The History of Altadena’s Cobb Estate

As part of LAist’s month-long feature of one park per day in July in honor of National Parks & Recreation Month, I wrote about Altadena’s Cobb Estate, which is home to the Sam Merrill Trail.  I’ve written about it here before when I explored the history and ruins of Mt. Lowe Railway, and I thought the land itself would make a pretty good subject.  To some, Cobb Estate is known as the “haunted forest” — That term is how I was introduced to the property when I first visited the estate with a few friends in high school. I don’t recall any paranormal activity, but I do remember the shrubbery being much more green.  As with any supposedly-ghostly spot, there’s a Gravity Hill not too far off East Loma Alta Drive (and as with some unexplained phenomena, there’s an explanation).

The home of Carrie & Charles H. Cobb, c. 1930. Photo courtesy of the Altadena Historical Society from “Altadena’s Golden Years” by Robert Peterson, p. 37

Retired lumber magnate Charles H. Cobb and his wife, Carrie, built the house as a permanent family home in 1918 a few years after purchasing the property, according to Jane Brackman, president of the Altadena Historical Society.

The home was a “Spanish-style mansion, elegantly appointed with imported exotic hardwoods, was landscaped with eucalyptus, palm trees and lodge pole pines,” according to the historical society’s Sept. 13, 2009 newsletter. The abundance of wood was “fuel just waiting for a fire,” and in 1935, the La Vina fire that burned the foothills from Millard Canyon to Las Flores Canyon nearly destroyed Cobb’s home. Luckily, “the 83-year-old…with the help from his 200,000 gallon reservoir was prepared for the fight.” Cobb was able to keep the fire away from his him with a hose of 100 pounds pressure, and “with the aid of Andrew Anderson, was able to save all of his propery with the exception of damage done to a few trees and shrubs,” according to the Oct. 24, 1935 issue of the Altadena Press.

Cobb, a member of the Freemasons, designated the land to be given to the Scottish Right Temple in Pasadena upon his death; he died in 1939, and the Masons sold the property a few years later. The home was also used as a retreat by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

From my post at LAist:

Cobb died in 1939, and after several owners, the property was purchased by the Marx Brothers in 1956. Sadly, the once-luxurious home became a hangout for misfits and up-to-no-good teens: Police took “175 juveniles and 20 adults into custody for petty crimes in and around the disintegrating mansion. Its remnants were removed in 1959, leaving only a foundation and scattered low stairways and walls as a legacy to its former grandeur,” [Altadena: Between Wilderness and City author Michele] Zack wrote.

The Marx Brothers’ estate put the land up for auction in 1971 after residents disagreed with the plans to turn the property into a cemetery. Local preservationist groups rallied together to raise money to save the park, and with the help of the John Muir High School Conservation Club, the cause garnered enough attention from the media and $175,000 was raised to buy the park.

In an email, Brackman said the Marx family “purchased the property for well over $400,000,” and it was valued at the same price at the time of the 1971 auction.

Read the Pasadena Star-News’ front-page story about the fateful auction, published the same day as the LAist post.

The Altadena Historical Society is hosting a free speaking event next Monday, July 25 at 7:30 with Muir high school teacher Bob Barnes, who helped raise money to purchase the Cobb Estate and keep the land open to the community. The event will be held at 730 East Altadena Drive in Altadena.

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  • sunnysideofamerica

    I was 13 years old, and at the auction in 1971. I was lucky enough to be around for this latest get together. In those years…@1971, I would hike with my brother, and we would find old silverware, and other items at the old restaurant ruins up at echo mountain.
    One thing people forget. Those were the days of smog so thick it would hurt your lungs to breathe. You couldn’t see the mountains from a mile away during many summer days.

    • What a cool memory, thanks so much for sharing – sounds like you’ve got some very cool relics from the ruins. Glad that today’s hikers can now enjoy the view on a clear day!

  • Lee

    Along the lines of “hauntedness,” what about the suicide pact in the mid ’70s (1975 or 1976)? I was shown the man’s body by the girls who found it, in a watercourse just up the trail from a very small cave. The three of us led the police to the body. His girlfriend’s remains were found the next day.

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