Thursday, April 23, 2009

Discovering the Owens Lake Story


Looking out across the vast emptiness of the Owens Valley, it is hard to imagine that 70 years ago this place was the breadbasket of eastern California.

Now, where the wide (100 square miles) but shallow Owens Lake (50 feet at is deepest spot) once stood, you find miles of cracked, dry earth. Fields once ripe with fruits and vegetables are gone.

In 1904, the city of Los Angeles began pumping water from the Owens River and lake to supply its growing population. In 1907, the massive Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, which begun sucking water from the valley and carrying it south.

By the 1920s, Los Angeles had purchased most of the hundreds of small farms that once thrived in the region. Within a few years, the once fertile Owens Valley began to resemble its emaciated neighbor to the east, Death Valley.

Today, in addition to servicing travelers on Highway 395, residents of the Owens Valley also mine the soft ores found in the alkaline sink that is Owens Lake.

The first explorer to see the lake and valley was John C. Fremont, who named it for Richard Owens, an associate, who never saw the area. By the 1860s, settlers had moved into the region, which had previously been inhabited by Paiute, Mojave and Shoshone tribes.

Rapid development of the region began in the late 1860s with the discovery of the Cerro Gordo silver mine, located in the mountains east of Owens Lake.

The many small farms and ranches in the valley found the mining communities in the mountains were a ready and willing buyer for their produce, hay and livestock.

In the early 1870s, Colonel Sherman Stevens constructed a flume on Cottonwood Creek, which rose high into the Sierra Nevada range, to the west of Owens Lake. Lumber from the Sierras was moved down the flume to a sawmill he built in the valley.

From the mill, Stevens moved his lumber, used to timber the mines and construct buildings, to a dock (called Stevens Wharf) that he built on the west side of Owens Lake. From there it was placed on one of two steamers and transported across the lake to a landing on the other side. Freight wagons carried the wood to the mines.

In addition to carrying lumber and supplies to the mines, Stevens also constructed a pair of large, adobe ovens to produce charcoal for the Cerro Gordo Mine.

The steamers, called the Molly Stevens and the Bessie Brady also carried ore from the mines across the lake to freight wagons that shipped it to Los Angeles (this mineral wealth contributed to that town’s rapid growth, which, ironically, would later have such a negative impact on the valley).

About the only survivors of this era are the two adobe charcoal ovens, constructed by Colonel Stevens in 1873. Neglect, time and the harsh surroundings have seriously damaged these mud beehives—which look a bit like giant hornet nests—but it’s still possible to get an idea of their size.

Large openings at the top allowed logs cut to a special size and width to be placed into the ovens, where they were slowly burned down to charcoal. Doors at the front allowed the charcoal to be removed.

Much of the front sides of both ovens has caved in over the years (the ovens were abandoned nearly a century ago), and one has to wonder if they’ll still be standing much longer, despite some modest attempts at preservation.

The Cottonwood Charcoal Ovens, a California Historic site, and Owens Lake, are located about 250 miles south of Carson City via Highway 395. The ovens are located about one mile from the highway via a graded dirt road that is signed.

For more information, contact the Eastern California Museum at 155 Grant Street in Independence (about 20 miles to the north of the charcoal ovens). The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 760-878-0258.

Among the items on display at the museum are the remains of the steamships, Molly Stevens and Bessie Brady, that once plied the waters of Owens Lake.

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