Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Children of Owenyo, Part 1

Around 100 years ago, a small railroad community came to life at base of the southern Inyo Mountains on the flats of the Owens valley.  Few traces remain today, but thanks to one man’s reminiscences, we catch a glimpse of life in this little town. Owenyo was a transfer station where standard gauge trains from Los Angeles met narrow gauge trains of the Owens Valley.

 Isolated in the sagebrush five miles northeast of Lone Pine, Owenyo must have felt remote to the children.  But the relative isolation offered fertile ground for youthful exploits, as found in the recollections of Roy Cline from the oral history collection of the Eastern California Museum. They offer an intimate view of life in the early 1920’s.  But the name "Owenyo” goes back in time even further, to the beginnings of a Quaker colony.

 In 1900, Quakers purchased 13,000 acres of land about a half a mile south of the future depot.   The colony had a post office from 1902-1905 as well as a school and store.  Canals brought plentiful water from as far away as the Bishop area, 50 miles to the north.  Forty-acre lots were promoted as prime, fertile ground for agriculture. But in reality it was dry desert, and despite the fact it had plenty of water, few chose to live there. The colony dissolved and the land was sold to the City of Los Angeles in 1905.  Five years later, on October 18, 1910, a new depot briefly called “New Owenyo” was christened with a silver spike hammered into the last rail, finally creating a route south out of the Owens River Valley

Technically Owenyo should be called a transfer station, not a depot.  Trains from Los Angeles to Carson City generally ran on a large standard gauge railroad track. Problem was the connection was interrupted by a smaller narrow gauge track that ran through the Owens Valley.    Standard gauge trains had to stop in Owenyo while passengers and freight were transferred from one boxcar to another, and then the process was reversed in Nevada. The two tracks were never connected; they laid side-by-side in Owenyo.   So when a load of chickens was being shipped, all those chickens had to be hand-transferred from one boxcar to another.  Owenyo developed into a sizable station with a considerable population that ran the train yard, hotel, restaurant, railroad station and the entire supporting infrastructure.  Needless to say there was plenty of work to support a family.

 One such family was the Clines who in moved to Owenyo in 1921. They lived in a boxcar, the original mobile home.   Many remote depots in the early days used boxcars as ready-made structures.  Wheels removed, the boxcars were placed on foundations two to three feet above ground.  Sometimes the homes were elaborate as recounted by Roy: “They take two boxcars and separate them, and then they’d fill [the area] between [with a] floor and then they’d put the roof over them, so we had another room in between.” When families moved in, more boxcars were set up, and that went for school as well.

Owenyo children went to boxcar-school, where grades first through eighth were taught by various teachers who would come and go. One instructor stood out in Roy’s memory. H.B. Newton ran classes with an iron fist wrapped around a ruler. Among Newton’s high expectations was penmanship, a zealous requirement that had a positive outcome for Roy: “We’d enter all of our work in county fairs.  Owenyo, that little town there would take first [place] all the time.”
Living in Owenyo was a multi-cultural experience.  Roy recalled nearly all his friends were Mexican, everyone spoke Spanish, and when it was suppertime, “We would go to their house and eat Mexican food, and they would come to ours and eat American food.” 

 The children’s world revolved around the train.  Roy recalled, “For years and years I thought milk came out of tin cans and our water came out of tank cars.” With no wells at Owenyo, water was brought in from a source just south of Diaz Lake.  Everything was brought in by train: “Your coal was brought in on gondolas.  They had a coal bin up there [where] they just dumped it in and you helped yourself.  [If] the bridge crew had any excess lumber that was brought in, they had a pile of that and you helped yourself.”  Everything seemed free, “[the railroad company] gave you your kerosene, your lamps, you get your aspirin or anything you need for free.”  That included ice. 

 In those days, ice was the only way to keep food fresh since the first self-contained refrigerators weren't generally available until 1923. Owenyo’s ice house was a large barn filled with sawdust to keep the ice from melting.  “You go down [to the icehouse] and get your family ice according to the size of  your family , you’d be allowed so much ice twice a week then, if you wanted extra, you had to buy it elsewhere.”  Here was an opportunity for the children to make some money.

 “We had an ice business in Owenyo,” Roy recalled. The children would take orders from the families of Owenyo and head for a larger icehouse just south of Manzanar. 300 pound ice slabs were sawed into 100 pound blocks for easier transport. “We’d buy it for 25 cents a hundred ... and get a dollar a hundred for it.”  But their most extraordinary job was every child’s fantasy.

 Hunting and fishing were favorite pastimes of the train crew and engine watchman, Zip Myers was no exception.  Myers’s job was to get the train engine ready for its run up and down the Valley.  To his delight the kids showed great interest in every detail of his job, so he taught them how to run the train. They learned everything from greasing the wheels to firing up the engine.  Myers was so impressed with their abilities that one day he told the kids he was going on vacation.  The children of Owenyo were in charge of the train.

