Across the Great Basin Desert
Don Milne here once again as Roadtrip-'62 ™ leaves Baker, Nevada for our 34th day of travel along historic US-6. Yesterday’s journey covered 176 miles from Green River, Utah to Baker, Nevada, one of our longest days so far. That brought us to the desert, where we will spend all day today. We won’t cross any interstate freeways today because this is too remote…we’ll barely see any towns! It’s so empty that you may find your smartphone will not work as you trek through the desert. We will reach the end of modern US-6 today, but we will press on down the former route tomorrow. If you see anything you like, I encourage you to get yourself out on the road and enjoy it in person. You might be having fun on this virtual roadtrip, I know I am, but there's nothing like the real thing! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Let’s get back on the road again!
After breakfast, we say goodbye to the area of Great Basin National Park and leave Baker the same way we came in, and in just a few miles we’re back on US-6 / US-50. The road soon passes Willow Patch Spring, where there are a few trees, probably willows, and then crosses Sacremento Pass and heads down into the next dry basin. The pattern of dry desert basins followed by ridges of mountains is something we will see all day today. This is the characteristic topography of the Basin and Range zone between Salt Lake City, Utah and California, stretching from southern Idaho into the state of Sonora in Mexico. The recurring mountain ranges have eroded to cover the valleys between in thousands of feet of rock debris, having the effect of cutting off old stream courses. With only small amounts of rain or snow out here, the water never manages to re-open the streams or run down to the sea. Instead, the region’s surface water evaporates in shallow lakebeds or percolates downward to become springs somewhere else.
On the next ridge, there are a few homes, the first along US-6 since we left Hinckley, Utah yesterday. At the junction with US-93, there is a bar with slot machines, a restaurant, two hotel rooms, and an RV park with 12 spaces with full hookups, but it no longer has a gas station. The business is known as Major's Station and the location as Major’s Place, Nevada. Highway US-93 runs south from here to end in Wickenburg, Arizona, near Phoenix. Back in 1962, it ended at Kingman, Arizona, at the famous US-66. It’s 80 miles of desert travel in that direction to the next settlement. We’ll continue west together with US-50 and US-93 to Ely, Nevada, where it splits off and continues north to the Canada–US border north of Eureka, Montana. Today the highway runs a total of 1346 miles.
Some of the passes we cross through hardly seem worthy of the name pass, with no obvious mountains adjacent. Our crossing of the Schell Creek Range at Connors Pass is one of these, where we just kind of roll over a high spot on a ridge, surrounded by the typical pinyon and juniper trees of the higher elevations. About 10 miles before Ely, Nevada, I notice open water in the desert! Comins Lake was created in 1953 by the realignment of US-6, which created the dam for the lake. This is a low area that acts as a catch basin, fed by several streams and springs. It allows the Bureau of Land Management to preserve and manage some surrounding wetlands before the water evaporates. Access was limited until 1999 when surrounding land was acquired by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and today you can fish the lake. Average lake depth is 6 to 8 feet, with a maximum of 14 feet. It had previously been inhabited with trout and largemouth bass, but pike predation, following illegal introduction in the late 1990s, has effectively eliminated the trout. The pike are now considered a prohibited species so you are required to kill them upon capture. Because the pike are now being eliminated, in 2016 the Nevada Department of Wildlife dumped 2,200 rainbow trout into Comins Lake, the first new fish in nine years. They also expect to add largemouth bass in September or October.
Adjacent to Ely, Nevada, we first pass through part of the Ely Shoshone Indian Reservation. Prior to foreign settlement, there were a number of Western Shoshone villages in the Steptoe Valley. Today, the Ely Shoshone Indian Reservation has a membership of about 500 people with nearly half of these living on reservation lands in and near Ely. This reservation is a relatively new development, as prior to 1973 the tribe had only about two useable acres in a canyon area outside of town. The tribe approved a constitution in 1966 and by purchase and transfer from the Bureau of Land Management it now has over 3500 acres.
