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.
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