 The pint-sized engineers knew exactly what to do: “Us kids would get in the train and we’d go up to the Y and throw the switch and take it up there, and fill it full of oil and water and bring our pressure up there, and grease it all up like we were supposed to. Heck, it would be weeks at a time that he wouldn’t even show up.  He could depend on us.  And as long as things were taken care of, they (the railroad) didn’t care either.  We had a lot of fun. We’d run ‘em up and down the tracks.” The kids basically prepared the train for the “crew” who ran the train north out of Owenyo, though not always on a schedule.

 “A lot of times, the crew would go swimming,” Roy recalled, “They had no schedule ... if anybody else wanted to ride it, they’d stop and pick them up on the flats.”  As for the children, they didn’t need the train.

 The kids rode the rails on hand-cars they called speeders.  It took four children to pump the fulcrum handle up and down, sending them speeding down the track. “If we wanted to go to the river, we’d get on one of them things there and take it down there,” Roy recalled.  “Everything was open; I mean they [the railroad] didn’t care.”  The kids would head to the bridge to go fishing and if they saw a train coming, they’d move the speeder off the tracks.  When they were done, they’d head back to Owenyo.

 The opening of the southern route out of the Owens Valley, courtesy of Owenyo, connected farmers and ranchers with new markets to the south. According to Roy, come summertime in the early days, dairy farmers down in Los Angeles would send cows temporarily north to the Owens Valley “to camp” as Roy put it.  Roy’s dad would occasionally bring fresh milk back home from the transient cows.  And along with the cows came the hay.

 Never letting anything go to waste, the kids took advantage of the leftover hay found in the boxcars.  “Us kids there had rabbits so when all the leaves and stems were left in the car wed take these burlap sacks and split them, sew four of them together and put them on the ground there.  We’d take a rake and rake all that hay and get a wheelbarrow and wheel it up to our yard there.  We’d have a stack half as big as a house.”

 Roy Cline had an iconic life. In part two, we’ll follow Roy’s exploits through the many jobs he held throughout the Eastern Sierra.

Copyright © 2015 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Children of Owenyo, Part 2

In part one of The Children of Owenyo, the story began years before the birth of the small railroad community nestled at the base of the southern Inyo Mountains.  The name Owenyo was coined from the conjunction of Owens Valley and Inyo, and given to a Quaker colony established in 1900 just northeast of the forthcoming railroad station.  After the colony’s demise in 1905, the name was given to the Valley’s newest depot established on October 18, 1910 with the placement of a silver spike. Owenyo, five miles north of Lone Pine, was actually a transfer station where commodities and supplies were swapped between the valley’s smaller narrow gauge railway, and the wider standard gauge railway that headed south out of the Valley.  The standard gauge was over a foot wider, and the two tracks never connected.

 A very busy station, Owenyo offered plenty of work for men supporting wives and children.  And those children had plenty of escapades as revealed in Part 1.  The adventurous children of Owenyo scooted down the railroad tracks on hand propelled “speeders” to their favorite fishing spots, and actually maintained and ran the steam locomotive for Zip Myers, an engine watchman who would disappear for weeks at a time to go fishing.

 Based on the oral history of Roy Cline, the children of Owenyo entertained themselves by making money filling the niche needs of the little town:  hauling and selling ice to families whose monthly allotments ran out, or selling skinned rabbits for 50 cents each to the trainmen and then selling the stretched rabbit hides. “We’d trap along the river there and get skunks, bobcats, coyotes. Then we’d get a bundle of those [hides] and ship them to St. Louis, the nearest place you could send them.”

 As with most kids, imagination helped pass the time.  One imaginative activity was centered on “Bunker Hill.” Word got out that children were scaling the flanks of a hill whose prominence inspired epic battles and adventures.  That word reached a friend who made a special trip to Owenyo to see the “Hill” for himself, a mountain he couldn’t find on a map. With great anticipation he finally arrived, and there it was:  a mound of dirt, towering but a few feet above the ground. It may have been small, but it was a mountain in the minds of the children of Owenyo. 

 Another pastime in the valley was hunting.  In Roy’s later life, his then brother-in-law would regale him with stories of duck hunting at turn-of-the-century Owens Lake, a time when it was nearly full.

“He went there one day, he had this platform and looked out there and there wasn’t any ducks so he got on this platform and went to sleep.  Later on he said the ducks woke him up.  He said he parted the tules and looked and said the sky was black with ducks.  He said he shot two times ... and he picked up two burlap sacks full of ducks.” 