There are a lot of new, tourist services and commercial development, with plenty of small casinos, at the US-6 junction. Here, our route cuts off to bypass Ely on the south side of town. But back in 1962, US-6 appears to have continued into town and then left US-50 at the west side. Of course, we’ll travel the old road in and out. Ely is another mining town, beginning later than most with the discovery of copper in 1906. It was home to several copper mining companies, with Kennecott Copper Corporation being the most famous. By 1958, they had consolidated all the mines in the area. After consolidation, they removed the 14 miles of railroad tracks in the mine pit and replaced the trains with trucks. In 1962, we would have visited during boom times. The open pit Robinson Mine is about six miles across and lies just west of Ely, up the side of a mountain. The 1962 Rand McNally Road Atlas notes the location as, “One of the largest ‘Glory Holes’ in the mining world.” But the copper market crashed in the 1970s, so Kennecott shut down some mines in 1978 and the smelter in 1983, and copper mining disappeared temporarily. During the 1980s and 1990s, the price of gold jumped and the old tailings piles of many mines were re-worked for that metal using the new technique of cyanide heap leaching. Ely and many other mining towns gained a new life. Since 2004, copper mining has resumed under the ownership of a Polish company, though the smelter and the railroads that once hauled the finished product to market are long gone. The copper, gold and molybdenum concentrates are now transported by truck to East Wendover, Utah, where they are loaded for rail transport to Seattle, Washington, and finally sent by sea to Japan for smelting.
Part of the old railroad lives on also, as the Nevada Northern Railway, which operates the tourist train known as the Ghost Train of Old Ely. The Ghost Train is a working steam-engine passenger train that travels the old tracks from Ely to McGill, Nevada. It runs through two tunnels and up and down 2.5% grades. While the entire a 162-mile railroad still exists running north to Cobre, Nevada, only the section between Ely and McGill is in use. The line was constructed in 1905-06 and abandoned by Kennecott in 1986. They donated it to the non-profit White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. Though no passenger train ran here in 1962, the 90-minute ride gives you a chance to see what some have described as the best-preserved, least altered, and most complete main yard complex remaining from that steam railroad era. You can also see the East Ely Depot, remaining from the days before 1942 when the Nevada Northern Railroad also served passengers. It’s a Mission Revival style depot, which incorporates some Renaissance Revival design and was designed by Frederick Hale. After passenger service was discontinued, the depot was used by Kennecott for offices until 1985 and acquired by the State of Nevada in 1990 for the museum.
We won’t be staying in Ely, but if you do, there is no shortage of vintage motels and hotels. Many also have a casino: this is Nevada after all. The historic six-story Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall was opened in 1929 and was the tallest building in Nevada well into the 1940s. Over the years, its notable guests have included include Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Charlie Rich, and Evil Knievel. In honor of celebrities who have stayed here, a Hollywood-style walk of fame is proudly displayed in front of the Hotel Nevada. The famous donkey mural on the outside was first painted in the 1930s and has been maintained several times since then, most recently by Stephanie Bruegeman. Rooms have also been updated with modern amenities.
Some of the other lodging includes the Bristlecone Motel, which appears to be from the 1960s, or perhaps 1970s, and has remodeled rooms. Or the Deser-est Motel, Grand Central Motel, El Rancho Motel, Great Basin Inn, or White Pine Motel, all of which appear to be our vintage but some of which look a bit uncared for. There are also plenty of casinos, including the Jailhouse Casino and Motel. This occupies the site of the original city jail and offers the unusual opportunity of cellblock dining without being arrested, charged or convicted. Many of these older motels are on US-50 on the west side near downtown, along with gas stations and former gas stations. This further convinces me that it used to handle both that route and our US-6. There are also some former motels and even former restaurants, such as Pete’s Drive-In on US-93 near downtown. It’s a typically-styled 1960s place near an unnamed former motel and bowling alley, in an area of other older commercial buildings that make it look like this was either the main shopping area or main tourist area of town, or both, around 1962.
