Memories From the Owens Valley

The Piute depended on the game that used the water coming down off the Sierras.


It was 1862, and we tend to think of the Civil War during this timeframe in the history of the United States. However, the Civil War was on the east side of the continent. What was occurring on the western side of the US? There is a beautiful valley in California that is seldom spoken of. This land is on the east side of the Sierras, and, in 1862, there was another war beginning to take place. It was the war with the Piute Indians. The Piute used the waters along the creeks that flowed into the Owens River for hundreds of years prior to the white immigrants coming into the valley.

These waters were used by the deer and other game that came down out of the Sierras. The Piute used this same water from a variety of creeks for irrigating their plant crops. The various tribes would also hunt the game that came down out of the Sierras. When the immigrants arrived, they fenced, farmed and ranched, using the flow of water in the creeks and river to irrigate their crops or to water their cattle. The Indians had no thought of ever fencing off any land, let alone fencing off the water that they believed belonged to all.
The winter of 1861 was harsh, cold, and the Piute Indians were starving. The Piute depended on the game that used the water coming down off the Sierras. The settlers brought thousands of head of cattle into the valley to sell and to feed the miners in the mountains of both sides of the valley. As the cattle began to overtake the area, the Piute began stealing and killing cattle to live on. Conflict between cattlemen and Indians naturally arose, and in April of 1862, the Battle of Bishop Creek took place. A monument to this battle is found in Bishop, simply stating,

“This battle is lost in obscurity, but brave men on both sides died here for a cause they held inviolate.”

The war between Piute and settlers went on longer than the Civil War, lasting from 1862 to 1867. A raid by the Indians in March 1867 ended with them being pursued by the US Cavalry and defeated in Rainy Springs Canyon. This was the last battle between the Piute and the cavalry. As in any war, there were numerous atrocities perpetrated by both sides.
Water wars were not merely between the indigenous Piute and settlers. Later in history there was conflict between the Owens Valley (OV) inhabitants and thirsty Los Angeles. In 1928, William Mulholland was an Irish American civil engineer who was responsible for building the infrastructure to provide a water supply that allowed Los Angeles to grow into the largest city in California.

Mulholland designed and supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile-long system to move water from OV to the San Fernando Valley.

The creation and operation of the aqueduct led to the disputes known as the California Water Wars. If water would have stayed in the valley, Owens Lake may have become a very popular, very beautiful area to spend both summer and winter.
Today Owens Lake is 99% dry, and we don’t expect it to fill up anytime soon. Los Angeles uses the water that would fill it, so it lies there being maintained by the Los Angeles water department to keep the winds from turning this dry lake into alkali dust storms in the valley. This dry lake is in the southern part of the OV. The valley starts near the very small town of Cartago, which once was a steamboat port for shipment of wood and ore. The valley runs north past Bishop. The OV lies between the White and Inyo mountains on its eastern side of the valley and the Sierras on its western side. The mountain peaks on either side (including Mount Whitney) reach above 14,000′ in elevation, while the floor of the Owens Valley is about 4,000′, making the valley one of the deepest in the United States.

This area of California has had several tales birthed from it. There is even an old ghost town high in the Inyo Mountains that was recently sold to an entrepreneur for 1.4 million dollars. Yes, you read it right, an entire ghost town sold for 1.4 million. [] It sits at about 9,000′ elevation with the only road to it being rough and unpaved. The buyer plans on developing the area as a tourist attraction. The name of this town is Cerro Gordo, known for its zinc, lead and silver mining. Have you heard of this little town in California? No, probably not. Well, Cerro Gordo [] became the largest producer of zinc carbonates in the entire United States. Unfortunately, these ores played out, and by the late 1930s Cerro Gordo became a “ghost town.”