According to Roy, when he grew up in the 1920s the valley was still green with agriculture.  At the time, the fruitful settlement of Manzanar was still productive. Established in 1910, Manzanar, a Spanish word meaning apple, produced fruit of exceptional quality.  The Consolidated Produce Company in Los Angeles reportedly contracted for fruit there and needed people to harvest the crop.  The kids at the train station were more than ready to help out since they had a compelling reason.  “Us kids there, we used to get out of school by picking fruit ... we’d get 30 cents an hour, nine hours a day.” Life was good for the children of Owenyo, but things were about to change.

 Roy lamented, “Everything started going downhill about 1928.” Manzanar was abandoned after the City of Los Angeles purchased the water rights to virtually the entire area, and the great depression was around the corner. When asked about the feelings in the Valley regarding Los Angeles buying up the property, Roy recalled:

"At the time I think it was pretty good because they give [sic] them a good price.  But later on when the banks went broke they weren’t too happy about it.  [That’s] because I remember there about 1928 they had bombing on the aqueduct and they had guards at the Alabama Gates [just north of Lone Pine].  And they make a raft, put the dynamite on it with a delayed fuse, and float it down the aqueduct.  They [city of Los Angeles] had large searchlights at all the crossing." 

With lack of water and private land, farming was fading away and jobs in agriculture took a hit.  But there was one local industry that was flourishing.

 In 1930, 16-year-old Cline was one of 17 local kids who were employed by Hollywood when movies, mostly westerns, were being filmed in the hills around Lone Pine: “I believe I worked in every [movie] Hopalong Cassidy made.”  There were actors and there were wranglers.  Roy began as a wrangler providing movie makers with horses for the countless westerns filmed in the Alabama Hills. Soon he became an actor riding “western”, which basically meant playing a cowboy in the movies.  They made just 5 dollars a day, and they were very long days: “We decided we weren’t getting enough money for the work ... so we formed an association called the Inyo Riders Association [that] raised our wages from five dollars to seven-fifty.”

  In 1935, the Screen Actors Guild reportedly expanded its influence into Lone Pine. Roy’s routine changed and conditions improved:

"We got a call at the Dow Hotel, which was our main place, and then we rode the bus up to the set.  They had to feed us every four hours.  If we had to ride in the scene we got a horse from the wranglers, then [we gave] it back ... and waited for the next call.” 

Roy and the others worked in the movies from 1930 to 1940. Then, an opportunity to work at Manzanar once again came along; this time the circumstances were different.
When Roy turned 28, the abandoned settlement of Manzanar became a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Roy’s initial involvement with the camp was helping build the dozens of barracks designed to hold the nearly 10,000 individuals of Japanese descent.

 Later, employed as a postal carrier running mail between Bishop and Lone Pine, he began visiting the camp daily delivering mail. Roy befriended the young people of Manzanar, most of whom couldn’t understand why they were there: “I asked them, ‘what do you think of this?’ They’d say, ‘we’re American citizens, that’s all we know is American.’“ 

 Soon, Roy and his crews began installing drywall at the barracks to improve their conditions.  By then internees had created orchards and gardens to supplement their diet.  “The kids liked me and I liked them.  They’d do anything for me.  In fact ... they always made a point [to] send apples out with me, potatoes out with me.”  It was wartime, and the Owens Valley felt the effects of rationing. “Inside the camps, when things were rationed on the outside, they had everything in there they needed.  I could go there and get coffee or anything else that was rationed.”  Although Roy enjoyed his life in the southern Owens Valley, other opportunities began calling.

 In 1945, 31-year-old Roy Cline went to work for Inyo Lumber, helping gather logs from timber cuts in Mono County.  His job took him from June Lake to Mammoth, the mountains surrounding Crowley Lake, and Sherwin Summit.  He hauled the timber down to a lumber mill north of Bishop, a place that would later become the Millpond Recreation Area.

 According to Roy, Millpond Park actually had two functioning ponds, “The far one as you come into the park now was the holding pond ... and the closest one near the slab was the working pond.”  The sloping concrete slab can still be seen today. “They would float them [logs] to the mill then lift them up onto the slab to roll them onto the saw.  They had the guys on the lifts piling lumber, the drying and stacking units. They had a 24-hour shop.” Millpond reportedly employed at least 100 men.

 Roy Cline was among many who seized jobs wherever they could find them; sometimes it was for money, sometimes it was for the adventure.  Roy’s various jobs were iconic in their representation of local rural life, from selling animal hides,  to working the orchards in a once fruitful valley, acting in local westerns,  logging, mining, and other jobs too numerous to share.  And it all started when a young boy moved to a remote train station in southern Owens Valley, and became one of the children of Owenyo.  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Owens Valley's Tule Elk

It’s been called one of the rarest mammals in the world, it grazes freely throughout most of the Owens Valley, and you might see a few along US 395 south of Big Pine to the west. But they are not native to the Owens Valley. The tule elk were brought here to help save the species.