After our train excursion, we stopping at the White Pine Public Museum, which was opened in 1959. Exhibits display the Pony Express, Overland Stage, a jail cell from the old Ely City Jail, and the original one-room school house from Baker, Nevada, where we stayed last night. They also have a mineral collection that contains a wide variety of copper ore samples, petrified woods, fossils of ancient marine life and a collection of polished rocks. Outdoors, they have a well drilling rig. Ely history also includes the fact that the city was on the historic Lincoln Highway, which entered town from the north on today’s US-93 and left on US-50. This makes at least the third time our route has crossed the route of the old Lincoln Highway! Once at Joliet, Illinois, then at Council Bluffs, Iowa, and again at Omaha, Nebraska. And capping Ely history, former First Lady Pat Nixon was born in Ely in 1912 as Thelma Catherine Ryan, though her family moved to California just two years later.
We leave Ely via Mill Street, which appears to have formerly been US-6. If we had used the newer US-6 bypass, we would have seen a Grand Army of the Republic Highway sign just two blocks west of where it cut off from US-50 where we entered Ely. For those of you who just joined the trip, US-6 is also known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. South of town, the destination sign says 283 miles to Bishop, which is where US-6 currently ends in California. I hope to reach there by the end of the day, as there is little else to stop for along the way. The next sign reads “Next Gas on US-6 167 miles”, which happens to be at Tonopah, Nevada. And then we enter a series of short canyons that begin at an elk crossing sign, as we climb to nearby Murry Summit in the Humboldt National Forest. Once over the summit, we can see Currant Mountain and its neighbors looming high, hazy, and blue in the distance to the right. It’s not quite a desert up here; there are some scrubby, short trees mixed in with the sagebrush, gravel, and grasses. But as we continue, the trees disappear, perhaps because we descend from the mountains. This pattern of trees near the mountain summits and deserts below is repeated all along this part of US-6.
The speed limit out here is 70mph and now it looks like desert. But shortly ahead, at Smith Creek, a rancher has planted grass or hay for his cattle. A couple of curves after Currant Summit, we see the 11,500-foot peak of Currant Mountain, the highest of the White Pine Range, closeup. Adjacent are mountains nearly as tall, Duckwater Peak and White Pine Peak. This crestline is formed of steep, white limestone cliffs with strata that gleam in the sun. Ancient bristlecone pines and a small band of bighorn sheep live in the security of this area that offers no trails, streams, lakes or even much flat ground. It acts as a de facto ecological preserve with virtually no real conflicts with humans. This area of the Humboldt-Tioyabe National Forest was finally designated a Wilderness Area in 1989. After we pass around the end of this ridge, we run alongside the usually dry bed of Currant Creek in a small canyon for a few miles into flat ranch land after the canyon. After the canyon, surprisingly, there is an occasional ranch house along the road, some even marked by school bus stop signs. These have a pond nearby, presumably filled by the stream when it runs or by springs, and used by the cattle. Some also have a cattle-loading ramp at the roadside.
Currant, Nevada sits at the junction with NV-379, formerly NV-20 back in 1962. It’s now a collection of no more than a handful of houses and about the same number of former businesses. Recognizable are a former gas station and a former motel. One active building appears to be related to the small private airstrip adjacent to US-6. Currant was settled in 1868 as a farming town and named for the wild currants growing along nearby creeks. A brief period of gold mining occurred in the area around 1914, but magnesite mining built a town here between the late 1930s and 1942, when that mine closed. Magnesite is a magnesium carbonate mineral used to make refractory material for lining steel blast furnaces, kilns and other high temperature enclosures. It is also used to make jewelry because magnesite beads can be dyed into a variety of bold colors. I’ve noticed that as we drive, every side road intersection has a couple of mail boxes for the homes far from US-6. Besides homes, there are also some oil wells in the back country, evidenced by some tank complexes we pass, with tank trucks parked at them. Perhaps there is no pipeline from this area?
