Documentary takes a ‘long, strange trip’ to discover truth about spooky Turnbull Canyon near Whittier – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Bill Ohanesian always knew about the road. He was in the sixth grade when his Armenian American family moved from Monterey Park to the new suburb of Hacienda Heights in the early 1960s. Their home on Daytona Street sat on the base of the Turnbull Canyon foothills.

“At the time, we were surrounded by avocado groves, a joy to get lost in after school for a kid and his dog,” Ohanesian said.

He remembers “pre-adolescent family drives over Turnbull Canyon Road to Whittier at night and being spooked over the deep, black, cavernous ravines and having nightmares of the family car tumbling down the cliffs,” he said.

But it wasn’t many years later, when he was a professional videographer and film instructor, that Ohanesian said Turnbull Canyon Road backkoned again.

Over pizza and beer with some friends, he mentioned that he was looking for a project he could really get his teeth into.

“After a years-long absence, we’d recently been back up to the hills a few times to hike and I realized how much I’d missed the area, how ingrained it had been after all this time,” Ohanesian said. “As a professional video, I realized that no one had ever done a comprehensive serious treatment of the region that is so rich with history and local lore. I threw out the notion with no idea of ​​where it would lead. With their encouragement, I embarked on the ‘long, strange trip.’”

Filmmaker Bill Ohanesian with former Whittier residents Lucy and Ron Gallegos. The couple is featured in the documentary “Turnbull Canyon: A Road Unwound.” The film will be screened on Aug. 13 at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in City of Industry. (Photo courtesy of Tom Leppold)

Ohanesian’s film “Turnbull Canyon: A Road Unwound” explores the history, folklore, cultural connections and scenic beauty of the 7-mile road that connects uptown Whittier to Hacienda Heights.

It will be shown at 2 pm Aug. 13 at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, 15415 Don Julian Road, City of Industry. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Film run time is about 90-minutes and a question-and-answer session follows the screening. For more information, .

Apart from spending time in the canyons, Ohanesian interviewed city, police and fire officials, longtime residents, and hiker Brian Lovell, “the conscience of the hills.”

Pastor Stephen Chavez of Pico Rivera appears in the film to talk about the murder of teenager Gloria Gaxiola of Baldwin Park, as well as santería practices. The Greenlead Killerz biking club offered insights on the conflict between hikes and bikers on the trails.

“I consciously tried to show a cross-section of hikers, bikers, public officials, residents, and even visual artists who share their appreciation of the beauty of the topography,” Ohanesian said. “I especially wanted the insights of ‘real people’ who hiked and biked there, who lived there, who partied there, who could provide first-hand hiking-boots-on-the-ground direct insights from their experiences.”

Ohanesian, 68, who now lives in South San Gabriel, said he feels affection for all the stories about Turnbull Canyon Road, both real and speculative: from the couple describing how the 1987 fire devastated their new home, to the police deputy talking about the crimes he’s witnessed and stories about the Gates of Hell, the old Water Tower and the “Singing Kettle” house at Turnbull and Skyline.

But the most enticing story for Ohanesian is the most mysterious: that of the hill’s namesake, Robert Turnbull, whom he describes as “an immigrant Scotsman, sheep farmer, land speculator and local drunk.”

Bill Ohanesian scouts out a location for his documentary,
Bill Ohanesian scouts out a location for his documentary, “Turnbull Canyon: A Road Unwound” at Sycamore Canyon. The Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum screens the film on Aug. 13. Admission is free. (Photo courtesy of Tom Leppold)

Turnbull was found dead by the Los Angeles River in 1888, soon after scoring a major windfall from his sale of the canyon property to the founders of Whittier, Ohanesian said.

“Not only do no photos of him even exist but the only concrete evidence of his existence is featured in the film, his gravestone,” he said. “It may be fanciful of me, but I like to think that the tragic and unknown circumstances of Turnbull’s life and passing inadvertently set the template for far worse human tragedies that have defined the hills’ mythology in the decades to follow,” Ohanesian said.

He credits Paul Spitzzeri, museum director, and Michelle Muro, collections coordinator, for providing historical insights, as did Nick Edmeier, director of the Whittier Historical Museum. Ohanesian said he hopes the film will serve as a time capsule of sorts, something that will serve as a historical, educational and cultural resource, as well as provide a counter-narrative to the known and unknown, the myths and rumors.

For himself, Ohanesian said his time in the canyons has strengthened his belief in some sort of “Spirit of the Hills.”

On every trip up the road, Ohanesian said he’s gotten into the habit of gathering trash he sees around.

“My hope being, that if I help haul out the garbage, the canyon spirits will reward me with some good photographic opportunities,” he said. “The result has been that I’ve been fortuitously accorded any number of unexpected discoveries (like snakes, deer, little-used trails, gorgeous scenic views, dangerous bikers, terrifically cooperative and insightful interviews with hikers).

“I’ve even returned to my car with a bag of plastic bottles to find every vehicle ticketed except mine. That said, those damned spirits have also teased me with their mischievous side, which I’ve learned to accept.”

Anissa V. Rivera, columnist, “Mom’s the Word,” Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News, Azusa Herald, Glendora Press and West Covina Highlander, San Dimas/La Verne Highlander. Southern California News Group, 181 W. Huntington Drive, Suite 209 Monrovia, CA 91016. .

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