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Photo Essay: Upon the 75th Anniversary of the Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm

It’s kind of hard to believe that another amusement park has managed to thrive in more or less the next town over from Disneyland. I mean, Disney is Disney, after all. It’s the happiest place on earth!

But Disneyland has been evolving and modernizing. It’s been shifting its focus away from Frontierland in favor of Tomorrowland. And that means Knott’s Berry Farm will soon have the market cornered on amusement park depictions of American pioneers and frontier life in the Old American West.

Yes, Knott’s has a water park and some roller coasters in its main park. But for me, the main attraction is its Ghost Town.

Funny enough, the Ghost Town was built to keep people occupied while they were waiting (sometimes hours) in line to get into Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant.

You could pass the time by taking a look at the 19th century (G)old Trails Hotel, which Walter Knott had moved to Southern California from Prescott, Arizona. The ghost town was free back then—and Walter Knott didn’t start charging admission until 1968.

And thus began his large-scale assemblage art project, building his own “authentic” ghost town by relocating abandoned and neglected buildings and artifacts that he collected.

Unfortunately, some of them—like the Gold Trails—didn’t exactly stand the test of time, so what you see there now is a replica.

But other facades—like the “peek-in” storefronts—haven’t had to endure much wear and tear and have been relatively untouched over the years.

Of course, Walter would find certain anchor buildings for his ghost town, put them into place, and then fill the spaces in between with custom-built “fill-in” buildings that fit right in.

Walter had seen the blacksmith shop structure off the side of the road not far from where he’d started farming back in 1920. So 20 years later when he began building his ghost town, he moved it here—in one piece.

You can still pay the blacksmith a visit and watch him make real horseshoes.

Among the other artifacts that were “rescued” by Walter Knott include “Old Betsy,” an antique wood-burning engine that was a modern upgrade to the 20 Mule Team used in borax mining in the Death Valley area. Walter found this one in Trona.

The windmill by the livery stable is a replica, and together they mark the end of Main Street. Walter Knott didn’t expect his ghost town to grow beyond that.

But indeed, it grew as Walter continued to collect neglected farmhouses…

…and even a famous boxing venue from Burbank known as “Jeffries Barn” (named after heavyweight boxing champ Jim Jeffries).

There’s the one-room red schoolhouse, which looks like something out of Little House and the Prairie

…even though it was actually relocated to Knott’s from the city of Pico Rivera (about 12 miles northwest of Buena Park) in 1959.

You can sit in the schoolchildren’s desks, but you might have to explain to your younger companions what a blackboard / chalkboard is.

And, of course, it’s not a real ghost town unless it’s got its own bottle house…

…with 3082 bottles embedded in the concrete walls (neck side in)—just like the one in Calico Ghost Town (also a creation of Walter Knott) and the one in Rhyolite, outside of Death Valley.

Except these bottles appeared to have crumbled bits of newspaper or currency stuffed inside of them.

In fact, the Knott’s ghost town draws from many other authentic towns of the Old West—not just Prescott, Calico, and Rhyolite, but also Tombstone, Arizona. Walter built his own version of the Bird Cage Theater…

…as well as Boothill Cemetery.

Some of the headstones (well, wooden slabs) are actually real.

Walter would find vintage grave markers that were badly damaged, buy them, and then pay to replace them.

Lester Moore isn’t actually buried in Buena Park…

…but if you stand on the grave of Hiram McTavish, you can feel his heart still beating through your shoe.

An expanded Knott’s Ghost Town afforded Walter the opportunity to build his own railroad, where he could store—and run—the vintage trains he’d also collected, like the No. 41 “Red Cliff” from the Rio Grande Southern line…

….or the historic locomotives from the Denver & Rio Grande line.

During peak holiday time and weekends, you can stand in line to catch a ride on the vintage steam train, but during the week when it’s a little quieter, it’s “The Galloping Goose” that will take you for a ride on the Ghost Town & Calico Railroad.

It’s a narrow gauge, lightweight machine—one of only seven ever built in the 1930s—that was used as a more economic alternative to the heavyweight steam engines. This one was in service in Colorado until 1953, and its transport costs were reportedly more than its purchase price.

Watch out for bandits.

I figure, if you’re going to take a ride on a train through the Knott’s Ghost Town, then you ought to also take a ride on an authentic, horse-drawn stagecoach.

The Holloday, part of the original Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line, takes passengers on a scenic ride through Knott’s Berry Farm—either inside the coach or up top.

If you’re sitting up top, you’d better hold on—and buckle your seat belt.

