The Oakwood Memorial park lies tucked away at the base of the craggy hills that loom ominously over the northwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Established in 1924, Oakwood harkens back to a time when the suburbs were largely undeveloped and Hollywood elites such as Lucille Ball, Errol Flynn, and Barbara Stanwyck kept large equestrian estates in the Valley’s near-rural countryside. (The last of these in Northridge, the Oakridge Estate, originally built for Stanwyck in 1939, still sits empty atop its hill high above Devonshire Street, but that’s a subject for another post.)
Oakwood Cemetery’s corner of Chatsworth still feels a little bit rural today, with a few properties zoned for horses and a mountainous skyline that feels vaguely familiar from a score of old western movies. It’s no wonder, as Roy Rogers once owned a ranch in the vicinity, and the old Santa Susana Stagecoach Road ran through here too. The present moment in time seems to fall away even before you reach the cemetery gates at the distant end of Lassen Street, and the stripmall-strewn sprawl behind you fades away to a hazy dream.
Inside its gates, Oakwood is a peaceful place. Leafy trees shade several acres’ worth of gently rolling foothills. Wooden crosses once marked a Native American burial site nearby, but a fire apparently destroyed them at some point in the last century. The Chatsworth Community Church is here, though. Built by volunteers in 1903 and saved from demolition by the Chatsworth Historical Society sixty years later, the building (also called the Pioneer Church) was moved from its original location on Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the northern end of the cemetery in 1965, where it stands today. The graves of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can also be found here (although not side by side), representing the glamorous gang of film stars who once retreated to the serenity of the San Fernando Valley to relax and unwind, in a time long gone by.
Like most cemeteries, Oakwood is haunted less by ghosts than by memory. Its end of the Valley was once the real wild west, and later it served as a backdrop for our cinematic re-imaginings of that era. Today, most of the history is as faded as an old photograph, but if you listen hard enough you can still hear faint echoes of the past.
The Oakwood Memorial Park is located at 22601 Lassen St., Chatsworth CA 91311. Gates close at 5pm.
Pictures by Sean Patrick Traver