THE MANHATTAN BEACH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
DUNCAN RANCH HOUSE
DUNCAN RANCH HOUSE FOLKLORE vs. FACT
By Bonnie Beckerson
Former MBHS President
Stories have been told and retold about a mysterious colonel from Kentucky who was the first to purchase land in what is now called Manhattan Beach. But over the years, the stories have been embellished. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who was the first to recall an abandoned house high on a hill with secret tunnels and hidden bars of gold and possibly haunted?
Folklore says – Just before the end of the Civil war, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, sent Blanton Duncan to England to obtain funds for the South to fight the war. He brought with him cotton from his Virginia plantation and the neighboring plantations and exchanged the cotton for gold. Upon returning, the war was over and he moved to California taking the gold and some of his slaves. Depending on who is telling the story, the slaves were black but sometimes they were Chinese.
Not True! Just before the end of the Civil War, Blanton Duncan was living in Columbia, South Carolina. He had established a large engraving and printing company where he printed Confederate money until the end of the war. He had mustered out of the Army in 1862. He was a private citizen. It would have been impossible for him to leave for England by water. All waterways were blocked and in the control of the Union soldiers. He did not own Virginia plantation land. He owned plantation land in Mississippi which he leased to others to farm. He was a lawyer, and active in politics.
Folklore says – When coming to California with the stolen gold, he built a pier at what is now First Street and he built a plantation house high on a hill with a beacon to signal ships. He built a secret tunnel from the house to the sea and he entered into the smuggling business. He served wine or food to the man delivering the goods to his house from the ship. None ever returned. They were then buried in the tunnel or elsewhere on the grounds of the property.
When did he buy the land and enter into the smuggling business? Some stories say before the Civil War, shortly after the Civil War, 1872, and 1875. Blanton can be traced up until 1892 as living in Louisville, Kentucky. Blanton Duncan moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1894. His wife had moved here for her health in 1893 and was living with their only daughter on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. He bought Mrs. Duncan a house next door to their daughter’s. In 1894, he and his wife are listed in the Los Angeles city directory as living at 3012 Figueroa Street. It was a fashionable neighborhood.
The land that is now Manhattan Beach was part of Rancho Sausal Redondo. In 1837, Governor Juan B. Alvarado of Alta, California issued Antonio Ygnacio Avila a grant for Rancho Sausal Redondo. On June 19, 1856, the U. S. District Court issued a decree of confirmation of title to Antonio Ygnacio Avila for Rancho Sausal Redondo.
In 1858, Antonio Avila passed away. In 1868, the heirs of Antonio were forced to sell the rancho to pay the probate costs. The property consisting of approximately 22,000 acres was purchased by Sir Robert Burnett on May 5.
In 1873, Burnett leased the land to Daniel Freeman for $10,000 per year with an option to buy. He used the land for sheep, horses and orchards with fruit, almonds and olives. When a severe drought occurred in 1875 and 1876, he received heavy loses. He turned to dry farming and did well with Barley. In 1882, Freeman used his option to buy and he purchased 3,912 acres for the sum of $22,243. In 1885, Freeman purchased the remainder of Rancho Sausal Redondo for $140,000. Daniel Freeman was the last person to own all of Rancho Sausal Redondo. He was a clever businessman and knew he would do well selling off the land for development. Not all that he sold were large parcels.
On August 8, 1895, Colonel Blanton Duncan purchased from the Redondo Land Company, in the township of Redondo, 87 3/4 acres of land paid with $1000 in gold coin. On June 6, 1896, Blanton Duncan purchased another 100 acres from the Redondo Land Company. The cost was $681.00 paid with lawful money of the United States. A payment in gold coin was very common especially after the gold rush days. By the end of the war, Confederate money was worthless.
The Redondo Land Company had problems selling land in what is now Manhattan Beach. It could have been due to the fact that sand dunes, some 50 to 70 feet high discouraged buyers. Blanton was the first major property owner in this area after Rancho Sausal Redondo was put up for sale.
What kind of a ranch house did he build on the land that is now Manhattan? A ranch house was built but the 1904 and 1908 Sanborn maps do not show any structures on the land. In the early days, building permits in remote areas were not always obtained. Mr. & Mrs. Duncan lived well in Kentucky and would never consider shabby housing. They were accustomed to entertaining. One would have to take into account that the house was built on top of a 50 to a 70-foot sand dune. It was probably two stories with a porch, comfortable, spacious and large enough for entertaining.
How did he get to the ranch from downtown Los Angeles? In the 1890s, roads barely existed in remote areas. One got around on horseback, or horse and buggy. In 1888, the Santa Fe Railroad laid tracks from Los Angeles to Redondo Beach across the property. Pinpointing it today, the tracks were between Valley Drive and Ardmore Avenue.