Of course, if you’re going to ride a train and a stagecoach, you might as well partake of some of the more modern amusements as well. The Pony Express—a rollercoaster whose horses feel more like motorcycles—is a surprisingly rowdy ride (as evidenced by how tightly they strap you in).

For something a little more relaxing, there’s the Calico Mine Company ride, which takes you right to the “glory hole” of the Calico Mine in your own mining cart—without a seat belt. Beware of the blasting!

Sure, it’s all a bit silly, but there’s some real history at Knott’s Berry Farm. Walter Knott saved a lot of historic stuff from destruction, demolition, and neglect.

And while it amuses us, maybe we can learn something, too.

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A Walk Through Norwalk’s Abandoned Sanitarium

I’m becoming pretty predictable.

If there’s a mental hospital I can visit—abandoned, or not—I’m gonna go.

But when I do, I always think maybe they’ll want to keep me there. Maybe they won’t let me go back home.

For my latest jaunt to a psychiatric ward, my friend Joanna (who also introduced me to Rockhaven Sanitarium) turned me on to California’s second state mental hospital, the former Norwalk, now known as Metropolitan State Hospital.

Over a century ago, when choosing a location to follow Patton State Hospital—and to help relieve some of its overcrowding—the state government originally considered Beverly Hills.

But Beverly Hills has always had a way of dodging infrastructure and other facilities—like the freeway or the subway—that might bring property values down.

So a parcel of over 300 acres was chosen in an area then known as “North Walk” for its “country air.”

The hospital started taking in patients 100 years ago, when the Imperial Highway was just a cow path and had to be improved for arrivals by horse and carriage.

At the time, I don’t think many were too concerned with handling departures.

Norwalk might’ve been a “cow town” in the first decades of the 20th century, but there were as many as 1990 oil wells in Santa Fe Springs, the next town over.

At the peak of the oil drilling, the Norwalk hospital was surrounded on three sides by derricks.

By 1923, oil activity had slowed down, and Norwalk continued on as a self-sustaining community…

…whose patients farmed, raised cattle, and performed other (many agricultural) tasks to keep the hospital running.

It wasn’t really “work therapy”—it was just work.

Nothing can provide free labor like a bunch of captive patients who are physically able but mentally unstable.

Even today, although some buildings have been demolished, Metropolitan State Hospital is like its own little town.

Many of the structures are from the early 20th century, as well as from the 1920s Southern California building boom…

…and the 1947 Post-War building program, which gave rise to a new 504-bed Receiving & Treatment Center in 1954.

Overcrowding was relieved tremendously in the 1950s with the development of psychotropic drugs (like Thorazine and lithium), which meant people with even severe mental problems could actually get better—and hospitalization didn’t have to be a life sentence.

Now, there are lots of campus buildings standing in disuse, their windows boarded up.

No longer do patients have to sleep in beds that have been “stacked,” surrounded on every side by other beds. And they don’t have to sleep on the floor anymore, either.

And now that they’re all adults—the children’s ward having closed a few years ago—most of them can move about freely within the fenced-in campus perimeter, with restrictions.

After all, nowadays those who are admitted to “Metro” aren’t just mental “defectives,” as they were once called. Many of them have some criminal record. Almost half of them are incompetent to stand trial. Almost as many are considered a danger to themselves or to others—without having already committed a crime.

Given its 100 years of history, Metropolitan State Hospital (like Patton) took on the task of creating an on-site museum to tell stories and display some of the artifacts that have been collected over the years.

The museum is located in a 1920s-era residence, probably used by a doctor and his family.

So far, most of its visitors have been from the community or from other hospital facilities. One can assume that anyone who works at Metropolitan probably just wants to go home after their shift is over.

Some of the archives include an admissions system used to create nameplates…

…and putting names of those committed into the registry.

There are vintage academic texts, other scientific and educational support materials, and equipment…

…like an antique cork press (for corking pharmaceutical bottles)…

…a welder…

…and, of course, an electroshock therapy machine.

Because a greater percentage of Metropolitan’s population is now of a forensic nature—and the hospital doesn’t even accept people who are voluntarily admitted—security is of paramount importance.

Long gone are the days of the “camisole restraint,” involuntary sterilization…

…and the freezing cold or boiling hot hydrotherapy confinement techniques.

The facility is considered low security (compared to the prison-like operations at Patton), and it doesn’t accept patients who’ve been convicted of violent crimes like murder or sex offenses or who have a history of setting fires or escaping. But it still must provide protection for its staffers, who’ve been frequently subjected to violent patient outbursts and attacks.

