Ostriches Blazed the Trail to Griffith Park

Ostriches Blazed the
Trail to Griffith Park

This 1880s magazine
illustration extolls the
charms of the
Ostrich Farm on
Rancho Los Feliz
land that would
eventually become
part of Griffith Park.
For a brief time, it
was a popular

Photo: Van M.
Griffith Papers,
UCLA Special

A herd of 19th century ostriches played a role in the founding of Griffith Park. Preposterous? Well, maybe. But ostriches did star in the first popular attraction on the land that would later become Griffith Park.

But before telling you about that, a little background is in order.

Land Boom

The mid-1880s were boom years for Los Angeles and surrounding communities. The old ranchos were being broken up and subdivided. Cattle were out; tourists and housing developments were in. Towns sprung up overnight. Real estate speculation was rampant.

The large land owners built or encouraged rail lines, roads, parks, public buildings--anything that could make their dusty subdivision more substantial, more livable, more townlike than the next.

It was in this feverish, boom-town atmosphere that Col. Griffith J. Griffith, owner of Rancho Los Feliz, agreed to a recreational attraction on his property in 1885. Soon afterward people seeking fun and relaxation began to ride the rails across his land.

But another decade would pass before Griffith would deed over most of his rancho to the city for a park. On the contrary, in the mid-1880s he too was riding the boom, selling lots on his rancho's southern flank.

Back then, locals didn't have Griffith Park yet, but they did have the Ostrich Farm and the Ostrich Farm Railroad.

Ostriches had somehow become a big attraction in 1880s Southern California. The enormous, small-headed, large-footed flightless birds were a source of wonderment. People marveled at huge ostrich eggs, goo-gooed at downy ostrich chicks, fed and even tried to ride adult ostriches.

What¹s more, ostrich feathers on ladies¹ hats and other garments were high fashion.

So a talented entrepreneur could make a lot of money breeding, showing and plucking the birds. Griffith¹s sprawling, hilly rancho was the perfect place for a dude ranch built around ostriches. The Ostrich Farm was located near the Los Angeles River, east of where the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round sits today. It was far enough out of town that visitors from Los Angeles could enjoy a rustic day in the country, yet it was close enough to be convenient. And for Col. Griffith, the Ostrich Farm meant free advertising: visitors would pass his subdivision coming and going.

Dr. C.J. Sketchley came to Southern California with 22 ostriches from South Africa in 1883 and started a small farm in Anaheim, according to an 1887 promotional pamphlet. Several years later, he went back to South Africa, returning with 33 of the curious birds for his farm on the Los Feliz Rancho.

A Rustic Railway

Originally, visitors to the Ostrich Farm were ferried out from the city by carriage. But soon a local lawyer and real estate speculator named Moses L. Wickes (who at one point owned much of Glendale) laid track for a narrow gauge railway. Among the directors of the Ostrich Farm Railway were Dr. Sketchley and Col. Griffith.

The line began at Sunset and Beaudry near Downtown Los Angeles. From there it went west along Sunset Boulevard (then called Elysian Street), north along Griffith Park Boulevard (then Childs Avenue), east for a short jog on Los Feliz Boulevard, and north to the Ostrich Farm.

Within a couple of years, the line was extended from the Ostrich Farm to the fledgling town of Burbank. According to Burbank Historian E. Perry Caswell, the depot was located near Verdugo Avenue and Flower Street. The right-of-way ran along Flower. The Los Angeles County Railway Company extolled the virtues of their small, hastily-built line. The company¹s timetable trumpeted:

Solidly Constructed Road Bed
Southern California

The rail line apparently had a certain rough-hewn charm. Ervin King, who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1880s, decades later recalled riding the Ostrich Farm train: "It was a great boy thrill to ride on that swaying, rickety dummy train--the sudden jolts, what the boys saw and heard--and sometimes there was the evidence that an unfortunate sheep, horse or cow had met its fate in contact with the cow-catcher.²

Dr. Sketchley benefited immediately from the railway. According to Los Angeles Historian Harris Newmark, "The doctor soon did a thriving business."

Life on the Ostrich Farm

As advertised, ostriches were the main attraction. "How the tourists all laughed as they fed whole oranges to the ostriches and watched the globular distention down elastic necks,² wrote Historian Carol Green Wilson. Quite literally, the ostriches were highly-valued performers: each adult bird was worth about $400, which was then enough to buy a very nice foothill lot in Col. Griffith's subdivision.

But Dr. Sketchley had more than ostriches and a rickety train trip to offer the city-slickers. Aviaries and cages contained an odd assortment of animals: parakeets, buzzard hawks, macaws, cockatoos, owls, monkeys, wildcats, sliver-gray foxes, badgers and raccoons. Nearby was a lush oak grove and elaborate picnic grounds. It was, according to the 1886-87 Los Angeles City Directory, ³the very acme of happiness for children.²

For adults, there were trails for leisurely promenades in the hills, a dance floor and even a secluded bar.

Success Was Short-Lived

But the rail line, which was taken over by the Los Angeles and Pacific Railroad, was never as profitable as the Ostrich Farm. When the real estate boom began to taper off in the late 1880s, the little rail company found itself facing financial ruin. According to Historian Franklyn Hoyt, "When the bubble burst it was left with a poorly constructed railway serving the virtual ghost towns of Sunset, Burbank, Cahuenga, Ivanhoe, and Kenilworth."

With the railway on the skids, Dr. Sketchley apparently sought a more profitable location. In spring 1889 the Ostrich Farm was dismantled. According to several sources, Dr. Sketchley opened a similar attraction in Red Bluff, where he went broke.

Soon, all that was left of the Ostrich Farm were memories--not the least of which were Col. Griffith's recollections of the public riding trains, picnicing, walking along trails and viewing animals on his land.

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

E-mail me at MEberts@glendale.cc.ca.us

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