Was there a tunnel? To dig a hole large enough for a tunnel in a 50 to 70 foot sand dune and continue for a mile down to the sea would have been a major project and not very secret. How would he dig under the Santa Fe Railroad tracks that cut across the property? One folklore story says he blew up the tunnel when he couldn’t dig under the tracks.
Did he grow cotton and tobacco? Impossible! Both crops are labor intensive and not suited for the area and soil. As for killing people and smuggling goods, there was no reason. Another problem was the lack of water. Water had to be carried 1/4th mile up a hill.
If he wasn’t in the smuggling business and he didn’t grow crops, and he lived in Los Angeles, why did he buy so much land? There are obvious reasons: Huntington was bringing transportation into the area, and there was talk of the Redondo Beach wharf area becoming the official port for the city of Los Angeles. Note: On March 1, 1897, San Pedro was declared the official port. Another factor was that oil had been discovered in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he referred to the property as the Redondo Ranch and paid a housekeeper, cook and a foreman to take care of the place. He leased parts of the land out to various individuals for farming. At the time of his death in 1902, the itemized property list described the property as improved land with a stable and ranch house. Also listed were two horses and three mules which were in the possession of one of the persons who were leasing part of the land for farming.
Where exactly was the house? According to newspaper articles, books and memories:
High on a hill at First Street & Sepulveda Blvd. Manhattan Beach 90266 (book).
Southeast area just east of Camino Real. A walk Beside the Sea (book).
Location not legible. Daily Breeze 02/3/12.
Southeast of Manhattan. Unknown newspaper 01/23/14.
Located north of Hermosa Beach. Unknown newspaper 11/27/14.
Longfellow and Camino Real. M. B. News 01/25/24.
Just north of Hermosa Beach boundary line in east Manhattan Beach. Manhattan News 03/26/26.
Southeast on a hill off of El Camino. Daily Breeze 07/31/29.
First Street and Camino Real. Daily Breeze 07/31/29.
On the hill top, near Thirtieth Street at Sepulveda Blvd. Hermosa Beach Review 12/05/35.
On a little hill 500 feet east of U.S. 101A from the north city limits sign of H. B. Know your L.A. 12/17/71.
On a Sepulveda hilltop near Manhattan Beach. CA State Junior’s Chamber of Commerce 04/38.
On a hill overlooking the surf in Manhattan Beach. Daily Breeze 08/29/71.
On the hill east of El Camino. Memories of Les Johnson.
High on a hill just east of Sepulveda. Memories of Ruth Linaker 02/81.
A large white house in Manhattan Beach. Old Redondo by Dennis Shanahan.
Northern limits of Hermosa Beach on the highest hill of his land. H. B. History’s web page.
Some accounts place the mansion inside what is now Hermosa, while others have it just within the present confines of Manhattan Beach. Easy Reader October 26, 2000.
Blanton passed away in 1902. The property was put up for sale by Blanton’s daughter in 1903.
In the Grantee Book 83 (Deeds) 1912, Robert Young buys one piece of property from P. F. Bresee. The filing date is July 25, 1912. The second piece of property was sold to Henry Ward Wilson.
The last owner while the ranch house was still standing was George E. Martin. George Martin was a Manhattan Beach City Council member from August 1918 to December 1918. He did not live on the property. He bought the property to lease out for the possibility of finding oil. In 1924, he leased a section to Shell Oil.
In a Manhattan Beach News article dated 03/26/26, the house is described as in ruin. An oil well was drilled just a few feet from the house in 1926 by G. W. Johnston. The well was later shut down due to a salt water invasion. The house was condemned by the city in 1927 and taken down. In 1935, Doyle Petroleum drilled in the same hole. Their reasoning was the equipment was much further advanced than the equipment used in 1926. A short time later they shut the well down due to a salt water invasion. George Martin passed away and the property was put up for sale on April 30, 1937. It was purchased by a corporation and farmed by Japanese flower growers. Bob Kuhn purchased the property when officers of the corporation were interned at Tule Lake at the beginning of World War II.
In the early 1950s, Bob built the Kuhn tract consisting of 24 homes in the area east of Sepulveda Boulevard. He lived in one of the homes on a hill. The address was 340 Kuhn Drive. He recalls that he was always finding pieces of metal, oil clay, etc., when digging in his yard. This was leftover from oil drilling at the site of his home back in the 1920s and 1930s.
In conclusion, this places the original Duncan ranch house in the 300 block of Kuhn Drive between Longfellow Drive and Duncan Drive. That would be on the hill behind the Manhattan Car Wash.
Of interest: Blanton Duncan issued oil leases to five different people in 1901. For some reason, they did not drill for oil. In 1903, his daughter broke the leases due to nonperformance and put the property up for sale.
Was Blanton Duncan the grandfather of the Duncan Sisters of Vaudeville? Certainly not! Blanton was an only child. There is not even a chance of a mix up. Only one of Blanton’s children lived into adulthood and she never had children. The story of Blanton walking around with the Duncan Sisters in Hermosa Beach is not true.