CASTAIC JUNCTION — It was a golden November, with the yellow-brown leaves of the native cottonwoods and sycamores piled high on the dirt country lane leading to a scattering of modest farm houses. A youngster clad in coveralls was walking there--with a turkey on a leash.
The image in my mind is far more colorful than the black-and-white photograph I snapped on company-issued Tri-X film. But it was a dandy seasonal shot, well worth the excursion onto an unknown back road in search of "wild art," as we say in the trade.
It was a long time ago. The houses are gone. So is the road.
In their place sits Six Flags Magic Mountain, the amusement park with roller coasters rivaling the height of oak-covered ridges still grazed by cattle.
Employees use the back entrance--Feedmill Road--which juts off the former Route 99, now called The Old Road. A row of mailboxes is all that remains, probably the destination of the boy and his turkey.
The scene was not far from the company-owned village known to travelers as Castaic Junction, where Interstate 5 meets Highway 126 to Ventura.
In a few years, if the owner, Newhall Land & Farming Co., gets its wish, it will be the center of a new city of 60,000 people, called Newhall Ranch. There will be houses again--more than 21,000 units in a 19-square-mile community--one of the largest housing developments ever approved by Los Angeles County.
Only Valencia, the company's first development, launched in 1967, will be larger with the current population of 40,000 expected to grow to 66,000. Rows upon rows of orange-tiled roofs replacing the seas of Valencia orange trees.
New streets, artificial waterways, a golf course and shopping centers, flanked by industrial and corporate centers, will replace the rows of broccoli tended by operators on green John Deere tractors. Open space will buffer the banks of the Santa Clara River, one of the last wild rivers remaining in Southern California.
Just as Athol McBean, who married into the third generation of the Newhall family, recommended in 1935, the company plans to grow its land by harvesting the profits of development over the next 20 years.
Ventura County, several of its cities and environmental groups have challenged Newhall Land's assertion that it has enough water to support the project without threatening regional water resources. A decision is pending in Kern County Superior Court.
'360 Degrees of Development'
If the judge rules in favor of the company, Castaic Junction will no longer be the quaint slice of roadside California known to generations of motorists.
Tip's restaurant was once there, alongside a spur of the Southern Pacific Railroad. So was a long row of low-slung buildings--headquarters of Newhall Land, which still owns 37,700-acres of Rancho San Francisco, as the whole area was once called.
The rails were torn out sometime after the filming of the 1987 black comedy, "Throw Momma From the Train."
The restaurant, which in its last stage was called The Blue Moon, was leveled a few years back, dashing the brief plans of a group of plastic surgeons to operate a nude dance club, so the locals say. The building was overrun with rodents, a company spokeswoman explained. But it might have been a different sort of varmint that had them worried. A strip joint doesn't exactly fit the image the company has in mind.
A tiny patch of land not owned by the company is the 63-acre Valencia Travel Village, just west of the junction on Highway 126. The resort for recreational vehicles and tent campers was once the home of Peter McBean, great grandson of the company's founding father, who raised thoroughbred race horses and polo ponies there.
The property, sold in 1971, is being closely scrutinized by private developers eager to cash in on the master-planned community, said Rich Robb, village manager whose father owns the land.
"Development will be surrounding us by 360 degrees," said Robb, who predicts the village will go the way of drive-in theaters that disappeared as land values rose. Already, the Valencia Gateway industrial park is rising across the highway, standing ready to supply jobs when the first homes emerge in four years.
In sharp contrast are McBean's former stables, painted red with white trim. The barns now serve as offices, a market, laundry room and recreation halls for guests. The property contains vast open space on the banks of the Santa Clara, where residents testify there is boundless wildlife. A sign posted in the laundry room warns guests about "bears, bobcats, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, spiders and scorpions."
"It's a shame to keep pushing all of that wildlife out," said Louise Campbell, who lives and works in the village as a receptionist and reservation clerk.
"You can set your clocks by the time the skunks arrive in the evening," said Rich Larson, another resident employee. "We have a raccoon here that's the size of a cocker spaniel."
Bulldozing the Mountains