A sign pointing south notes that Lunar Crater is 9 miles, and while that’s farther off the highway than my usual rules allow, this countryside is so empty that I’m making an exception. This unpaved road is the Lunar Crater Back Country Byway, a 24-mile loop through volcanic terrain including cinder cones, ash flows, lava flows, and other characteristics of the Great Basin like fault ridges and alkali playas. Lunar Crater is one of these features, a volcanic cinder cone that has collapsed in upon itself. It’s a bowl-shaped . 430 feet deep and 4,000 feet across with no vegetation, that looks more like a meteor-impact crater than what it is. It represents such an unusual landform that in the 1960s, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used it as a training ground for Apollo astronauts who would land on the moon. The entire volcanic field covers more than 100 square miles of desert. And you may see some wild horses or burros on the drive too. I’m only going as far as Lunar Crater and then heading back to US-6. We next cross Sandy Summit, which doesn’t appear to be at the summit of anyplace, but is just out in the flat desert rangeland among the clumps of grasses and other plant. There is a roadside picnic area at Twin Springs, and presumably some springs: a good place to stop for a rest. And considering the shortage of vintage restaurants up ahead in Tonopah, this might be a good day and place for a picnic in the desert. Let’s try that!
At the picnic area, US-6 crosses a cattle guard in the road, probably as we cross from one ranch to another. The rest of the way to a place marked as Warm Springs, Nevada, we see nothing around for miles but a line of power poles. Even at Warm Springs, there are only about 4 buildings and some ruins of a few others. Some of these are probably the huts built over the warm springs pools that gave the town its name. The place has achieved a bit of notoriety in recent years as one end of Nevada’s the "Extraterrestrial Highway", NV-375 (or NV-25 in 1962). This highway runs 98 miles southwest to Crystal Springs, Nevada and acquired its unusual name because much of it parallels the edge of the Nellis Air Force Range and Nevada Test Site. As such, the famous Area 51 government “UFO” facility is nearby. After “town”, we climb a bit over a group of hills and turn in a more westerly direction. The land appears a bit drier and vegetation is farther apart as we continue. We continue climbing to Salisbury Summit, which places us near the tops of some rather low-appearing peaks and inside the Humboldt-Tioyabe National Forest. Before Tonopah, Nevada, we come to another rest area with a restroom and a few shade trees. We eventually climb over the hills and out onto the next flat basin, and leave the national forest.
Well, I hope you stayed awake on our way to Tonopah! Though there is a certain spartan beauty to the desert, it’s boring. After just a short piece of scattered buildings on the edge of town, we come to the US-95 junction and a mix of modern shopping with abandoned buildings. We’ll travel together with US-95 for the next 40 miles to Coaldale, Nevada. Since it was extended to the Mexican border in 1961, US-95 has run as a north-south route for 1574 miles from Eastport, Idaho at the Canadian border to San Luis, Arizona. Other than that extension, much of the rest of the highway has been the same since the mid-1940s, as it has not seen much deletion or replacement by interstate freeways.
As we enter Tonopah, on a hill to the right is what appears to be an old mine hoist; today it’s the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. The park is located at one of the original mining claims in town and provides tours and historical displays of equipment from the mining industry. The outdoor displays, on more than 100 acres, include three complete hoisting works and several buildings on the park property. The mine tour features a walking tunnel that leads underground to view the 500-foot stope of the mine. The indoor displays include equipment, a video presentation of mining in the area, a mineral display, and of course, a gift shop. Tonopah was the site of a gold and silver mining boom that began in 1900. It turned out to be the second richest silver strike in Nevada history. By 1907, Tonopah was a large city with modern hotels, electric and water companies, five banks, multiple schools and all the trappings of a big city.
The boom fizzled nearly as fast, and by 1920 the town had less than half the population it had just fifteen years earlier. The early need for freight service to move the precious metals led to a network of railroads to Tonopah, but with the end of large-scale mining, the railroad lines withered and today there is no current rail service. By World War II, only four major mining companies were operating. A huge fire in 1942 destroyed some major properties, and the final blow came in 1947 when the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad tore up its rails. We would have seen a much diminished town in 1962 and there is even less remaining today. The downtown now has very few older buildings left, and in fact very few buildings at all. There is little sign of much recent construction, either commercial or residential and many buildings are vacant. Tonopah looks like it misses its mines.
