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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Bumpy Road to El Camino Sierra

Inyo Good Road Club assembled in front of Istalia Hotel in Bishop
 for the dedication of El Camino Sierra, August 31, 1910.
Courtesy Virtual Transportation Museum (Eastern California Museum)
On June 25, 1914 Silas Christofferson conquered Mount Whitney with a record breaking aeroplane flight over its summit, and the Inyo Good Road Club wasted no time announcing it to the world.  It may have been a triumph for aviation, but it was all about roads.

At the time, the Inyo Good Road Club was in its fourth year desperately trying get the attention of the State of California who had millions of dollars in road funds. The Club was trying to fund the construction of a modern highway connecting the Eastern Sierra to the State and the Nation.  It was a long hard slog.

In 1909, the numbers of automobiles were growing exponentially in California spurring lawmakers to call for a vote on an 18 million dollar road bond during the November 1910 election. Its passage was not a sure thing.  Local merchants and residents were desperate to build good roads and didn’t wait for the election.  They created the Inyo Good Road Club, one of many Good Road Clubs across the nation, and one of the most active

Born on April 20, 1910, the Club began with 62 enthusiastic members and one especially gifted man – Secretary of the Club Winsor Gillette Scott. He needed a promotional hook, a concept for which an entire campaign could be centered. He coined the name El Camino Sierra which loosely translated means Mountain Highway, a fanciful name for a road that did not exist.

Wagon trails, and a few roads referred to as “two ruts in the sand,” were scattered between Los Angeles and Tahoe.   Scott’s vision was to connect these trails and turn them into a first class modern highway.  The Club was determined to give tourists and their dollars an easy journey.  Southern California residents were already making trips to the Owens River Valley for its scenic wonders, despite great effort.  So began the quest for El Camino Sierra.

W.G. Scott and the Club began by inviting the Governor of California to become a member and then immediately organized citizens into “Road Bees.”  With picks and shovels they began to improve the road between Big Pine and Bishop to catch the eye of the top man in Sacramento, and it worked.

In a letter to the Club, Governor James Gillett accepted the honorary membership, saying “I have watched with great interest, the action taken by the people in one county for good roads and I want to compliment them for doing so.  The Question of good roads is one of the most important that our state now had before it...”

Sensing momentum, the Club invited the governor to preside over the ceremonial dedication of El Camino Sierra at a single 1.25 miles stretch of modern road in front of Fred Eaton’s huge chicken farm near Big Pine. Scott combined that with the Railroad Day Celebration marking the just completed railroad from Mojave to Lone Pine.  Long shots rarely hit their mark...this one did. They were about to get a visit from the governor of California.

During his August visit, Governor Gillette enjoyed lavish ceremonies in every town from Lone Pine to Mammoth where local fruits, vegetables, and mountain fish were served.   Elegant orations painted an extraordinary picture of El Camino Sierra’s powerful impact on California’s burgeoning tourist industry. The State would not just attract the nation, but the world. After the visit, the governor had nothing be great praise for the region. The roads dollars seemed assured, but the vote had yet to take place.

The crucial November 1910 election came and the bond issue passed with great celebration.  But the victory was bittersweet.  For their greatest ally, the governor of California was also up for re-election, and he lost.     

Starting over, 1911 began with W.G. Scott taking the Club’s official car on an unrelenting lobbying tour to convince legislative committees, commissions, county seats, and public & private organizations of the benefits of El Camino Sierra to the State of California.

Hope began to arise when Highway Commission engineers began visiting all corners of the State to lay the groundwork for the new California Highway System.  All the regions would be visited with one glaring omission, the Eastern Sierra.

Undaunted, in the summer of 1912 W.G. Scott began a new promotion to capitalize on the building excitement of the San Francisco World’s Fair. Pasear les Tres Camino would be a grand tour from San Francisco to Tahoe through Bridgeport and the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.  Of course the road had to be built first, and that was the whole idea.

Scott’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon newspapers, publications and travel related organizations, even noted American novelist Peter B Kyne began singing the praises of El Camino Sierra. Still, road funds eluded them.

A year later in 1913, something began heading to the west coast, the unprecedented Transcontinental Lincoln Highway.  The National Hoosier Trail Tour group was exploring two possible routes from the east coast to San Francisco:  one though Reno, NV, and the other along the Midland Trail which crossed over Westguard Pass and would connect to El Camino Sierra at Big Pine.

Members of the group, including A.L. Westgard, Vice President and Director of the National Highways Association, broke from the main group to attend festivities in Goldfield and Big Pine who were celebrating their tour. (The Club named the pass after Mr. Westgard to garner his favor in getting the Lincoln Highway). To memorialize the connection of the new El Camino Sierra to the Midland Trail, they planted a Giant Sequoia tree at what is now the corner of US 395 and SR 168.  Westgard championed the cause and lobbied heavily for the Midland Trail proclaiming it’s “...commanding advantage as a transcontinental route.”

 As a result of the tour, the National Lincoln Association chose the Midland Trail as the preferred route for the Lincoln Highway. Influential supporters, including the Fresno Chamber, supported the route, but once again success eluded them. Everyone was out lobbied by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce.  On October 31, 1913 Reno, NV got the Lincoln highway.   

