Hundreds of films, maybe thousands, were filmed in the Santa Clarita Valley over the past 80 years, and a good majority of them were Westerns, from the very first Western filmed here in the 1910s to the recent filming of HBO's Deadwood.
The first Los Angeles area film studio was the Nestor Film Company built in what was known then as Hollywoodland. By 1912, 15 different film companies were operating in Los Angeles and Westerns were a big portion of the films being produced every year. The Santa Clarita Valley quickly gained a reputation for being a perfect locale for filming Westerns.
The SCV attracted Westerns obviously because of the landscape. It was also only 30 miles north of Los Angeles, making it convenient for traveling to and from the studios. It was also sparsely settled, because access into the valley was difficult. In fact, for many years the only way to get into the valley from the Los Angeles Basin was through Beale's Cut.
Over the years, several movie ranches were developed, and many permanent Western "towns" were erected for filming. Monogram Ranch, later known as Melody Ranch, is now owned by Disney and was recently used for Deadwood's exterior shots.
A very good overview of the Newhall/Santa Clarita Valley film-locale history is in this Survey of the Harry Carey Ranch conducted by the JRP Historical Consulting Services for the National Parks Services in 2001. It talks about some of the movie ranches in the following:
"Towards the end of the silent era, in the mid to late 1920s, various other individuals and groups began to build permanent (or semi-permanent) Western towns in the Newhall and Saugus area, renting the sites to film producers. Tom Mix built "Mixville" in the late 1920s. Hoot Gibson took over a rodeo grounds near Saugus in the early 1930s, but sold the property by 1934. In 1930, Ernie Hickson built the most ambitious of such projects: the Rancho Placerita [Placeritos] in Placerita Canyon near Newhall. When the landowner sold the property, Hickson moved the set down to the junction of Placerita and Oak creeks and it became known as the Monogram Ranch, after that film company that leased the site. Hopalong Cassidy, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne were among the dozens of actors who worked on Hickson's set and the opening scene of the television show, Gunsmoke, was filmed there. Gene Autry later purchased the property and re-named it "Melody Ranch." The ranch burned in 1962, but it was essentially rebuilt in 1991 and continues to serve as a film set and the location for the annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival."
Harry Carey arrived in California from the East Coast in 1912 and it wasn't long before he was working in Westerns in the Valley. His first film in the Valley was "Light of the Western Stars" in 1913. Carey was certainly busy by this point: he made 19 films in 1917 alone. He was instrumental in getting John Ford his first movie production, "Straight Shooting," filmed in 1917, and the two worked together on 26 other films until the two had a falling out and ended their partnership.
After Carey married Olive Gordon in 1916, they moved to San Francisquito Canyon shortly after, where the ranch that would later be known as the Harry Carey Ranch would be built. On this property he also built a Trading Post and hired forty Navajo Indians to live and work at the Post. The Indian employees made jewelry, raised sheep, and operated the stores and restaurant.
The Ranch survived one of the biggest disasters ever to hit California and the Valley in particular when the St. Francis Dam broke in 1928, flooding the entire valley and killing 450 people. The ranch escaped destruction due to being built on a higher elevation than the river wash, but the Trading Post that Carey had built on the property was destroyed. The Ranch was rebuilt and it is this building that stands today.
Now the Ranch is part of a National Park. It is not visible from the road, and it's very easy to miss. Driving up San Francisquito Canyon Road, there are brand new homes on the left, and on the right what appears to be a hillside that descends down to a canyon. The ranch is hidden behind a fence, a quiet monument to what was once a bustling and vibrant Western movie industry.
Web sites to visit: The Official Melody Ranch Web site
General info on Santa Clarita and its History: Historical Sites
The Santa Clarita Valley History in Pictures. Go to "San Francisquito Canyon" link for information on the Harry Carey Ranch.
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