Perched on a promontory along a ridge on the north slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, overlooking the Santa Ynez River Valley, the sandstone ruins known as Knapp’s Castle are the remnants of a remote mountain retreat built by George Owen Knapp.
He purchased the property in 1916 and named it Laurel Springs Ranch. Four years later, construction of the mountain lodge at San Marcos was finally completed, but in 1940, the home burned to the ground in a wildfire. Knapp had sold it for $10,000 just five weeks before the conflagration.
The hilltop residence included five bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room, a pipe organ room and an observatory for stargazing. An illuminated waterfall cascaded outside providing a touch of ambiance to a spectacular setting needing no adornment. Large stone arches today still frame the views enjoyed long ago in the main room of the home through huge picture windows.
Aside the main lodge, and attached by an interior staircase, sat a studio. Below this there was a cottage for workers, a guesthouse, sleeping quarters for servants and a caretaker’s flat.
Tucked away down in the brush-choked crease of nearby Lewis Canyon, somewhere purportedly near the waterfall there, Knapp built a bathhouse. It was accessed by a winding dirt road. The remnants of the road can still be walked today for some distance, before it fades into the dense canyonside chaparral, and is finally lost to the mountain buried in nearly a hundred years of erosion and slough.
The property was accessed by a primitive dirt road perhaps not much better than a stagecoach trail in places, and done so in some of the first models of automobiles ever created. Historically, as today, San Marcos Pass and East Camino Cielo provided the roadways to the mountaintop home.
San Marcos Pass was first graded in 1868 and finished two years later, before being rerouted and improved in the 1880s. East Camino Cielo, off of which Knapp built his long driveway, was first cleared around the time of WWI, but not paved until the 1930s.
The property was not easy to get to and before any construction could begin Knapp had to build his own road to reach the parcel. An entry in History of Santa Barbara County, State of California (1939) notes the following:
“Speaking of hobbies, next to organ-building and hospitals, Mr. Knapp’s abiding passion is for road-building. Though past eighty-three years of age, he personally supervises the construction of mountain roads to and from his beautiful Santa Ynez Mountain Lodge with all the interest and enthusiasm of a man of half his years.”
Born in 1855 in Massachusetts, Knapp was a businessman and civil engineer by trade. He helped found Union Carbide Corporation and served as company president for 22 years (or 25 years depending on the source consulted).
His entrepreneurial success was reflected in numerous real estate holdings, which included no less than nine different homes in Santa Barbara County alone. These ranged from oceanfront parcels at Montecito and Carpinteria to mountaintop retreats atop the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara.
Aside from providing aplenty for himself, Knapp’s wealth enabled him to donate generously to numerous causes. He arrived in Santa Barbara in 1912 and “became identified with and interested in everything that pertained to the general welfare.”
Knapp served as president of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and donated $200,000 to create the Louise Savage School of Nursing. In addition, he gave $200,000 to fund the construction of the hospital’s four-story south wing. And he played a role in attracting Dr. William D. Sansum, of the Sansum Clinic, to Santa Barbara.
He also contributed a total of at least $32,000 to several local churches for various purposes. One of his other pursuits in Santa Barbara was the building of roads and trails into the inaccessible backcountry, as referenced in a Los Angeles Times piece from 1988.
“While Knapp was developing his private retreat, he was also helping to boost public access to the Santa Barbara Forest Reserve, as it was known in those days. Knapp and a couple of his wealthy friends were tireless promoters of roads and trails, in order to make the back country accessible to all. Knapp’s enthusiasm and money helped extend trails west to the top of Refugio Canyon (now Ronald Reagan’s spread) and east to Ojai.
The trail-building efforts of Knapp and his buddies were much appreciated by the local populace. As a 1917 editorial in the Santa Barbara Daily News put it:
‘They are strong advocates of the great out-of-doors, and under their leadership, places in the wild heretofore denied humans because of utter inaccessibility are being opened up to the hiker and horseback rider.'”
George Owen Knapp was a man of action and accomplishment whose presence benefited the community. He left his mark on Santa Barbara in more ways than one, the least of which are the gritty sandstone ruins known as Knapp’s Castle, which have long been a popular hiking destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
George Owen Knapp: A Splendid Secret, Benjamin R. Taylor (2004)
History of Santa Barbara County, State of California: its people and its resources, Owen H. O’Neill, Editor (1939)
“Trekking to George Knapp’s Dreamy Castle in the Sky,” John McKinney, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1988 (Retrieved July 2011: http://articles.latimes.com/1988-11-26/news/vw-235_1_santa-barbara)
Historical Overview of the Los Padres National Forest, E.R. “Jim” Blakley and Karen Barnette, (1985), p. 62.