One remaining historic property is the Mizpah Hotel. It opened at the height of the boom in 1907 as one of the first luxury hotels in Nevada. The hotel featured solid oak furniture, hot and cold running water, steam heat, brass chandeliers, stained glass windows, and one of the first electric elevators in Nevada. At five stories, it was also the tallest building in the state. The Mizpah Hotel did not include a casino until 1945. It was fully restored in 2011. Another historic property is a different sort of mine, the Royston Turquoise Mine. For a fee, you are allowed to sift through rock from the mine tailings to find rare turquoise to take home, or you can take a mine tour. Royston Turquoise in known worldwide for the wide range of colors, from a soft blue to emerald greens. The color of Royston Turquoise often varies within the same rock, which creates some of the most spectacular Turquoise known. The mine has been operating since 1944.
The Central Nevada Museum was only founded in 1981, which makes it too new for us. It has several small buildings that show off Nevada’s history with Native American artifacts, fossils, mineral displays, art, mining artifacts, ranch artifacts, and military artifacts and photos. There are also casinos and older motels in town, such as the Tonopah Station Hotel, Tonopah Motel, the Banc Club Casino and Restaurant, and the famous Clown Motel, decorated with clowns. In case you didn’t have a picnic just before town where I did, here’s some of the restaurants in Tonopah, because there are no towns for a long way west from here. Of course, there is a range of modern, fast-food places. And, all of the other restaurants also appear to be too new for our 1962 era too. Besides the Banc Club, there are the Stage Stop Café, Tonopah Brewing Company, Cisco’s Restaurant, and the Pittman Café inside the Mizpah Hotel. The Pittman is closest to an old restaurant because though the name is new, I’m sure there has been a restaurant in the Mizpah just about whenever the hotel has been open.
If we were staying overnight, I would recommend checking out the skies. Because it's so far from major city bright lights, Tonopah's night skies are among the best in the country for stargazing. But we’re heading on instead, and Tonopah doesn’t last long before we’re right back in the flat, barren desert landscape. There are a few trees in the next mile or so, but things look just as dry as what we saw coming in to town that I’m not sure why they are growing here. There are mountains all around the desert basin area, just like earlier today again. At least part of the way to Bishop, California, the modern US-6 route follows the former Carson and Colorado Railroad grade. This narrow gauge rail line was scrapped in 1959, so it was already gone for our roadtrip. About 10 miles west of town is a highway rest area with a shaded picnic area and restrooms. This would make another great place for a picnic if you chose not to stop for a restaurant back in Tonopah and changed your mind about going on to the next town. It’s across from a stream outwash, when it rains of course. From here west to Basalt, Nevada, there are a number of these sandy areas with no vegetation. Just visible to the south is a lake, or a dry lakebed, again depending on the rains.
Next ghost town down the road is Coaldale, Nevada. It was once another mining town, but unlike many towns in Nevada, the mining was not for precious metals, but rather for coal. Around 1884, several men set up a coal mining company, but the coal was of a very poor quality, and the venture fizzled. In 1962, we would have found a little roadside community at the highway junction. There were several homes, a motel, store, gas station and restaurant. There was even a small casino here at one time and a railroad depot for a line that operated between 1904 and 1947. But in 1993, the US Environmental Protection Agency tested the underground tanks of the gas station and found they were leaking. The gas station was forced to close because it was far too expensive to replace the tanks and clean things up. Shortly afterwards, the motel, store and restaurant also closed. The residents moved away and the place became a ghost town. There is nothing here now but a closed and vandalized gas station, motel, restaurant property. The entire town has recently been offered for sale. This is where US-95 breaks off and heads north, leaving our US-6 to head west by itself.