While patients may pose a threat to the staff (even if they weren’t violent before they were committed), they themselves aren’t entirely safe while they’re “institutionalized”—not from each other, and not from their caregivers.

Poor use of restraints, mis-prescribed medications, and negligence have all led to patient deaths that would’ve otherwise been preventable. One female psychiatric patient died in 2009 after her neck was somehow mysteriously broken, while a nurse keeping watch nearby slept through the whole thing.

Some manage to make their escape—at least, to the morgue—by committing suicide. But even if someone were to walk off the grounds of Metro and go AWOL (which some do), they may never escape the thing that sent them there in the first place.

Then again, at least they would escape the treatments, which are sometimes worse than the disease.

For a peek inside Norwalk Hospital in the 1970s, there was a black-and-white documentary film that was shot there called Hurry Tomorrow, directed by Richard Cohen and Kevin Rafferty.

Here’s a clip:

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A Peek Inside Catalina’s Avalon Casino

One of the most iconic images of Catalina Island and its harbor in the town of Avalon is of “the Casino building.”

You can see it from high up in the wild interior

…and from the sea, as you arrive via boat.

No matter where you are on or near the island, you’re aware of it.

And that’s by design. While the island is full of many ornamentations (like Catalina Tile), monuments, recreations, and attractions to lure tourists from the mainland, there’s no other gathering place quite like this one.

Contrary to our modern interpretation of its name, the Catalina Casino wasn’t dedicated as a gambling hall (though gambling has occurred in the past on the island and in its harbor).

People instead flocked to this circular building (like many other rotundas throughout history) to socialize amidst music and movies.

And if it looks a bit like a baseball stadium, that’s by design, too—because it was built at the behest of William Wrigley, Jr., former owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder of Wrigley Field. (The Cubs actually flew all the way from Chicago to train on Catalina.)

But as soon as you get to the forecourt, its ornate box office window, and its resident mermaid, you realize you’re there for anything but an afternoon ballgame.

Designed by Walter Webber and Sumner A. Spaulding, the Art Deco casino building was completed in 1929, built to replace the “Sugarloaf Casino” dance pavilion named for the Sugarloaf rock formation that was eventually blasted away to improve the view.

Construction was managed by David M. Renton, Wrigley’s partner in many aspects of building up Catalina (and also the builder behind the 60-Inch telescope building at Mt. Wilson Observatory).

As the Casino is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides, while facing inland you can gaze upon ornate designs that are inspired by the sea…

…a design motif that continues into the interior—especially in its movie theatre.

The Avalon Theatre is credited as being the first theatre built with acoustics specifically designed for the projection of “talkie” movies.

That drew famous filmmakers of the time like Cecil B. Demille to the island to not only see their movies, but also to hear them.

Photo: David Prasad (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Apparently the acoustics are so good—and the auditorium is so sound-proof—that a full band could be playing for a room full of dancers upstairs, and it would never interrupt the sound of the movie being projected below.

The domed auditorium is lovely, especially with its Art Deco wall murals…

…painted by famed Hollywood production designer / art director / set designer John Gabriel Beckman, who also directed the design of the undersea fantasy in the forecourt.

Beckman had just completed work on Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and also painted murals (which are now sadly faded into near oblivion) in the Fox Theatre Fullerton.

Because of the highly accelerated construction schedule for the casino…

…Beckman managed to complete his depictions of early California history and his version of The Birth of Venus in just three months.

Amazingly, the Avalon Theatre still shows first-run movies every night of the week…

…preceded by a performance of its Page Organ Company pipe organ, which is original to the theatre.

Although it was built for film, the Avalon Theatre also has the capacity to put on various live entertainment stage productions…

…with a vintage fly system…

…and original lighting board and other controls.

In the projection room…

…you can find antique projection machinery like a Simplex Model E-7, a 1927 Brenkert Model F3 (with combined effects, slide, and floodlight projector)…

…and a Brenkert Enarc carbon-arc projector—a rare artifact that only gets used once or twice a year and can only be found in one or two theaters in the entire country.

In the circular ballroom on the upper level (the equivalent of about 12 stories up)…

…the dance floor, 180 feet in diameter, is the world’s largest and reportedly can accommodate up to 3000 dancers at any given time.

If it gets a bit too crowded inside, you can exit through one of the many French doors that encircle the ballroom and take a stroll out on the balcony, nicknamed the “Romance Promenade.”

From there, you can stare out onto the sailboats and yachts and ferries and other sea-worthy vessels…

…and wonder who out there—or up in the wild bison territory—is gazing out or down upon you.

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