For centuries vast herds once darkened the plains of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. This unique, smaller species of “dwarf elk” is found only in California, but they might have been found only in the pages of history had it not been for the efforts of two ranchers: one who gave a handful of elk a place to hide, and the other who gave them a place to live.

In the mid-1800s the elk were near extinction, and concerned agencies desperately tried to rebuild the herds. But efforts were fraught with failure. It wasn’t until 80 years later that a second rancher came along and accomplished what others couldn’t. In 1933, the rare animals were brought to the Owens Valley. And their ancestors had a story to tell.


For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, Native Americans relied on these California elk mostly as beasts-of-burden; they occasionally ate its meat, while their abundant antlers were prized for tool making. The first Europeans to see the elk reportedly took place in 1579 when Francis Drake landed near Bodega Ba, and was later quoted as saying, “…infinite was the company of very large and fat Deere (sic) which there we saw by the thousands…” In Europe, elk were referred to as deer.

  As late as the early 1800s, California tule elk numbers were estimated at 500,000. Early pioneers killed just enough elk to satisfy for their individual needs. But that all changed during the 1849 Gold Rush when California’s population grew exponentially along with the need for fresh supplies. Elk were plentiful, and became a cheap source of meat, lard and fur. But the bounty quickly dwindled as elk numbers plummeted. Alarmed by their precipitous decline, the State Legislature banned all hunting of elk in 1873. But by then, no one knew if any still existed. In fact, according to recent studies by the Department of Fish & Wildlife, “DNA evidence indicates the tule elk numbers could have been as low as a single pair or a small number (2-4)...” For the most part, they couldn’t be found.

Then in 1874 a game warden happened across a small number of breeding elk hiding in the marshes on a large cattle ranch owned by cattle baron Henry Miller. Forced to abandon their natural habitat, the elk survived among the marshes’ tules, hence the name tule elk. The Miller ranch ordered workers to protect the elk at all costs.

On the ranch, despite marginal forage, the tule elk slowly grew in numbers. In an attempt to start a new herd, two dozen elk were taken from the ranch to Sequoia National Park. But most either died or escaped over the next 21 years. Back at the ranch, tule elk were doing quite well, too well in fact. By 1914 the number of elk reportedly grew into the hundreds.

The Miller property began to suffer damage to fences, crops and irrigation systems due to the sheer number of tule elk. At up to $10,000 annually, the cost became too high. Miller requested authorities move the bulk of them to other areas. Over time, dozens of parks and reserves throughout the state received hundreds of elk in hopes of generating new herds. But once again, by 1920 few survived.


Then in 1921 a chain of events began to unfold starting with 10 tule elk being transported to Yosemite National Park. Initially they struggled, their numbers dropped to 8, and it seemed another failure was at hand. On top of that, around 1930 the Park Service decided they would no longer accept non-native animals in any of their parks. But a glimmer of hope appeared when the herd suddenly grew to 28. At that point, a new chapter began when those elk caught the eye of a wealthy Owens Valley rancher, G. Walter Dow.

G. Walter Dow –
 Promoted the Owens Valley
 and was a dedicated philanthropist. 
Walter Dow bought a ranch in Lone Pine in 1918. Frustrated with going to Bishop for lumber he started the Lone Lumber Company, then Dow Motors, the Dow Villa Hotel in Lone Pine, the Winneduma Hotel in Independence, and Glacier Lodge near Big Pine. Mr. Dow was kind and very generous with his time and money, and helped promote the Owens Valley. Tule elk could be a possible tourist draw, so with a twinkle in his eye he arranged and financed the relocation of the entire Yosemite Valley tule elk herd to the Owens Valley. But first...the paperwork.

Dow secured land in the Owens Valley from the City of Los Angeles, and worked with George Wright of the Wildlife Division of the National Park Service who signed-off on a highly detailed plan for their removal and transportation. According to the June 16, 1933 edition of the Inyo Independent, Col. C.R. Thompson of Yosemite wrote to Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service in Washington D.C. and said, “If you approve, and if you follow the steps proposed by Mr. Wright, I will arrange with Mr. Dow for transportation of the animals before autumn.” Mr. Albright gave his approval.

On the weekend of October 7, 1933, Dow and some volunteers traveled to Yosemite National Park to begin the meticulous process of transportation laid out by the Park Service. After all 28 tule elk were rounded up, they began to crate each individual animal. Each crate had to be unique, constructed specifically to accommodate the size and shape of each individual bull, cow, and yearling. Horns were removed so the males would fit into the crates. The following Monday, three trucks loaded with elk left Yosemite for a long over-night trip to the Owens Valley. Everything went according to plan except one unknown: would they survive the hundreds of miles of rough roads?