Despite the tireless work of Scott and the Club, the Eastern Sierra was a forgotten land. After 4 years, bond money to build El Camino Sierra still eluded them.  But the Club’s greatest publicity stunt was about to take place.

The Inyo Good Road Club signed a contract with the premier aviator of the time, Silas Christofferson, to be the first pilot in history fly over Mount Whitney. It would be a celebration not only of aviation, but of Exposition Way, a newly named portion of El Camino Sierra through the Owens valley which would be a “natural choice” to reach the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco, the World’s Fair. The Club  sought to capitalize on the confluence of national and world events, including the fact Henry Ford was about to ramp up his groundbreaking automobile assembly line and begin cranking out millions of cars.

The largest concentration of people the Owens River Valley had ever seen gathered, hoping to become a part of aviation history.  They were not disappointed. On June 25, 1914 Silas flew over Whitney breaking an American altitude record, and the eyes of the nation were on Inyo County.  But could they capitalize on it.

A few months later the Club received word that the California Highway Commission was planning to visit the Eastern Sierra centering on El Camino Sierra.    Immediately, residents of the Eastern Sierra rallied into “road bees” and again took to the roads with picks and shovels to show citizen commitment to the cause. The Club had been here before.

But this time the State highway engineer himself came to the forgotten land.  He and other State officials were deeply impressed, impressed enough that orders soon came down from Sacramento. On October 28, 1914 the commission approved State Highways funds for Inyo and Mono counties. 

But there was a hitch, financial institutions were wary of California’s ability to repay bond holders. As a result, only 4 million of the 18 million dollars in bonds were sold.  So California counties had to buy the rest of the bonds:  Inyo’s share was $50,000 and Mono was $100,000. 

El Camino Sierra’s day had finally come.  The money arrived and work began on a section of road called Sherwin Hill, a stretch of road wholly inadequate for the modern automobile and critical to the connection of the two counties.  And so, on October 4, 1915, work quietly began on El Camino Sierra. 

It took until August 24, 1916 to complete Sherwin hill, and the trip from Bishop to Mammoth could now called “...a pleasant 2.5 hour drive...”  The following month, a celebration took place on the “hill” attracting over 1,000 people.  But the dream of a modern highway from Los Angeles through the Owens Valley was not truly realized until 15 years later. 

A story titled “Closing the East-of-the-Sierras Gap” was published in the March 1931 issue of the Journal of California Highway and Public Works.   It marked the completion of a modern thoroughfare from Los Angeles through the Owens River Valley to Sherwin Hill. But this final chapter in the life of El Camino Sierra is not without irony.  With nearly two decades of blood sweat and tears by the Inyo Good Road Club, W.G Scott, and residents of the Eastern Sierra, they saw the celebration take place not in the Owens Valley, but 60 miles to the south in Red Rock Canyon.
The name El Camino Sierra successfully brought attention to the need for good roads in the Eastern Sierra; the image of a high mountain road had served its purpose. Over time though, the use of the name faded away as most of the route was actually on flat desert land.  But every so often, a tour through the Sierra will be organized, and will be lovingly referred to as El Camino Sierra.

Copyright © 2014 Theodore Grant Williams. All Rights Reserved
For images, visit Eastern California Museum's Virtual Transportation Museum

First Aeroplane over Mount Whitney

Silas Christofferson tuning up his tractor biplane in Lone Pine before attempting to
break the American altitude record by flying over Mt. Whitney
Courtesy Virtual Transportation Museum (Eastern California Museum)

100 years ago, on June 25th 1914 Silas Christofferson landed his fragile wood and cloth flying machine to a cheering throng and flying hats;  Mount Whitney had been “conquered,” a term often used in headlines representing turn-of-the-century hubris.  That said the achievement was remarkable since 11 years earlier the Wright Brothers had just lifted off the flat ground at Kitty Hawk.  In reality, both man and machine were severely tested, and pushed the limits of what heavier-than-air craft could do at the time.

Born in 1890, a teenage Silas displayed his genius for invention and mechanical design. By 1913 he started a flying school and soon began building aircraft.  Feeling his duty to promote, through exhibitions, the viability of this new technology, he  flew off roof of the 10 story Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Oregon; Silas was quoted as saying, “This is an age of ‘do it first’. Be original; don’t copy.  When a feat has been once performed the people tire of it and expect the next performer to give something entirely new.”  By 1914 his company built a flying boat and offered regular service in San Francisco.  He was only 24 years old.

This was just the man a local “club” was looking for.  The “club” needed him, and easily convinced him to sign a contract to be the star attraction of Eastern Sierra Aviation Days and make an unprecedented attempt to fly over the highest peak in the continental US.   Silas would be paid $1,000 for an attempt, $2,000 should he succeed.  Silas couldn’t resist and got to work on his latest creation.

