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Corriganville Rides Again

The old movie ranch property in Simi Valley, now under restoration, is officially open to visitors.

March 05, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Finally, Corriganville Park--the old movie ranch in Simi Valley where the Lone Ranger dodged the bullet weekly--is open to the public. Officially, that is.

The 225-acre property has been off-limits since 1988, when the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District and the city bought it. But some residents have used it anyway, slipping in to hike the oak-shaded paths and glimpse what little remains of the former film ranch.

The welcome sign went up quietly in January. "We've known people have been going in, and we haven't been kicking them out," said Bonnie Carpenter, a park district board member.

Why the long wait? "In a word: money," Carpenter said. The park's master plan calls for construction of a visitor center and the restoration of the cement-lined lagoon where Johnny Weissmuller caroused as Jungle Jim, among other things. But the $4-million cost was out of reach.

So the district and the city scrounged up $86,000 to carry out an interim development plan calling for a parking lot, picnic tables, footbridge, restrooms and drinking fountains. The grand opening won't go down until May 2.

With all that in progress now, people can legally stroll this piece of urban wilderness at the end of Smith Road on Simi Valley's eastern edge. Here, turkey vultures and red-tail hawks live in the craggy rock outcroppings that define the property. Oak trees canopy the stream that cuts through the park. Two miles of ungroomed trails wind around the site.

"The only disappointment is the sound of the freeway," said Rick Johnson, public information officer for the park district. The property is nestled below Highway 118.

Of course the freeway wasn't there in 1937, when a B-western star and former stuntman calling himself Ray "Crash" Corrigan first glimpsed the area on a quail hunting trip with Clark Gable. Thinking it would make an ideal backdrop for western movies, he bought 2,000 acres and started his movie ranch.

Over the years, perhaps a thousand or so movies and TV shows were filmed at Corriganville--"Fort Apache," "The Streets of Laredo," "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest," "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" and "Gunsmoke," to name a few.

In 1948, Corrigan opened his movie ranch to the public, and the re-created Old West town became something of an amusement park. Attracted by train and stagecoach rides, mock gun battles, a boating lake and a trading post, crowds numbered as high as 20,000 on weekend days.

As part of a divorce settlement, Corrigan had to sell the ranch, which Bob Hope bought for $2.5 million in 1965. Its movie days dwindled, and vandals and fires in the 1970s destroyed the old sets. All that exist now are a few concrete foundations, the remains of an old stone-sided barn and the empty lagoon.

Today visitors would have no idea of what it once was--except that a rocky knoll here and an oak grove there might trigger the faint memory of a gun battle or a runaway stagecoach from some long-forgotten screen adventure.

One vivid reminder, though, is a sprawling oak tree known as "the hanging tree," where countless good and bad guys swung by the rope. Corrigan, who died in 1976, didn't want young visitors at the ranch to be terrified by this grisly image, Johnson said. So during reenactments, they saw just how the actor was fitted with a hidden body harness that only looked like a noose around his neck.

For the last 10 years, it's been the dream of Steve Gillum and others to rebuild Corriganville and provide a frontier setting for film crews and the public.

"We're still a long way away from that," said Gillum, who heads the Corriganville Preservation Committee. The estimated cost could run as high as $6 million. "We don't have anybody ready to sit down and write a check."

He said the committee, which formed 10 years ago, has pushed simply to get the property open to the public as a park. Opening it "was the best thing that could have happened to the project." Now that the ball is rolling, he feels it will be easier to find the financial backing for the restoration.

For now, though, it is simply a park, open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset, for hiking, biking and horseback riding--weather permitting. It's operated by the Rancho Simi Open Space Conservation Agency, a group formed by the city and park district to develop and manage it.

The agency's master plan for the park calls for an upgraded trail system that would connect it to other hiking trails in the area and the installation of 19 signs describing the natural sights and the movie ranch history.

In a separate project, the Simi Sunrise Rotary Club and the Rotary Club of Simi Valley have taken a portion of the park--the eastern end, better known as Sherwood Forest--under their wing. With funds from the city, the clubs and other sources, they are developing a youth campground and an outdoor education center for young students.

BE THERE

Corriganville Park, located at the end of Smith Road at the east end of Simi Valley, is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, provided rain doesn't cause a temporary closure. For information, call (805) 584-4400.

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