 The next morning, according to the Inyo Independent the entire herd made it, “…without a single
loss or injury to a single animal.” Unfortunately, one elk who suffered an injury in Yosemite prior to the move later died. The new arrivals were held for ten days and then released near the Owens River below Tinnemaha Reservoir. Hundreds of people came to see what the local newspaper called, “one of the interesting animals.” Four months later Dow brought in 28 more tule elk, this time from the Central Valley. Fifty-five tule elk now called Owens Valley their home.

By 1943, the number of tule elk quadrupled and they seemed destine to recover. Walter Dow was inspired. The Los Angeles Times quoted Dow as saying, “I hope they do well, and that in time we shall find the venture so successful that we can follow with antelope and probably some buffalo.”

But farmers and ranchers were not so enthusiastic. As with the Miller Ranch decades earlier, the elk had a tendency to damage fences on their way to alfalfa fields and pasture lands, as well as compete with cattle for forage. Nearly 200 tule elk now roamed the Valley floor. To address ranchers’ concerns, the Departments of Fish & Game (DFG) chose to reduce their numbers. After decades of effort to bring back viable herds of the endangered tule elk, permits were issued for a limited hunt-the first time tule elk were allowed to be taken since 1873.

The first hunt in 1943 eliminated 43 tule elk; a second in 1949 eliminated 107. By 1952 the elk rebounded to 229. At this time a DFG management plan determined that between 125 and 275 elk was a viable number. But this “viable number” was hotly debated by biologists who felt the management plan was not based on adequate studies. Numerous hunts took place over the following years.

Those hunts were counter to what Walter Dow envisioned. Encouraged by a growing number advocates, Dow helped form The Committee for the Preservation of the tule elk. The goal was to create a tule elk sanctuary where over 2,000 elk would roam within a 240 square mile refuge stretching from Tinnemaha Reservoir to Owens Lake. A Southern California newspaper quoted Dow, a promoter of the Valley in general, as saying, “We could secure a great Owens Valley Reserve to save the elk, to benefit the Owens Valley and all of California, and to take its place among the great natural reserves of the nation.”

To that end, a member of the House of Representative carried the torch to congress in 1969. Congressman George E. Brown Jr. proposed H.R. 14603 authorizing a feasibility study for the establishment of a national wildlife refuge for the endangered tule elk. But the forces of opposition proved too much and the refuge never came to be. Los Angeles opposed it, and Inyo County’s political and business leaders perceived it as a negative impact on the local economy. G. Walter Dow thought otherwise. Endless newspaper articles chronicled the battles, but of course, as always, that is another story.
Tule elk can be seen along
Highway 395 between
Big Pine & Independence in
alfalfa fields to the west.     

  Copyright © 2015 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

Images courtesy of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum
1st Tule Elk image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Shravans14 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Historic Snowstorms of Owens Valley

January 1933 Downtown Bishop
Courtesy Loyola Marymount University
On a Sunday night in Bishop in 1933, 6-year-old Don Marcellin went to sleep with snow lightly falling outside his window.  He woke up next morning to one of the biggest snowstorms in Bishop’s history. It marked the beginning a lifetime quest to understand Owens Valley weather, a pivotal time in the life of Bishop’s ‘ol weather buff.  As with Don, these historic snowstorms embedded a point in people’s lives by which all other events were related- “ know, the time before the storm of ’33.”
The last impressive snowstorm came in 1969. Although it dropped 3 feet of heavy wet snow, damage was limited. But the further back in time, the more vulnerable people and animals were to the impacts of these events.  These are the big snowstorms of the 19th and 20th centuries that created milestones in the lives of people of Owens Valley.

January 1933 Big Pine
Sheep looking for safer grounds.
 Courtesy Branson Collection

There was little precipitation that summer, and only a light snow to usher in the winter of ‘32/’33.  Skies were clear for weeks and offered no hint as to what was to come. Then on a Sunday afternoon January 15th it began. Waves of heavy wet snow descended on the Valley and persisted beyond Monday.  People began to realize this was no ordinary storm and became concerned about the weight that was accumulating on their roofs. By Tuesday afternoon the snow had ended, but the challenges had just begun.  Everything was shut down under the weight of 3-and-a-half feet of heavy snow.