The aircraft was called “The Whitney Plane”, created specifically for this attempt.  The design was state of the art with construction methods unmatched at the time. The plans were sent to Curtis Aircraft for the plane’s assembly at a cost of $7,000.  Oddly, his design bore an uncanny resemblance to the future classic “Curtiss Jennie”.  After completion, the aeroplane was disassembled and transported to Bishop. 
On the weekend of June 20th, after reassembly and meticulous testing, Silas began his exhibition flights at the Bishop Driving Field to kick off Aviation Days.  It was a weekend of celebration with dances, bands, races and baseball games. People came by auto, buggy, horse, and foot to join what soon would become the largest gathering of people the Owens Valley had ever seen.  

Monday June 22nd - the ultimate fulfillment of his contract was about to begin.  Festivities behind him, Silas spent the day in Bishop going over the aircrafts entire structure and fine tuning its engine.  Little did he know nature was to severely test him and his machine.  Silas would be the world’s first pilot to encounter the infamous Sierra Wave. The north-south Sierra Nevada crest thrusts nearly 2 miles in to the atmosphere and sometimes forces upper level westerly winds up and over Owens Valley creating exquisite lenticular cloud formations.  But its beauty hides malevolent winds that violently curl over the crest and crash down into the Valley. 

Silas and photographer E.C. Wallen took off from Bishop Early Tuesday morning for a leisurely flight to a local ranch south of Bishop for a quick breakfast and gas.  Pilot, passenger and plane filled up they resumed their 65 mile flight to Lone Pine, a small town near the foot of Mounty Whitney.
With Just 20 miles to go, all was fine. Silas leaned forward to check his instruments when a violent downdraft smashed into the aircraft throwing the wings to a vertical, nearly perpendicular angle to the ground.  He began plummeting hundreds of feet. The aviator forced his control stick as far as it would go but the machine failed to respond; he continued to fall from the sky.  Silas recalls, ”A man is as dead if he falls 500’or 5,000’, but being up gives him a chance to right himself if possible,”  and that proved to be the case as he eventually regained control.  Shaken, he landed in a field to check for damage and found nothing obvious, so he continued his flight and landed without incident in Lone Pine to get ready for the next day’s attempt at Whitney.

It was Wednesday morning and Silas woke up to howling winds.  Never-the-less he made the attempt.  The first launch was aborted...the second attempt, aborted.  Waiting until early evening, he made a third attempt. This time he was able to take off and headed north towards Independence ironically towards the same spot he was nearly slapped out of the sky by downslope winds. Again, he encountered strong winds and abandoned the attempt at Whitney until the next day.

Early Thursday morning June 25th, the winds had died down considerably, at least on the ground.  Silas dared attempt.  His wood and cloth aircraft took off and began climbing above Lone Pine.  His propeller and engine, giving it all they could, took him to 13,400 above sea level.  With just 1,000 feet more he would reach his target elevation before heading towards Whitney... but he once again encountered strong winds.  That plus a lack of performance from his custom high altitude propeller sent him back down to the landing field.   Silas replaced the propeller with the one he used in Bishop, and removed the motion picture camera because of weight.
His second attempt was around 8:30am. To avoid the turbulent winds that seemed to haunt the mountains near Independence, Silas headed south towards Owens Lake. From there he pivoted north, gaining altitude.  Before him stood Whitney and he headed directly towards it.  To record the historic event from the summit, the famous photographer B.C. Forbes took to the Whitney trail with his camera; unfortunately the camera was destroyed when his mule slipped and crushed his equipment.    Silas was feeling great anticipation at the thought of seeing the Great Central Valley of California, but all he saw was row after row of granite peaks as far as the eye could see.
As observers with telescopes and field glasses watched from the Owens Valley floor, and with the terrifying winds still fresh in his mind, Silas aimed his craft towards peak.  He was just 200 feet away and 800’ above the summit.  Still gaining altitude he circled the summit until he reached 1,200’ above the peak.   The craft nosed up a final few feet and there he was- aloft at 15,728 feet, a new American altitude record.  Silas had “conquered” Mount Whitney.

Silas wasted no time and made a bee-line to the valley floor, landing without incident.  Tears from the cold, wind, and emotions from the flight covered his cheeks.  Surrounding his aeroplane a cheering crowd grabbed and hoisted the aviator to their shoulders and delivered him to his wife.  With excitement and relief, Edna greeted him with hugs and a kiss.

The achievement was immediately announced to the world, but not by the hand of Silas.  It was W. Gillette Scott, executive secretary of the Inyo Good Road Club who sent a telegram to all Western Highway Associations and to A.L Westgard, vice-president of the National Highway Association in New York.:

    “Inyo Good Road Club this morning 9 a.m. achieved national prominence by sending Silas Christofferson in a tractor biplane over Mt. Whitney to a height of 15,728 feet, more than 1,226 above the summit, breaking all American records for altitude.”
The real reason for the achievement was apparent... this “club” was looking to secure road funds by impressing state officials of the need for a first class year-around overland automobile route through the Owens Valley.  The real trophy was the Transcontinental Lincoln Highway, the ultimate prize for development of roadside commerce.  It was all a publicity stunt...but that is another story.

Copyright © 2014 Theodore Grant Williams. All Rights Reserved

For images , visit the Eastern California Museum's Virtual Transportation Museum