Griffith Park Trail

Griffith Park trail.

Los Feliz -- Maybe ghosts live up there. Certainly coyotes do. At about 4,210 acres, Griffith Park is the largest municipal park in the United States with urban wilderness.

And this year, it turns 125 years old. Volunteers throughout the park will be marking the event this Saturday, Nov. 13, with lectures and information about specific sites, according to the LA Conservancy.

Here are a few highlights from Griffith Park’s colorful history:

1800 (ish) - Rancho Los Feliz created

Jose Vicente Feliz, a solider among the settlers who traveled from what is now Mexico to establish Los Angeles, was granted more than 6,000 acres for his efforts. That land, stretching west of the L.A. River, became known as the Rancho Los Feliz (now you know where the neighborhood takes its name). There were some fanciful accounts that a member of the Feliz family placed a curse on the rancho after it was willed under duress to a new owner. Around the 1860s, a string of new owners took over the rancho. Eventually, much of it ended up in the hands of Griffith J. Griffith around 1882.

1896 - Land is contributed, and Griffith Park begins

Griffith made a fortune speculating on mines, which may have helped compensate for his personality. He was described as “a midget egomaniac” and “a roly-poly, pompous little fellow” who “had an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler,” according to Hollywood Forever.

Say what you will, though, in 1896, he contributed 3,000 acres of the rancho to the City of Los Angeles, calling it a Christmas gift, according to the San Francisco Call. The land was “peculiarly fitted for public park purposes,” the newspaper said, and it offered a “combination of hills and lovely dales, with magnificent prospects of poetic retreats.”

1903 - Griffith J. Griffith shoots his wife in the face

Yeah. Thanks for the park and everything, but ….

On September 3, 1903, Griffith shot his wife in the face as she knelt on the floor in front of him. She survived.

Griffith, it turns out, was a raging paranoid, and thought his Catholic wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him and steal his money. He was also secretly drinking two quarts of whiskey a day, though politically allying himself with the city’s temperance movement, Hollywood Forever reported. So that may have also figured in.

Griffith went to San Quentin for two years, and what had formerly been called Mount Griffith was renamed Mount Hollywood, HollywoodSign.org said. When he got out of prison, Griffith offered the city $50,000 to build the Greek Theater in the park, and $100,000 to build the observatory. The city rejected the money - but later got some anyway, after Griffith died.

1933 -- The Griffith Park fire

In one of the deadliest brush fires in California history, 29 men hired under a federal jobs program perished during a brush fire that jumped a fire break. The victims were among the thousands who were working in the park to create trails and clear out brush. Many were enlisted to fight the fire without water supplies. Many were trapped as the winds changed direction and the flames advanced. 

1937 - Griffith Park gets a carousel - which was more important than you think

The carousel arrived on the east side of the park after having operated for about 10 years in San Diego, according to Carousel History.  Among the many people who used to go to the merry-go-round on weekends were Walt Disney and his kids. The famous animator Los Feliz resident would watch his daughters ride around a around, and he got to thinking about maybe … expanding on the concept. That's what, some say, inspired the creation of Disneyland.

1941 - A Japanese Detention Camp

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a section of the park became a temporary holding area for Japanese Americans who had been arrested as "enemy aliens,” and were eventually to be transferred to more permanent internment camps, Encyclopedia Densho said.

In the summer of 1942, it then became a Processing Center for German, Italian and Japanese POWs. After the war, this northern section of the park in 1952 was turned into the Travel Town Museum, the collection of old railroad cars that are still open to the public,

1944 - The Hollywood Sign becomes part of the park

The Hollywood Sign - originally Hollywoodland - was first erected in 1923 as a giant $21,000 advertisement for the Hollywoodland real estate development. But by the early 1940s, that business had failed, and the sign quietly became city property, according to Hollywoodsign.org.

It was in a dilapidated state by then, and the H even ended up falling down. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce eventually removed the LAND part of the sign and repaired the rest of the letters in 1949. All the letters were replaced entirely in 1978.

1966 - Griffith Park loses - and gains - a zoo

The old Griffith Park Zoo - which had been open since 1912 - was closed in 1966, leaving behind ruins that are now a picnic area. That same year, the LA Zoo opened nearby.

1968 - The first Gay-In

Before the Stonewall riots in New York, Los Angeles had a “gay-in” on Memorial Day 1968. (This was back in the era of sit-ins and be-ins.) Outdoor gatherings for LGBT people to come out of the closet continued into the early 1970s, according to the LA Conservancy.

haunted picnic table

The Haunted Picnic Table of Griffith Park.

1976 - The Haunted Picnic Table

The following probably did not happen:

On Halloween night, 22-year-old Rand Garrett and 20-year-old Nancy Jeanson were having sex on an obscure picnic table along Mt. Hollywood Drive, a couple of downhill curves north of Vista Dell Valle Drive (not an easy hike, by the way - and this was supposedly in the middle of the night). Suddenly a tree fell down and crushed them both to death.

Since then, the table has supposedly been haunted. A city worker who tried to remove the tree was scared away by a disembodied voice, by inexplicable and violent movement of the tree, and by a threatening message written in the fogged glass of his truck. When his supervisor returned to do the job himself … why, that supervisor died. And his hair had turned completely white.

Well, that's at least one version of this urban legend, which is most likely rooted in a post on a fake news site, according to the author of Discovering Griffith Park.

However, there is a real table -- cracked in half by a fallen tree -- in the park. People still leave flowers and graffiti for Rand and Nancy, two innocent kids whose only crime was love. And trespassing.

So happy birthday, Griffith Park. Here's to 125 more years of this sort of thing.

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Assistant Editor

Barry Lank has worked for newspapers on the East and West Coasts, and earned an MS in journalism from Columbia University. He formerly produced "National Lampoon Presents: The Final Edition." A native of San Gabriel Valley, he now lives in East Hollywood.

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