Almost immediately after the storm ended, all available “laborers” were rounded up to shovel snow. It was the middle of the great depression and no one could afford any losses. The workers efforts saved many homes and businesses from collapse.  Still, a few didn’t make it including Carrier’s Top Shop, Crawford’s Garage, blacksmith shops, and numerous sheds.
Telephone service was lost and roads were closed. On a hill near Big Pine, a large oil tanker became a barricade after it lost control causing other vehicles to pile up, closing the highway for two days.  Mail couldn’t get to Bishop for 5 days, and the “State Patrol” halted all traffic north of Bishop. Temperatures plummeted, and according to the Inyo Register, hit “‘a new low’ a la stock market” at 8 degrees below zero.

For days, people were snowbound in their homes; some couldn’t get to town and their supplies began to run low.  Blacks’ Cash Store in Bishop felt compelled to help, so J.D. Black began delivering groceries by sled to those who couldn’t make it to his store, and stocked his own shelves the same way.
Teenager Alice Booth, living at Keough’s place just ½ mile north of Keough’s Hot Springs recalled, “ had to walk out the lane.  We could not drive in and out the lane for a month...the snow stayed on the streets until June.” As the weeks went by, the snow that was shoveled to the center of streets and heaped on corners eventually melted away, and life returned to normal.

Although this storm may have been memorable, its 1916 rival was a menace with far more impacts to both people and animals. 


January 1916, The Inyo Register headlines read, “STORM EQUALS WORST IN VALLEY’S HISTORY,” “HEAVY SNOW WRECKS STRUCTURES:” in the Big Pine Citizen, “WORST STORM IN YEARS IN THE OWENS VALLEY;” The Owens Valley Herald, “BUSY STORM KING BREAKS ALL RECORDS,” ” BIG SHEEP BAND IS SNOW BOUND.”  One sub-headline exclaimed, “HALL AT BIG PINE DESTROYED - JOHNSON’S STORE SMASHED – AND OLD PLACES FINISHED.” It was the biggest storm since 1873.
An innocent snow began falling Friday January 14th and continued through most of the weekend.   Then Sunday night it turned heavy and unrelenting.  At noon Monday heavy snow turned to heavy rain, no doubt raising hopes it would wash away the burdensome snow.  But it didn’t, it turned back to heavy snow.  By Tuesday afternoon nearly 3 feet of rain saturated snow covered streets, cars, buildings, cattle and sheep!  

In Big Pine, structures groaned under the weight of over 4 feet of heavy wet snow.  Tuesday at noon, roofs began to sag. Then at 6 pm one of the largest buildings in the Owens Valley and the center piece of community life collapsed.  According to The Big Pine Citizen, the two-story “Hall’s Hall,” an opera house, dance hall and lodge worth over a quarter of a million in today’s dollars, “…gave way and crumpled to the ground, a complete wreck.”  At 8 pm the former Red Front Saloon caved in. And, “…many of the best built buildings in the town began to crack under the strain...” 
People had no choice but to take their lives in their own hands by shoveling off the roofs of buildings whose walls were bowing outward under the enormous weight. In Bishop, a man was shoveling snow off a large wooden awning on a downtown building when it suddenly collapsed beneath him; as the jumble of broken wood and snow plummeted to the ground he managed to save himself by grabbing a nearby telephone pole.  Johnson’s Furniture Shop, numerous blacksmith shops, businesses, and some homes collapsed. Travel was nearly impossible and train service was frozen in its tracks.

According the Owens Valley Herald, W.A. Trickey left Mina Nevada on a 3 engine plow train carrying 75 shovelers bound for Bishop.  They battled deep snow and 7 foot snowdrifts a quarter-mile long.  Even with all those shovelers, they barely made it to Montgomery Pass just 45 miles from Bishop. At the time of the newspaper report, they were still waiting to make it home.
The misery index went up Wednesday night as the temperature dropped to 3 degrees, and Thursday even lower at 10 degrees below zero.  News reports stated, “…this being the lowest record in the memory of white men for the valley.”  Thoughts then turned to people’s livelihood… livestock.

According to The Owens Valley Herald there a good stockpile of hay at the time in the Valley for cows. Cattle were considered tough, “… so stockmen believed that loss to herds will be slight…”  Sheep owners were much less optimistic.
In the southern White Mountains above Black Canyon east of Bishop, 2,500 sheep were snowbound. Nearly all the ewes were getting ready to lamb and Raphael Rossi feared they would all perish.  It was not a small thing since in today’s currency, according to the Owens Valley Herald they were reportedly worth half a million dollars. Just 18 hours after the storm, Rossi and his employees set out to save his sheep and with great effort broke a trail to the herd. But the effort wasn’t enough to bring them out.  The next day, in a last ditch effort, they piled hay and grain onto a huge sled and trudged up the canyon to the herd. At the time of the news article, it wasn’t known if they made it or not.