The landscape changes near Coaldale, especially on the northerly side of the road, showing lots of ribbons of rainy day streams and the sandy beds of the temporary lakes they end in. This is the Columbus Salt Marsh, a sandy playa fed by runoff from the mountains when it rains, because there is no river to carry the water out of this basin. We soon go over one rock ridge and then continue between two more to the Mineral County line. There is a pair of signs, one in each direction, reminding us that we are still on the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. We climb out of another basin near the county line and I note that there are no buildings at any of the Nevada state highway junctions long this stretch of road, including at Basalt, Nevada. What is at Basalt is another mine. This one is for a mineral known as diatomaceous earth, a naturally–formed sedimentary mineral from the remains of small shells and algae known as diatoms. The mine appears to be just south of the junction of US-6 with NV-360 (which was NV-10 in 1962). Uses for the mineral include seed coatings, polishing compounds, soil amendments, and dessicants.
From here, an old alignment of US-6 used to go around a ridge to the north, but we climb right over that ridge and meet the old road again at the edge of the Inyo National Forest. We have climbed high enough that there are a few trees and shrubs again. Highway US-6 up to Montgomery Pass, Nevada is as steep as six percent in some parts. At the summit, we find a few vacant buildings and perhaps a couple of occupied ones. There were at least two motels here in 1962, including the Boundary Peak Motel, along with a restaurant or two and gas station and casino. After all, we are near the Nevada border, so there has to have been a casino. But what is left today appears to be residences and a complex of several nicely maintained buildings with distinctive blue roofs, which also houses some heavy equipment. I’m not sure if it’s connected with mining or a state highway maintenance facility. If you’re in the mood for more ghost towns, other ruins can be found by taking a dirt road south from US-6 at Montgomery Pass rather to extensive mine ruins including a mill. The US Forest Service has tentative plans to remove the mill, which may end up at the nearby Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site in California.
You get a spectacular view of the valley as you head down the grade into California, including a view of an old US-6 roadbed. Once down, this is another dry, empty desert basin to the California border and beyond. At the California border, we cross a cattle guard and find some parking spaces so we can take a picture with each states’ welcome sign! To the southeast we can also see Boundary Peak, at 13,145 feet tall, the highest point in Nevada. While US-6 is signed east-west for most of its journey, the section in California is signed north-south. Shortly after crossing into California, we come to the Benton Border Station of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. California established its first agricultural inspection stations in the early 1920s. Today there are 16 of these facilities located on the major highways entering the State. At these stations, vehicles and commodities are checked to ensure they are pest free and comply with certain other laws. I might need to throw away an apple or banana that doesn’t meet standards!
The settlement of Benton Station, California is planted with trees around the buildings, which looks a bit odd in the desert. The town consists of several blocks of houses and mobile homes, and a school. There are a few commercial buildings, including an open gas station with a market. Just four miles west, is the companion settlement of Benton, which is also known as Benton Hot Springs because of the hot springs it features. Benton was another small mining town, where gold was discovered in the nearby hills in 1862. It thrived for about fifty years and has limped along since because its hot springs are a tourist attraction. The Wai Wera Hotel is still open as a bed-and-breakfast, with rooms for the night and soaking tubs for day use. The second floor rooms, which were closed to the public in the late 1940s, were finally re-opened after a complete renovation in 1998. After the abandonment of travelers' services back at Montgomery Pass, the hotel and a gas station on US-6 offer the only lodging, restaurant and gas station services within a 30-mile radius.
The valley narrows considerably as we leave town, and there continue to be houses strung out along the highway well beyond Benton Station. After narrowing to a pass between two ridges, another desert valley opens with fewer houses along the road. At first, this valley is different that others we’ve crossed today, because there are some irrigated fields. However, these don’t last for long before we’re right back in the desert. We soon come to Petroglyph Road, which reminds me of the nearby Bishop Petroglyphs. Far off of US-6, the hills contain some 8,000 year-old rock carvings at several separate sites. These are all well over 5 miles from US-6 and so do not really fit into our trip. But they are fascinating nonetheless. The carvings were created by chipping away the dark outer layer of stone, leaving lighter designs of animals, geometric designs, and other symbols of unknown meanings, by the ancestors of the Paiute–Shoshone tribes living in the Bishop area. Unfortunately, these are so fascinating that in 2012, vandals actually stole some of the petroglyphs! A crew came equipped with ladders, electric generators and power saws and spent the time to cut the rock and remove at least four petroglyphs and damage dozens of others with hammer strikes and saw cuts. The carvings were recovered the next year and provided to the local Paiute-Shoshone Indian Tribe, but the damage is still evident at the site.
