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Inyo County - Liquid Gold Part II

Posted in Events on January 1, 2010
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Photographers: Collette Blumer

Last month, we took a look at Owens Valley's role in growing life as we know it in Los Angeles and southern California. Water hijacked from Owens Valley and delivered to L.A. made it possible to grow a city where chaparral and scrub normally rule. By extension, Owens Valley water helped grow the off-road industry as we know it. If there's no water, how can you be somewhere long enough to explore it? You can't.

This time, our foray into the Owens Valley area took us high into the Inyo Mountains. The Inyos are home to some incredibly remote terrain and are the site of some equally incredible mining and engineering feats of years past.

Shifting into 4-Low to keep the tranny from overheating, we pointed our 4Runner up the Yellow Grade road toward Cerro Gordo. Cerro Gordo, Spanish for "fat hill," was first discovered in the 1850s by Mexican prospectors. While searching out and finding mineral wealth, the first prospectors managed to infuriate a local Native American tribe. Three of the five Mexican prospectors were killed, and the remaining two were allowed to go free on the condition that they not disclose their find. Time and loose lips eventually got the word out, and the rush was on. Treasure seekers of several origins converged on Cerro Gordo and its rich silver ore.

Today, Cerro Gordo is privately owned. You can pass through on the road, but if you want to explore the town you need to schedule a tour. Mike Patterson, the owner, was holding court on the porch of the Belshaw House when we motored up, and we arranged to meet him the next day for a tour.

With our tour scheduled, we cracked open our copy of California Trails: Desert Region and followed Tour #48: Swansea-Cerro Gordo Road. California Trails includes turn-by-turn directions that can be followed in either direction. Since we were starting in Cerro Gordo instead of Swansea, the 'either-or' style directions were especially helpful.

The route describes the scenic value as a "10" and the difficulty rating a "5." Winding our way above Cerro Gordo on a narrow shelf road, we could see the Owens Lake bed in its entirety, bordered by the towering Sierras. Pinyon, juniper, and scrubby sage dominated the landscape. The route bared a few fangs along the way. Steep climbs littered with talus and scree put our Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ's and Toyota's electronic traction control to the test.

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After several miles of shelf road, loose steep climbs, and views into the depths of several canyons, we were treated to our first encounter with the Saline Valley Salt Tram. While "encounter" might seem over-dramatic, the salt tram is several types of amazing. First, it was built in a time when human hands and mule power were the only things that could build such structures in remote back country areas. The timbers were huge and the towers were perched over precipitous slopes. It was hard to fathom the depth of the sweat equity invested in the tramway. Second, the tram carried its cargo almost 14 miles with 12,000 feet of elevation change along the way. Finally, the remains of the salt tramway are remarkably preserved thanks to the remote location and the dry climate. Visiting the Saline Valley Salt Tram was a portal to the past. Dramatic? You betcha.

The salt tram operated from 1913 to 1930. The low price of salt meant that the cost of the tramway dissolved profit margins to basically nil despite the prodigious quantities of salt it brought over the Inyo Mountains. The tramway closed down when the vast salt deposits were depleted.

The next day, our first question to Mike Patterson was, "how does one come to own a ghost town?" Mike's answer: "One follows a very pretty lady." Mike then recounted how mutual friends encouraged him to meet "the bombshell" who happened to own a ghost town. Mike was hesitant at first, but finally agreed to meet Jody Stewart. "We hit it off immediately," Mike told us. "Some people talk about being married for 40 years. Well, when most people are married they see each other for maybe eight hours a day. We were married for 14 years and were with each other 24 hours a day. We fought like cats and dogs, and we made up like Romeo and Juliet." Mike lost Jody to cancer in 2001, and she was laid to rest on a vantage point overlooking the town. Mike and Jody's vision for Cerro Gordo was to restore as much of the town as possible so that people could see what life was like during the town's boom years. Mike carries that vision today, aided by a regiment of dedicated volunteers.

Just like Owens Valley's water, Cerro Gordo's silver and lead were key elements in the growth of Los Angeles. Shipped to L.A. by mule team, the commerce generated by shipping the bullion through Los Angeles gave the dusty little pueblo the economic stimulus it needed to grow into one of the major cities in America. A quote from the Los Angeles News dated February 2, 1872, reads, "To this city, Cerro Gordo trade is invaluable. What Los Angeles now is, is mainly due to it. It is the silver cord that binds our present existence. Should it unfortunately be severed, we would inevitably collapse."

Cerro Gordo began to boom in 1867, went through a few periods of lagging and re-birth, and finally went completely bust in 1949. Cerro Gordo was known best for silver and lead, but quantities of zinc, limestone, and gold were also recovered.

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Mike showed us around a few of the Cerro Gordo buildings including the general store, the American Hotel, and the chapel. After our formal guided tour, Mike turned us loose to check out the rest of Cerro Gordo ourselves, but not without warning us to stay out of the mines. "I have to kick people out of the mines all the time," Mike related. "Some of them get belligerent with me about it, but they have to stay out anyway."

We poked our noses and lenses around the town for a while and then let 4-Low take us back down the steep Yellow Grade road. We stopped briefly in Keeler, once the shipping terminal for the Molly Stevens and the Bessie Brady, two steamboats that ferried the Cerro Gordo bullion across Owens Lake to a port on the opposite bank called Cartago. Keeler has a few residents today, but the vacant dwellings seem to match the occupied one-for-one. It's a half-ghost town.

After leaving Keeler, we skirted around the nearly-dry Owens lakebed, stopping briefly to check out the modest flow of the Lower Owens River. By court order, water now flows again in the Lower Owens River channel, again reaching its once-dry destination in Owens Lake. We then continued on to the site of Cartago.

Cartago is gone now, but there are still a couple of charcoal kilns standing by, hinting at the activity that once took place there. When the steamers reached Cartago, they off-loaded their cargo of lead and silver bullion and picked up fresh charcoal from the kilns. The charcoal was needed for the smelters at Keeler, Swansea, and Cerro Gordo.

What about the water, the "liquid gold," the overarching theme of this and last month's story? A time line reveals that Cerro Gordo's bullion flowed through Los Angeles well before Mulholland plotted to divert the Owens River's lifeblood to a new destination. Cerro Gordo's bullion helped grow L.A. to the point where L.A. needed the Owens River's water to survive. Cerro Gordo's bullion indirectly and unintentionally helped to dry up the Owens River and Owens Lake. How’s that for an ironic twist?

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