Game hunting was vital to the economy of the Valley and the unprecedented snows cut off food supplies to the local quail population numbering in the thousands.  Private funds used to feed the birds ran out, so the State Board of Control stepped in and authorized the local Fish and Game Commission to use their funds to continue feeding the starving population. 

Independence apparently got off relatively easily, reportedly loosing just one building from 2 feet of snow. The 1916 storm was the best documented in terms of local newspaper coverage.  But records of earlier snowstorms do exist; each hailed as the “record breaker.”  There surely are untold stories of challenges faced by an emerging society back 150 years ago.

Ten years before the Laws Railroad depot existed, and barely a year after the great Owens Valley earthquake, came the record breaker of 1873, “the big snow” referred to by old-timers. The December 3rd storm, called “the kingpin of them all,” began Wednesday afternoon and continued non-stop for 30 hours.  The further north up the Valley, the greater the snow depth - from over 2 feet in Lone Pine, to nearly 3 feet at Camp Independence, to 4 feet at Fish Springs.  With lack of timely information, newspapers could only speculate that Bishop’s total was even higher.

But for total liquid precipitation (rain & snow), one has to go back to the birth of Inyo County to find a winter that beats them all. In the winter of 1867/68, records show a total of 19.46 inches:  over one foot of mostly rain in December alone, then another half foot the following month.  In this “land of little rain” where the average annual rainfall is just 5 inches, Mother Nature definitely offered too much of a good thing.

There are similarities in the notable snowstorms of Owens Valley: each seemed to drop an average of around 3 to 4 feet, and each was just on the edge of turning to rain.  Heavy wet snows hint of a tropical origin and suggest a “pineapple-connection” where a river of moisture is transported from south of Hawaii to the West Coast.  It’s been 45 years since the last big Owens Valley snowstorm so we may be due. But forecasting snow for the Owens Valley is a fool’s errand...and predicting it usually a guaranteed no-show.

Copyright © 2014 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Inyo’s Trans-Sierra Highways

Around 15 years ago, according to local legend, a semi-truck and trailer headed up Bishop Creek Canyon.   Undeterred by the fact his two lane highway reduced to one lane, the drive continued all the way to the Lake Sabrina Parking lot and was no doubt shocked to find out the road did not continue to Fresno.  He reportedly had to wait until the parking lot emptied before he could turn his rig around and retreat back down the mountain. Numerous tourists have been similarly misled over the years by maps showing the non-existent road.
The effort to breach the granite wall goes back nearly 100 years.  Three trans-Sierra highways were proposed in Inyo County: out of Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine. These roads were not just a local aspiration, but rather part of a much bigger picture.

At the time, Henry Ford began mass production of an affordable automobile.   Americans were soon on the move and the pace of road development surged. Roads were being improved and assembled into highways.  Those highways were getting ready to link East and West coasts via the developing transcontinental Lincoln Highway.  Competition was fierce in California for the anticipated flood of travelers, and it looked like that flood was going to sweep through Reno to San Francisco passing up businesses in the San Joaquin Valley to the south, and those businesses couldn’t let that happen.

Great effort was being expended to lure travelers to the Eastern Sierra with the promise of superior driving conditions in the winter. After making it to the Owens Valley, trans-Sierra highways would do the rest.  Their development was key to San Joaquin Valley’s economic growth.  And the people of Owens Valley were more than happy to leverage that desire to help breach the granite wall.

1915  Bishop Creek Canyon. 

In the summer of 1920, Bishop began looking for a trans-Sierra route and found “Piute” Pass, as it was spelled in those days.   To determine the feasibility of constructing this road, a reconnaissance trip was financed and assembled by the Bishop Chamber of Commerce.  A local pack outfit carried a highway engineer, a few prominent business people, a local service station owner L.A. Hazard, and W.G. Scott a tireless promoter of road development who was in the midst of promoting “El Camino Sierra,” later to become Highway 395.

After the trip, Hazard told a local reporter, “It is really hard to understand why a road has not been built...before now.”  Mr. Scott elaborated saying no engineering difficulties would be found on the route and a road could “easily” be built. Citizens of Bishop reportedly considered its cost a small price to pay compared to the value of the investment. Newspaper accounts also suggested Fresno County would be more than happy to incur the cost since the result would lay the new transcontinental highway right at their doorstep.

Hazard, Scott, and the others envisioned a vehicle traveling through Bishop Creek Canyon, up to North Lake and up and over Piute Pass.  Over the crest , it would then connect to a proposed road to be built by Southern California Edison Power Company from Fresno to Florence Lake Reservoir, just a couple of dozen miles west of Piute Pass.

The proposed road had a name - High Sierra Piute Highway- and can actually be seen up on a 1927 map titled Map of the National Park-To-Park Highway.  Historical details are sketchy, but it seems a realistic cost evaluation never took place and a funding source was never identified. The dream slowly faded away.



