The impression you get is that it was completely lawless," Callachor said.

The scraps of information collected by the authors, the museum and the historical society paint a colorful picture, with blood red the dominant color.

The only certainty is that the Jenkins and Chormicle families were headed by two ornery, independent and, when necessary, cruel patriarchs. Based on the historians' accounts, this is their story:

William C. (Old Man) Chormicle, born in 1840, was a rancher who could swear like a sailor. His ranch now lies 100 feet below the waters backed up behind Castaic Dam. " 'Old Man' Chormicle was an uncomplicated fellow," Clark, the ranger, once told an interviewer. "He wore two six-guns and usually carried a rifle in case any argument started at long range."

As a defendant in a 1907 civil suit over grazing rights, Chormicle was asked in court if he had threatened to kill a man. "I don't think it was like threatening to kill him," he replied. "I told him that if he interfered with the girl driving her cattle, I would take some of the boys down with a rope and hang him."

Chormicle's rival was William W. Jenkins, a horse breeder, ranger and pioneer oil man whose Lazy Z ranch is now the site of a housing development called Stonebridge. A crafty poker player, for decades, Jenkins claimed that he had purchased the rights to Alcatraz Island, but later said the deed was lost during a card game in Chicago.

"Jenkins was a great knife-thrower, always wore a vest with a throwing knife in a holster under it," Clark was quoted as saying. "He generally rode in a buggy and let his six-shooter lie on the seat beside him."

In 1895, Jenkins heard that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government program. Following the letter of the law, Jenkins boarded a boat to survey and claim most of the land between his ranch and where Magic Mountain sits today. But since Castaic didn't really have a swamp, Jenkins mounted a boat on wheels and had it pulled by big black horses. Several ranchers, Chormicle included, exposed the scheme, and Jenkins' attempt to buy the land as swampland was thwarted.

The feud actually started five years before the failed swamp purchase. Jenkins said he owned the land that Chormicle had recently settled and sent two of his men, George Walton and Dolores Cook, over to Chormicle's hastily built cabin to muscle him out.

The gunfire started a week later. Annie Rose Briggs, daughter of one of Chormicle's allies, wrote in a 1959 letter that Walton was "instantly killed with two rifle bullets an inch apart through his heart." Cook died four hours later in Jenkins' ranch house "with his liver shot to pieces."

Chormicle, accused of murder, pleaded self-defense and was acquitted June 18, 1890, after the jury deliberated five minutes.

Fight Over Grazing Rights

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