The next town on our way is Chalfant, California, site of a 1986 earthquake. We’re also close enough to the Sierra Nevada Mountains now to see the snow at the high elevations during the right seasons. Today, there are several dozen homes scattered over a few blocks, mostly off of US-6. There is also a gas station with a grocery store, but no other commercial buildings I could see. You may see a herd of cattle in the background on one of the ranches. Just south of Chalfant near the county line, is Pumice Mill Road which may lead to an abandoned pumice mill and mine. Pumice is a volcanic rock often used in cosmetics and cleaning products, and it was mined in the area. There may still be a mine operating.
Laws, California sits a couple of blocks east of US-6 and seems to be a bit smaller than Chalfant. Laws has some of the few industries I have seen all day, which include a roofing truss manufacturer, plastics plant, and equipment rental. They probably exist here because we’re only four miles from the larger city of Bishop, California. Laws is also home to the Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site, located in the former depot adjacent to Railroad Street. The museum displays equipment, including operating locomotives, relating to the 1950s before modern highways were built to connect the cities in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Rail service to Laws ceased in 1960 and the museum was begun in 1964, so our roadtrip would have fallen into a kind of no-man’s time. The site includes many buildings salvaged from around the Owens Valley and set up to look like an old western town. After leaving, about midway between Laws and Bishop, we cross the Owens River, the first flowing water we’ve seen since the Sevier River back at Delta, Utah, about 430 miles ago! You can tell it rains more here too, by the thicker vegetation that now includes more sagebrush and occasional wild trees.
Bishop is a full-blown city, with a full range of tourist services, shopping, government offices, other businesses and industry. We made it across the desert! Today, Bishop is the western terminus of US-6. The US-6 Ends sign is about a block before we hit US-395. When we leave tomorrow, we will head south on that highway because it is on the route of the former US-6. Highway US-395 runs about 1296 miles from Laurier, Washington at the Canadian border, south to Hesperia, California. In 1962, it extended another 200 miles farther south to San Diego, California, but that has been lost to an interstate freeway. We enter town right across from the fairgrounds, where the Eastern Sierra Tri County Fair is held in the first week of September. The fair covers Inyo, Mono and Alpine counties and has all the usual ingredients: midway rides, farm animals, entertainment, homecraft exhibits, a rodeo, and even an ATV rodeo. If you are here at some other time of the year, the fairgrounds also hosts classic car shows, film festivals, and the California High School Rodeo State Finals in June.
Bishop is located near the northern end of the Owens Valley, which is famous because of the water wars between local property owners and the City of Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th century. By 1905, the City of Los Angeles and all of Southern California were growing so fast that city leaders recognized they would run out of water. The aqueduct project began in 1905 when the voters of Los Angeles approved a bond to fund the project. A second bond was approved two years later and construction began in 1908. Water was first delivered to the City of Los Angeles by the aqueduct in 1913. Construction of the aqueduct also required construction of a lot of related infrastructure, including 120 miles of railroad track, two hydroelectric plants, three cement plants, 170 miles of power lines, 240 miles of telephone lines, and 500 miles of roads! The aqueduct uses gravity to move the water, with thirteen inverted siphons carring the water over higher elevations, instead of using pumps. It uses the downhill flow of the water to generate electricity, which makes it cost-efficient to operate. The aqueduct's water provided Los Angeles with the resources to develop through World War II and after. At the time of completion, it was the world’s longest aqueduct, at 233 miles, and the largest single water project in the world. An extension to Mono Lake was completed in 1941, but full operation of that section was delayed until a second aqueduct was completed in 1970. Due to recognition of ecological damage at Mono Lake, Owens Lake, and other areas in the valley, the system now exports less water to Los Angeles than it did in the 1940-1980 period. In 2013, the city drew only 13% of its water from the aqueduct system, though for the first 90 years of its existence, it met more than 60% of the city's demands.