To provide direct access to the developing Sequoia National Park, another trans-Sierra road was proposed in the early 1930’s.   The route, reportedly called the Cedar Grove to Independence Road, would travel from Independence up to Onion Valley and over Kearsarge Pass. From there it would drop down and head to Copper Creek, just 13 miles as the crow flies from the pass.   The road would then connect to State Highway 180 and the developing road system.

Historical information about the road is hazy, but its fate was clear:  Its future was tied to the trans-Sierra route to the south, the highway most likely to become reality.


On the skirts of the Sierra Nevada southwest of Lone Pine, a set of switchbacks stand as a monument to the unrelenting pursuit of a dream:  a 115 mile long 12-foot wide dirt road that would take travelers over the 11,300-foot crest of the Sierra, higher than Tioga pass, then deliver them to cities in the San Joaquin Valley. It was called the Lone Pine / Porterville Highway.

The idea surfaced around 1915 when the Automobile Club of Southern California proposed legislation that would create nearly 7,000 miles of new roads, including the Lone Pine / Porterville Highway.   Legislation was approved and the highway became a part of the state highway system on paper.  It just needed to be built.

That effort got underway in the summer of 1923 as the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce coordinated a four-day inspection tour of the region.  Mules and horses carried representatives of the Automobile Club and prominent civic leaders from the San Joaquin Valley and Owens Valley into the backcountry.  A preliminary route was established and Tulare County officials soon passed a resolution calling for the coordination of county, state and federal resources.

The size of the project exploded.  By 1926, Kern County joined forces with Inyo and Tulare counties to send representatives on a larger 10 day wide-ranging reconnaissance. As a result, the single highway would now branch out to Bakersfield, Fresno, and Visalia. The grand plan included a lateral road to the base of Mount Whitney.

That same year, the Los Angeles Times’ “Automobile Section” reported that the “million dollar road” running over the roof of the United States (the Sierra) should be ready for service “shortly” according to “definite” plans which have been drafted by State, County, and City officials.  And true to the article, road construction shortly began.

1929 marked the completion of the first link. Vehicles could now travel from Porterville to Camp Nelson, 30 miles into the High Sierra.  An official dedication took place on July 3, 1931 with great fanfare and included State and county chambers of Commerce, the Forest Service, California Auto Club, and civic leaders from all over the region. Representatives from the National Park Service were there as well, which was not without irony.

Early 1930's construction of the
 Lone Pine / Porterville Highway
A few years later, Owens Valley citizens started building their part of the highway.  A gas/electric shovel began cutting switchbacks into the Sierra southwest of Lone Pine.  Even though funding for the entire project had yet to be realized, residents of the Valley felt it was a prudent investment of time and money since it would open up a new recreation area around Horseshoe Meadows. 

After the links were built, there was still a 47-mile gap to close and Auto Club engineers estimated the price tag to be around $800,000.  It was hoped this figure would make it into the upcoming 1935-37 highway budget.   But the State Highway Commission required an official engineering survey, and money for that wasn’t even close to being budgeted.  Money for construction seemed a long way off, and the promoters were running out of time.
Sequoia National Park had been growing steadily for four decades along with its network of roads.   Park Superintendent Colonel John White came to believe preserving roadless areas was a moral responsibility.  The Park’s priorities changed and the grand plans for roads began to crumble.  The Parks elaborate high elevation road called Sierra Way was killed; the Cedar Grove to Independence Road was permanently halted; and the dream of a million dollar Lone Pine / Porterville Highway vanished... or so they thought.

In 1966, a version of the Lone Pine / Porterville Road came back to life.  The new vision was an unbroken highway from Death Valley to Olancha, and over the Sierra to Porterville.  State Route 190 would be a continuous route spanning the wonders of California through pristine deserts, over cool high alpine meadows of the Sierra, and down to the pastoral flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley.

The California Highway Commission adopted a plan to bridge the 47 mile mountain gap between Horseshoe Meadows and the west side of the Sierra.  According to the 1966 March/April edition of the California Highways and Public Works Journal, the highway would pass between two wilderness areas, a corridor created specifically for this road.  It was promised the road would not  impact the wilderness experience “…even after the far-off day when the highway is finished.”  That far off day has yet to be realized.


The dreams of the day were grand.  There was talk of enhancing the trans-Sierra experience by diverting creeks to create manmade waterfalls; a ski resort was proposed for Onion Valley out of Independence; an aerial tramway was envisioned to the top of Mount Whitney.  What would the Owens Valley look like had these roads been built...what if?
Copyright © 2014 Ted Williams. All Rights Reserved