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The Great Castaic Range War

HISTORY

Posted: November 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.

William Willoby Jenkins (aka William Wirt Jenkins) 1833-1919. Courtesy of SCV Historical Society

 

When the law of the land failed to deliver justice in the late 19th century, the remedy was often sought with a gun.
The Great Castaic Range War started when neighboring ranchers laid claim to the same tract of land.
The bloody conflict was the most enduring feud in southern Californian history, lasting more than a quarter of a century, claiming at least eight lives - some of them innocent bystanders.
Located near the present-day intersection of Lake Hughes Road and Castaic Road, William Willoby Jenkins staked a large claim along Castaic Creek in 1872. Six years later, he established a ranch he named the Lazy Z.
The killing started in 1890.
William C. Chormicle had purchased 1,600 acres from the railroad, the same land that W.W. Jenkins was already ranching.
One day three of Jenkins’s men tried to move lumber onto the disputed land in order to build a cabin when “Old Man” Chormicle and William A. Gardner opened fire, killing two of the work party. A third man narrowly escaped.
The gunmen immediately fled the scene and went into hiding. Ten days later, they were flushed out of Piru Canyon, and surrendered to local sheriffs. They pleaded self-defense while protecting their property rights.
The trial lasted 18 days in June 1890, and was one of the longest trials ever conducted in Los Angeles County at the time. One side described a cowardly ambush; the other a face-to-face, armed encounter. The defense argued an underlying feud was the real cause of the problems.
After 20 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict. They found the defendants Chormicle and Gardner not guilty of any crime.
The acquittal infuriated W.W. Jenkins, so the long-standing feud began in earnest.
The violent, long-running Jenkins-Chormicle feud was a colorful and cruel saga of barn burnings, ambushes and running gun battles on horseback. Jenkins and Chormicle picked up their weapons over every road-building, mining claim, grazing rights and water issue. On one tragic occasion, a girl was accidentally killed in the crossfire.
To add another dimension to his colorful character, W.W. Jenkins was not averse to a little swindling. In 1895, Jenkins learned that swampland could be purchased cheaply under a special government program, provided the land was surveyed by boat.
But, Castaic had no swamp, so Jenkins tried to circumvent the law by mounting a boat on wheels and having it pulled by a horse. He attempted to claim most of the land between his Lazy Z ranch and the current site of Six Flags Magic Mountain.
Chormicle and other ranchers, however, exposed the scheme infuriating Jenkins.
Nonetheless, Jenkins had a propensity for successful business dealings. He established a pioneer oil well in Pico Canyon in 1869.
Jenkins’ Lazy Z ranch went on to became well known for breeding and training excellent race horses. When he heard that San Francisco’s streets were overrun by millions of rats, he rounded up 100 cats, shipped them north and sold them for almost $100 each.
Years later, in 1913, a man working for Chormicle shot Jenkins in the chest. Jenkins, then 80, miraculously survived.
Sometime later, Jenkins was shot again by a Chormicle ally while trying to drive his assailant’s cattle off “his land.” Again, Jenkins survived his wounds.
The final conflict occurred in 1916 when Jenkins was herding cattle into Charlie Canyon near Castaic.
Jenkins drove his cattle toward Rose’s cattle camp. They met face to face. Firearms were drawn, shots rang out, and Jenkins rolled from his saddle hitting the ground with a heavy thud.
Reports of the encounter vary. Local lore said Jenkins was killed in the exchange, but it seems the 83-year-old Jenkins survived yet again.
An obituary reports Jenkins dying of a sudden illness while visiting relatives in Los Angeles in October 1919. If so, he would have been 86, and reportedly the survivor of seven separate gun shot wounds.
Ironically, much of the land disputed with so much violence and bloodshed now lies submerged at the bottom of the reservoir behind Castaic Dam.

This is a shortened, edited version of a story that originally appeared in The Signal on Feb. 20, 2011 written by Peter C. Gray. Gray is a freelance writer and amateur historian living in Agua Dulce. The full story can be read at: www.signalscv.com/archives/40839/.

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