The water wars referred to occurred because of the diversion of so much water from the Owens Valley. The City of Los Angeles needed to buy huge tracts of land and the water rights to nearly the entire Owens Valley, and they did so by several barely legal means. Thus, when water started to be diverted, people believed they had been betrayed and actually dynamited the pipes and structures in many places in 1924. By 1926, Owens Lake at the lower end of the valley was completely dry due to water diversion. Without the aqueduct, the Owens Valley would likely be another irrigated farming area, as we saw back in Utah. In addition to the surface water diversion into the aqueduct, the City of Los Angeles bought ground water rights and pumps water out to supplement the system. Pumpage from these wells has increased since 1970, when a second aqueduct was put into service, and has created additional negative environmental impacts in the valley, and litigation. The water wars are not over yet.
It’s rather late in the day, so I don’t see any time for another museum. But, if you arrive with more time, you may wish to visit the Paiute-Shoshone Indian Cultural Center. The museum offers informative displays featuring the history of these tribes in the Owens Valley. The Bishop Paiute Tribe has a federal reservation north of town, established in 1912. As I cruise Main Street, which is US-395 and formerly US-6, I notice that it has all the modern fast-food and motels, and goes through downtown. But I’m looking for older places to eat. The Back Alley Bowl and Grill is unusual for being located inside a bowling alley. Though the current ownership has only been here since 1994, the bowling alley was likely built by 1962 (most were). And the restaurant looks like it began as the snack bar of the bowling alley. Or, we could try the Bishop Burger Barn for its sweet potato fries, but I don’t know how old it is. There is a pair of Mexican restaurants downtown: Amigos and El Ranchito are right next to one another on Main Street. El Ranchito has both booths and counter stools and was originally the Bishop Grill, a typical a greasy spoon, so it may be old enough.
But we’re going to get a unique local favorite at Mahogany Smoked Meats. Mahogany began around 1922, when “Wally” began smoking hams and bacon with 300-year-old mountain mahogany logs, just for the local folks. They still smoke with mountain mahogany, and are careful to find those logs that have already fallen. The taste and aroma of the wood is what made this smokehouse famous. I’m going to try a sandwich from the deli topped with their mahogany smoked bacon, with a side of their potato salad. The potato salad also contains their bacon, which gives it a nice smoky kick, so how could I go wrong! After dinner, I’ll get some of their jerky for the road. They feature elk, brisket, boar, turkey, and beef jerky.
It was a very long drive today, so I’m just going to get a motel and call it quits for the night. If you’re staying out, I spotted several antiques shops on the north side of town; maybe you can find some stuff from 1962. Or maybe you could shop at an old fashioned store: Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin is a chain of five and dime and arts and crafts stores dating back to 1927. They are mostly found in smaller towns, such as here and the one we saw on our US-23 roadtrip back in East Tawas, Michigan. The stores are franchised and we perhaps the first retail franchise system. Of course, they are named after Benjamin Franklin, taking a thrifty cue from one of his sayings, "A penny saved is a penny earned." At the chain’s peak, there were about 2,500 stores nationwide, including the one in Arkansas where Walmart founder Sam Walton got his start in retailing. The franchise model allowed the company to operate as a wholesaler of variety and craft merchandise sold to its franchisees. The company opened some of its own stores in the 1990s, but they were not successful and led to a bankruptcy. The Ben Franklin name was purchased by another wholesaler in 1997, and some of the franchisees remained in operation. The chain now comprises about 209 craft stores and 123 variety stores.
Some of the older looking motels around Bishop include the Creek Side Inn in heart of town, the Town House Motel with a nice chase light sign, and the Trees Motel. I’ll give the Trees Motel a try and see you all tomorrow as Roadtrip-'62 ™ gets within a couple of days of the end of this long journey. I’ll be watching TV tonight…hmm, maybe I should buy some Goodyear tires to make sure I can get over mountain passes in the winter.
1962 Goodyear tire commercial, featuring a nice 1962 Dodge.
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2016 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
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