The little town of Lone Pine, northwest of the dry Owens Lake, was once the place where a multitude of movies were filmed. Just west of Lone Pine lies a large outlay of rocks in what the old Californians named the Alabama Hills. I am told there were miners or early immigrants from Alabama who used this area, and the name gravitated to the area as the Alabama Hills. In this same area, a movie you may have heard of was filmed with a few actors such as a young Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. starring in it. The name of the movie was Gunga Din, filmed there in 1939. Other movies filmed in the area are all cataloged and listed with props of them set up in a delightful manner at the Lone Pine Film Museum just south of town on Highway 395. There is a yearly film festival [] in Lone Pine when the town becomes crowded with tourists, as well as with actors and actresses gathered to tell their stories of famous films produced in the vicinity.

On December 7th, 1941, what happened? Correct, Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese… You may now be asking the question,

“What the heck does this have to do with the Owens Valley?”

Good question. Nonetheless, as you travel north along Highway 395, you pass a light green government-looking facility on the west side of the road. It appears to be a building out of place, and yet the American flag flies over it. You ask yourself, “What is this place?” Manzanar? Strange name… OK, it was a Japanese relocation facility for Japanese Americans to be held (for their safety) during our war with Japan.

It was not a prison camp, but a holding area with armed guards facing the camp area and locked gates in front.

OK, a concentration camp. Manzanar is one of the best exhibits I have ever seen on how adaptable a people can become. The Japanese built gardens, printed a local newspaper, and set up a school that all students participated in. What does Wikipedia say about this place?
Manzanar is most widely known as the site of one of ten American concentration camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II from December 1942 to 1945. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley between the towns of Lone Pine to the south and Independence to the north, it is approximately 230 miles (370 km) north of Los Angeles. Manzanar (which means “apple orchard” in Spanish) was identified by the United States National Park Service as the best-preserved of the former camp sites, and is now the Manzanar National Historic Site, which preserves and interprets the legacy of Japanese American incarceration in the United States.

Moving north from Manzanar, you go through a couple of small towns named Independence and Big Pine. There is a very nice museum on the west side of independence where knowledge may be obtained concerning the OV.
A model of the Bessie Brady (BB) steamship is in this museum, and guess where it was used? You got it, on Owens Lake back in the late 1800s. It was used to haul ore across the lake where wagons were loaded, and the ore was taken to Barstow and then on to Los Angeles. The BB would then load up in Cartago with firewood for the steamship and other steam-driven machines on the east side of the lake.

Traveling north, you move through Big Pine, which has an east bound highway route number 168. One of the very interesting things that lives in the mountains east of the valley is Methuselah, the oldest tree known to man, 4,850 years old. This ancient tree is still surviving, and who knows how much longer old Methuselah will live on. The area where Methuselah lives is known as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It is well worth the ride to this area (on a dirt road) to see the oldest living things on the planet.

Moving north is the largest town in the Owens Valley, the city of Bishop. It came into being due to the need for beef in a booming mining camp some eighty miles to the north, Aurora, Nevada.
In 1862, a frontier settlement (and later town), known as Bishop Creek, was established a couple of miles east of the San Francis Ranch. Though the town continues to prosper, the only reminder of Samuel Bishop’s ranch today is a monument placed near the original site at the corner of Highway 168 West and Red Hill Road, two miles west of downtown Bishop.

Let’s travel south back down Highway 395 to Lone Pine and see what else is available in the valley.
The sport of hang gliding was becoming popular in the late 1970s, and one of the areas found to be a very popular place to fly was off the sides of the Sierras or the eastern slopes of the Inyos and Whites. One of the best places to launch from was on a dirt road rising into the Sierras southwest of Bishop. This launch site became known as Walt’s Point. It is located on the road that ran up into the Horseshoe Meadows area. I have launched from this site in my hang glider multiple times and flown miles north of the take-off. An all-time distance record was set from this point where a pilot launched and flew over 200 miles. Altitude gains of over 7000’ have been made from this site also. [ ]

I have written a book that contains more fascinating tales from the Owens Valley, in which I describe many adventurous flights off both sides of the valley back in my hang-gliding days. These tales and numerous pictures can be found in the book “Memories from the Owens Valley”

I hope I have piqued your interest in the history of the valley and of the adventures experienced within it. Please consider purchasing the book from the link below.
Thanks for reading.
Robert Ashmore


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